Five simple ways to improve your technical English

Although nowadays lots of people study English at school and college, they still lack confidence when they using the language in the wider world. While you might have an outstanding grasp of English grammatical theory, when it comes to applying the language to real life situations you may struggle to make yourself understood clearly.

Ideally you might do a communicative course such as the Technical English here at the London School of English, or think about Skype lessons from home; but unfortunately time is often in short supply.

Therefore we have put 5 handy tips below that anyone working with technical English could use to communicate more clearly, and work thereby more effectively in an international team; whether you are using your English for engineering or other technical writing.

1. Firstly, be concise! In English we prefer shorter sentences and in technical English this is even more important. The ideas we are trying to communicate are often complex and so we need the language to be as clear as possible to avoid any confusion. To help achieve this, use the simplest conjunctions where possible. For example:

‘to + bare infinitive form of verb’ for purpose (why?): ‘activate Purecode to access files’

‘by + ing form of verb’ for method (how?): ‘activate Purecode by pressing hash’

2. Secondly, be precise! British English has a reputation for being indirect, but when it comes to technical writing accuracy is key. Eliminate any ambiguity by using the active voice so it is clear who is doing what; e.g. ‘the rising temperature increases the pressure in the machine’ not ‘the pressure in the machine is increased’ (by what? how?). Use the passive only when you are certain it is obvious to any potential reader who the subject is, it is implicit in the text already or it does not matter: ‘the pressure in the machine increases and the plastic is forced through the tube’ (by the machine’s pressure). 

3. Bear in mind your audience! Have you included an appropriate amount of background knowledge? Will any technical terms be easily understood by your reader? Are there any ambiguities that might cause confusion, or worse? In 1999 NASA lost millions of dollars when their European and Anglo-American workers used  2 different measurement systems rendering their collaborative project useless. Remember some British and American companies still use the Imperial system, and you may need to specify you are using the metric system! The way of writing numbers and dates can be different too, compare 1/4/2009:

  • in British English – 1st April two thousand and nine
  • in American English – 4th January two thousand and nine

In British English the day comes first, in American English the month (think of 9/11).

Ordinary numbers can be confusing too, in British and American English we use a comma (,) to separate big numbers into groups of three, e.g. 9,000,000 (nine million); and a dot (.) to show a decimal place, e.g. 6.92% (six point nine two percent). This is different from the system in many other countries, and could cause potential problems.

4. Structure your explanation clearly! Use discourse markers to show:

  • order firstly, secondly, next, after this, then, finally ‘the offer should be confirmed next week; after this it should only take a couple of weeks to finalise the contract.’
  • result consequently, therefore, as a result ‘we needed extra cables and consequently spent more than we had planned’
  • contrast however, nevertheless, actually, nonetheless, ‘the project ran over-budget but we completed it nonetheless’

This will help your readers and listeners follow what you say more easily. If there is a problem they will be more likely to notice it and ask you for clarification; and therefore misunderstandings will be far less likely.

5. Familiarize yourself with the wide range of resources that are available to translate tricky technical vocabulary! You might consider a technical dictionary such as the McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific and Technical Terms; alternatively there are a number of websites that can be very handy. has a number of specialized links, and has a quiz function which allows you to test yourself on your technical English expertise!

Of course there is no substitute for practicing and improving your technical English with a trainer, but nonetheless I hope you find these tips useful and easy to use in your everyday life, so you can communicate in English at work more confidently and effectively.

By Emma Whitehouse

Emma Whitehouse has taught English for over 10 years in Japan, Italy and briefly but memorably in Ethiopia, and is now based in London, working for The London School of English. Interested in the psychology of learning and how and why people approach language learning differently, she enjoys meeting people from around the world and learning about their stories, and helping them achieve their goals by improving their language proficiency. She is a born-and-bred Londoner, and in her free time likes exploring the many cuisines and experiences the city offers; especially if it involves games and good wine.

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