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Unformatted text preview: ETHOS : CHARACTER AND ETHICS IN TECHNICAL WRITING Charles P. Campbell, PhD Technical Communication program, New Mexico Tech Abstract Technical writing tries to be "objective" and "audience-oriented," but it neglects an element of persuasion known in ancient rhetoric as ethos . This concept translates from the Greek as "character," but that English word does not convey the concept's richness. Nor does Latin persona , a term sometimes used to describe the narrative voice in technical prose. Ethos is the root of "ethics," which tends to objectify values and choices, alienating them from the people making them. In this paper, I suggest that an understanding of ethos in all its richness can help writers of technical prose to produce work that, in relation to traditionally "objective" prose, is both more readable and more ethical. A print version of this article appears in IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication , September 1995. Info about ordering reprints : Specify Article Log 13331D. THE SPECTATOR ATTITUDE IN TECHNICAL WRITING In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance , Robert Pirsig characterizes thus the technical description of a motorcycle: The first thing to be observed about [it] is so obvious you have to hold it down or it will drown out every other observation. This is: It is just duller than ditchwater. Yah-da, yah- da, yah-da, yah-da, yah, carburetor, gear ratio, compression, yah-dah-yah, piston, plugs, intake, yah-da-yah, on and on and on. That is the romantic face of the classic mode. Dull, awkward, and ugly. Few romantics get beyond that point. [1, p. 71] A romantic, in Pirsig's terms, does not look at the underlying form of things, as expressed in specifications, flow diagrams, and equations. Rather, a romantic looks at surfaces--the curve of a parabolic antenna dish, the sleekness of a console. Pirsig's classicist, on the other hand, hardly sees surfaces at all, being preoccupied with the underlying principles that make things function. Though Pirsig uses "classic" and "romantic" idiosyncratically, his comment about technical prose resonates even for us who read it and write it constantly. Technical prose, we might say, just lacks character. Pirsig ascribes the classic-romantic split to a falling away from Quality. This prelapsarian 1 state supposedly existed before Athenian philosophers wielded their analytic knives, creating such divisions as truth/probability, mind/body, philosophy/rhetoric--divisions so deeply ingrained in Western culture that they appear "natural." One consequence of the resulting dualism, as Daniel 1 Characteristic of or pertaining to any innocent or carefree period. Source 2 R. Jones points out in an insightful interpretation of Pirsig's book , is a "spectator attitude" toward technology. Spectators are alienated from technology, whether they consume its products or even work with it....
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This note was uploaded on 02/13/2012 for the course ENGL 420 taught by Professor Staff during the Fall '08 term at Purdue.
- Fall '08