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What is Technical English?

myth buster technical english the foundation Nov 08, 2021

What is Technical English?

Last spring, I posted some general explanations to 'What is Business English' on Instagram. Today it's all about TECHNICAL ENGLISH. What is it, and why is it? 


What IS Technical English?

To be honest, that's a bit hard to pin down. Suppose you think of the 'Tech English' of a construction worker: it seems to be a completely different language compared to an IT specialist's tech English.

And when I start working with new clients, they mostly think I'm gonna teach them all the technical terms they need in THEIR profession. (But I ain't no a walking dictionary).

On the other hand, Technical English often refers to specialized language professionals use to communicate with each other, which people outside that profession don't necessarily use. With this definition, business, medical and legal English all contain 'technical' English.

And there have been countless studies trying to define and characterize what EXACTLY Technical English is (list added below).

I recently had an interesting discussion with Dr Rachel Wolford, a friend of mine who helps STEM researchers in the US upgrade their writing to get their research published (she has a PhD in Rhetoric and Professional Communication). And her definition of Technical English—as a native English speaker working with other native English speaking researchers in STEM (science, technic, engineering, mathematics)—differed significantly from what my non-native English speaking engineers in Europe need to get their international projects going.


Ever heard about STE?

ASD-STE100 Simplified Technical English (STE) is a controlled language developed in the early 1980s (as AECMA Simplified English) to help non-native speakers of English to understand technical manuals written in English unambiguously (that means 'without the shadow of a doubt'). It was initially used in commercial aviation. Later it became a requirement for defence projects, including land and sea vehicles. Today, many maintenance manuals are written in STE. 

In the latest edition of the STE specifications (version 8, issued April 2021) this general introduction is given: ASD Simplified Technical English (STE) is an international specification for the preparation of technical documentation in a controlled language. STE has two parts: a set of writing rules (part 1) and a controlled dictionary (part 2). The writing rules are about grammar and style. The dictionary gives the general words that a writer can use.


Difference between English and Technical English

Technical English simplifies the complex rules of standard English and replaces complicated terminology with simpler synonyms. This decreases the complexity of a text and makes the documentation easier for readers to understand.


Some of the 'rules'

  • No phrasal verbs ('start' instead of 'turn on').
  • Use of the three simple tenses (past, present, future).
  • Sentence length max. 20-25 words.
  • Try to avoid the passive voice.
  • Articles 'a' and 'the' should be used wherever possible.
  • Use separate sentences or bullet points for sequential steps rather than one long sentence.


Benefits of STE

When using Simplified Technical English instead of 'regular' English, a text typically shrinks by 20%. It is more repetitive and more clearly structured. For technical translations, for example, manuals or technical reports, this can significantly impact translation costs. 


For users, especially non-native English speakers, STE reduces uncertainty and makes the documentation easier to understand. Installation + maintenance become more reliable and predictable because the likelihood of errors being introduced by misreading instructions decreases.


Overview of benefits:

  • clear structure
  • lower translation costs
  • easier to understand
  • increased safety
  • lower risk of mistakes and errors


Who needs it?

STE is mandatory in the aviation industry and the military. But whenever you work on international projects where it's vital to avoid confusion between non-native speakers, it can help engineers communicate more effectively. And helps to prevent major problems arising out of communication difficulties or misinterpretations.


So, next time someone tells you, they teach 'Technical English', ask them what exactly they mean. That's why I call it 'English for Engineers'.


Your business might benefit from English for Engineers as well. Book a free consultation or simply send me an email: [email protected]


Baker, M. (1988). Sub-technical vocabulary and the ESP teacher: An analysis of some rhetorical items in medical journal articles. Reading in a Foreign Language, 4(2), 91-105.
Bonamy, D. (2008). Technical English 1. Harlow: Pearson.
Cowan, J.R. (1974). Lexical and syntactic research for the design of EFL reading materials. TESOL Quarterly, 8(4), 389-400.
Hollett, V., and Sydes, J. (2009). Tech Talk Intermediate Student's Book. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Farrell, P. (1990). Vocabulary in ESP: A lexical analysis of the English of electronics and a study of semi-technical vocabulary. CLCS Occasional Paper No. 25 Trinity College.
Fraser, S. (2006). The nature and role of specialized vocabulary: What do ESP teachers and learners need to know? Hiroshima Studies in Language and Language Education 9, 63-75.
Nation, P. (2001). Learning Vocabulary in Another Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.