Humanizing Technical Communication With Metaphor

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University of Central Florida
Electronic Theses and Dissertations
Masters Thesis (Open Access)
Humanizing Technical Communication With
Ashley McClure
University of Central Florida
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McClure, Ashley, "Humanizing Technical Communication With Metaphor" (2009). Electronic Theses and Dissertations. Paper 4076.
This Masters Thesis (Open Access) is brought to you for free and open access by STARS. It has been accepted for inclusion in Electronic Theses and
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B.A. University of Central Florida, 2007
A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements
for the degree of Master of Arts
in the Department of English
in the College of Arts and Humanities
at the University of Central Florida
Orlando, Florida
Fall Term
© 2009 Ashley McClure
This thesis explores how metaphors can humanize a technical document and more
effectively facilitate user comprehension. The frequent use of metaphor in technical
communication reminds us that the discipline is highly creative and rhetorical. Theory
demonstrates that a technical text involves interpretation and subjectivity during both its creation
by the technical communicator and its application by the user. If employed carefully and
skillfully, metaphor can be a powerful tool to ensure users’ needs are met during this process.
The primary goal of technical communication is to convey information to an audience as
clearly and efficiently as possible. Because of the often complex nature of technical content,
users are likely to feel alienated, overwhelmed, or simply uninterested if the information
presented seems exceedingly unfamiliar or complicated. If users experience any of these
reactions, they are inclined to abandon the document, automatically rendering it unsuccessful. I
identify metaphor as a means to curtail such an occurrence. Using examples from a variety of
technical communication genres, I illustrate how metaphors can humanize a technical document
by establishing a strong link between the document and its users.
LIST OF FIGURES ........................................................................................................................ v
CHAPTER ONE: INTRODUCTION ............................................................................................. 1
Purpose........................................................................................................................................ 4
Scope ........................................................................................................................................... 4
Significance and Rationale ......................................................................................................... 5
Organization.............................................................................................................................. 13
CHAPTER TWO: THEORY OF BELONGING ......................................................................... 16
Creative Technical Communication ......................................................................................... 18
Audience and Subjectivity ........................................................................................................ 20
Reader Response ....................................................................................................................... 21
Metaphor and the Historical Perspective .................................................................................. 27
Metaphor in Nature Texts and Popular Science Writing .......................................................... 30
Metaphor in Computer Documentation .................................................................................... 36
Metaphor in Product Documentation ........................................................................................ 40
Variations of Metaphor ............................................................................................................. 42
CHAPTER FOUR: CONCLUSION ............................................................................................. 46
LIST OF REFERENCES .............................................................................................................. 51
Figure 1: Metaphor's linkage of understanding ............................................................................ 13
The Handbook of Technical Writing defines a figure of speech as “an imaginative
expression that often compares two things that are basically not alike but have at least one thing
in common” (Alred 191), further explaining that such a device can “clarify the unfamiliar by
relating a new concept with one which readers are familiar” (192). Therefore, a figure of speech
forms a bridge of understanding from a specialist to a nonspecialist – a bridge that serves as an
essential building block in the framework of effective technical communication. As an additional
assistive advantage, “figures of speech can also help translate the abstract into the concrete; in
the process of doing so, they can also make writing more colorful and graphic” (192).
Metaphor is one such figure of speech that facilitates comprehension while
simultaneously upgrading a technical text’s vibrancy and accessibility. This particular device
“point[s] out similarities between two things by treating them as though they were the same
thing” (Alred 192). The term metaphor comes from the Greek metapherein, which means “to
transfer.” In technical communication, a metaphor transfers understanding of an unknown
concept to a reader or user via a known concept.
Furthermore, a metaphor can be categorized as a type of analogy – a figure of speech that
is a comparison “[showing] the ways in which two objects or concepts are similar, often used to
make one of them easier to understand” (Alred 192). Metaphors employ an arguably efficient
and artful shortcut in this process of comparison by simply stating one thing directly is or as
another thing.
In Metaphor: A Practical Introduction, Zoltan Kovecses offers a more in-depth analysis
of metaphor, beginning with how it functions within everyday language. Specifically, Kovecses
considers the way in which life is often described or discussed in terms of a journey, including
metaphoric phrases such as “to get a good start,” “to get over something,” “to go far in life,” “to
reach the end of the road,” “direction in life,” and “at a crossroads” (3). The author states that
“[English] speakers make extensive use of the domain of journey to think about the highly
abstract and elusive concept of life” (4), further explaining that “cognitive linguists suggest that
they do so because thinking about the abstract concept of life is facilitated by the more concrete
concept of journey” (4).
This notion is especially significant in that if we are naturally inclined to comprehend
abstract concepts through accessible domains via “conceptual metaphors,” it seems essential to
employ this methodology to convey information in technical documents successfully. Even
when a technical document’s subject is somewhat concrete, it is likely often abstract to a user,
since such documents are used primarily to impart information about something that is
unfamiliar to the user. In other words, concrete technical content can be so new and unknown to
the user that it actually seems abstract. Therefore, Kovecses’s explanation of metaphor strongly
supports the use of the device in technical communication. The author posits, “If we want to
better understand a concept, we are better off using another concept that is more concrete,
physical, or tangible than the former for this purpose. Our experiences with the physical world
serve as natural and logical foundations for the comprehension of more abstract domains” (6).
George Lackoff and Mark Johnson further reinforce the extensive use of metaphor as a
means of understanding in Metaphors We Live By. The authors explain that “…metaphor is
pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary
conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in
nature” (3). This assertion aligns with that of Kovecses, as it postulates metaphor as an intrinsic
part of human thought, life, and reality. Lackoff and Johnson elaborate, “If we are right in
suggesting that our conceptual system is largely metaphorical, then the way we think, what we
experience, and what we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor” (3). The authors
illustrate how a metaphorical concept translates to everyday activity through the example of the
concept of argument via the metaphor of war, citing such expressions as “Your claims are
indefensible,” “He attacked every weak point in my argument,” and “I demolished his argument”
Lackoff and Johnson posit that this metaphor is not limited to the way we describe
argument linguistically; rather, “We can actually win or lose arguments. We see the person we
are arguing with as an opponent. We attack his positions and defend our own. We gain and lose
ground. We plan and use strategies…Many of the things we do in arguing are partially structured
by the concepts of war” (4). Thus, the process of comprehension and behavior through metaphor
is ingrained in our psyche, even in instances in which we are not aware of it. We actually live by
metaphors, as Lackoff’s and Johnson’s title suggests. Tapping into this fundamental means of
understanding and operation can empower technical communicators to meet users’ needs, since
users already employ metaphor in everyday life and have a deep-rooted dependence on metaphor
to relate to the world around them.
The purpose of this thesis is to explore how the incorporation of metaphors can humanize
a technical document and more effectively facilitate user comprehension. The frequent use of
metaphor in technical communication reminds us that the discipline is actually creative and
rhetorical. A technical text is unavoidably subjective and involves interpretation in both its
creation and its application. If employed carefully and skillfully, metaphor can serve as a
powerful tool for the technical communicator to ensure the user comprehends the content of a
document accurately and efficiently.
In this study, I aim to pinpoint how metaphor functions in technical documents and how
the device can be used most effectively. Since metaphor is open to interpretation both during its
creation by the technical communicator and during its use by the audience, the technical creator
must develop an understanding of how a particular metaphor might be construed by the
audience. If the technical communicator can evaluate and apply a metaphor appropriately in a
technical document, he or she can enable a user to relate to the text and therefore increase the
text’s probability of success.
This thesis explores information from a range of scholarly literature discussing metaphor
within the field of technical communication. I examine articles focusing on whether and why
metaphor is befitting in the field, as well as the use and effects of the device in technical
documents. Specifically, I consider how such metaphors facilitate comprehension of technical
content and serve to humanize technical texts, thus making them more usable and accessible for
the audience.
The scope of this thesis is limited to consideration of metaphor in technical
communication in the categories of theory of belonging and examples of metaphor in technical
texts. Theory of belonging encompasses many scholars’ studies of whether and how metaphors
fit into technical texts and technical communication as a whole. This discussion is limited to the
subcategories of creative technical communication, audience and subjectivity, reader response,
and a historical perspective. To supplement and support these scholarly theories, I then outline
and examine actual instances of metaphor in a variety of technical documents through analytic
journal articles. These examples of metaphor in technical texts include the genres of nature
writing and popular science writing, scientific texts, computer documentation, and product
documentation, as well as variations of metaphor.
Significance and Rationale
An analysis of metaphor as it functions within the modern field of technical
communication cannot be properly conducted without first considering how the field was
established and how it has evolved. A number of watershed articles illustrate how scholars in the
field paved the way for the acknowledgment and acceptance of metaphor in technical texts by
arguing and encouraging the linkage of technical communication with the humanities. These
articles are essential to understanding the significance of metaphor within technical
communication and how the field has progressed to what it is today.
As a field of study, technical communication has struggled to find its place in the
university. In “A Humanistic Rationale for Technical Writing,” Carolyn Miller argues that
technical communication has humanistic value, stating, “The common opinion that the
undergraduate technical writing course is a ‘skills’ course with little or no humanistic value is the
result of a lingering but pervasive positivist view of science” (610).
Miller’s article discounts this positivist view throughout her article, arguing that technical
communication is not merely objective and mechanical; rather, it is rhetorical and humanistic.
She explains:
If rhetoric is irrelevant to science, technical and scientific writing become just a
series of maneuvers for staying out of the way. A rhetorical discipline built on
positivist theory must founder on this self-deprecation at its center. But because
there has been no alternative basis for the discipline, technical writing as it is
commonly taught is shot through with positivist assumptions, which destroy its
aspirations toward disciplinary respectability and relegate it to its status as a skills
course. (613)
Therefore, Miller’s argument also challenges the hierarchies that were in place within academe,
which positioned professors of technical communication below professors of literature. To
establish technical communication as a rhetorical practice is to award technical communication
courses and professors, as well as the field as a whole, with cultural capital traditionally
designated to only the conventional humanities, such as literature.
Miller maintains that although professors and other department staff continued to practice
a positivistic theory, many philosophers and scientists had already negated this view. The author
explains their primary objections to positivistic theory, including “the complete failure of
attempts to devise an observation language, the inability of theoretical terms defined as
summaries of known effects to account for new effects observed later, [and] the failure to
account for the growth and itations of logical systems” (615). Essentially, Miller laments that
these scholars had begun to move away from the positivist view of technical communication that
excludes the perspective of humanism, yet the university had yet to do so.
The true focus of science, according to Miller, is not material things, but rather “human
constructions, with symbols and arguments” (616). She posits that “Scientific observation relies
on tacit conceptual theories, which may be said to ‘argue for’ a way of seeing the world.
Scientific verification requires the persuasion of an audience that what has been ‘observed’ is
replicable and relevant” (616), and thus, “truth, or the knowledge for which science seeks, is the
correspondence of ideas, not to the material world, but to other people's ideas. Certainty is found
not in isolated observation of nature or in logical procedure but in the widest agreement with
other people. Science is, through and through, a rhetorical endeavor” (616). These observations
and arguments strongly support the humanistic value of technical communication – it is, in fact,
accomplished and sustained only through people and ideas.
Miller proposes an alternative approach to technical communication and the instruction
of the subject through a “communalist perspective” in lieu of the positivist perspective. In this
approach, “the teaching of technical or scientific writing becomes more than the inculcation of a
set of skills; it becomes a kind of enculturation” (617). Miller further explains, “We can teach
technical or scientific writing…as an understanding of how to belong to a community. To write,
to engage in any communication, is to participate in a community” (617). This notion supports a
humanistic approach to a technical text as a communication from one person to another, rather
than a purely mechanical report of information from an objective non-author to a faceless user.
This humanistic approach is discussed and substantiated in more detail later in the section titled
Audience and Subjectivity.
Regarding the ways in which technical communication professors can adjust their
instructional mindset to complement the rhetorical and humanistic value of the subject, Miller
Our teaching of writing should present mechanical rules and skills against a
broader understanding of why and how to adjust or violate the rules, of the social
implications of the roles a writer casts for himself or herself and for the reader,
and of the ethical repercussions of one's words. We can thus ground our teaching
and our discipline in a communal rationality rather than in contextless logic. (617)
The author explains that this rhetorical approach might not obviously or immediately affect the
day-to-day instruction of a technical communication course, but the purpose of the approach is
greater. She states, “our attitudes might [change], and so might those of our students and
colleagues” (617). A change in attitude toward the field as a whole goes far beyond a change in
syllabi and instructional methods and materials. This change has far-reaching implications,
including the encouragement of technical communicators’ creative license, and ultimately
enabling and supporting the use of metaphor to improve a technical text.
In “Legitimizing Technical Communication in English Departments: Carolyn Miller’s
‘Humanistic Rationale for Technical Writing,’” Patrick Moore revisits Miller’s article almost 30
years later, and effectively summarizes the three main points of her essay, including 1.
“narrow[ing] the perceived distance between technical communication and imaginative literature
by showing some of their common ground,” 2. “show[ing] how individuals and groups construct
scientific and technological knowledge, a demonstration that resists conventional beliefs that
scientific knowledge is objective,” and 3. “argu[ing] against some of the conventional scientific
beliefs about discourse, and against the political constraints that literature professors place on
technical communication faculty in English departments” (168).
Although technical communication as a field of study and its role in the university have
evolved, Moore illustrates how many of Miller’s assertions still hold true today. He explains that
since technical communication struggled, and perhaps continues to struggle, to solidify its place
in the university, technical communication professors have been forced to justify their claim to
the cultural capital that is typically awarded to traditional humanities. He elaborates, “As a result
of that competition, technical communication faculty frequently have had to justify their
existence in English departments, and they frequently have had to compete with other academic
fields and other professors for students, credibility, and social status” (168).
Moore asserts that literary writings differentiate from plain speech in their complexity
and figurativeness, and if technical communications can do the same, they can obtain the same
cultural capital (175). This argument is especially relevant in that both of these ends can be
accomplished through the means of metaphor, further contributing to its value. The author claims
that technical communication professors continue to struggle to earn legitimacy within academe,
and that while hierarchies in of some sort in universities cannot be avoided entirely, gaps in
capital and status will continue to narrow with the aid of scholarly efforts, such as Miller’s and
those of her contemporaries.
The inclusion of aspects of literature and creativity in teaching technical communication
is not a new occurrence, as Russell Rutter explains in “Poetry, Imagination, and Technical
Writing.” In the early and mid-1980s, the number of technical communication courses at
universities was dramatically increasing, and thus many teachers who were originally trained in
literature were being asked to teach technical communication instead (698). Rutter argues that
this shift is not unsuitable or unavailing, explaining, “the insights obtained through advanced
literary study are central to the teaching of technical and scientific writing and to demonstrate
that recent composition scholarship has shown technical writing to be an imaginative, creative,
and thus poetic endeavor” (700).
Rutter explains how the two fields relate, and how literary understanding can contribute
to technical communication. He states, “Literary study does not, of course, teach us how to
create good poems, but it shows us that people who have created good poems have relied on
something more than the transcription of raw data-intuition, imagination, selection, shaping, and
so on” (699). This notion can be translated to technical communication as well, as Rutter further
cites, “imaginative processes enable scientists and technical specialists to make discoveries and
to write about them” (699).
The author expresses the similarities between creating a poem and creating a highquality, effective technical document. Both involve more than the transcription of raw data; both
involve selection, shaping, intuition, and other aspects of creative processes (699). Rutter states,
“Designing reports, like designing anything else, is an imaginative act. Teachers who have
studied the great authors can at once call to mind the ideas about imagination and the poetic
process that reading those authors has given them” (704). He later posits, “If technical writing is
not just objective, not just the presentation of facts in proper form, does it not require from its
practitioners the creative powers of synthesis and selection that the writing of poetry requires?
The answer is that it does” (707). This assertion establishes a technical communication process
that not only allows for aspects of creativity such as metaphor, but actually requires it in order to
be successful. Rutter concludes that professors should “free our students from the essentially
dead task of piling up facts in the name of objectivity and to help them understand that progress
and new knowledge in any discipline result only from the exercise of imagination-from a poetic
approach to whatever work is at hand,” (709). This poetic approach is essential, he explains,
because “Science and technology, insofar as they are human activities, are essentially poetic
endeavors because they shape disparate bits of information into truths about the behavior of
matter” (709).
Indeed, acceptance and incorporation of creativity such as metaphor in the field of
technical communication as a whole begins in the individual classroom, where students are
taught how to become effective technical communicators. In Elizabeth Harris’s article “In
Defense of the Liberal-Arts Approach to Technical Writing,” she defends the value of employing
concepts and methods typically associated with the liberal arts – “literary theory and history,
traditional and modern rhetoric, linguistics, and philosophy and history of science and
technology” (628) – in scientific and technical texts. Harris maintains, “we will neglect whole
areas of the greatest interest and centrality to scientific, technological, and ordinary workaday
writing if we divorce them from the liberal arts” (628).
She further warns against simplifying technical communication and its instruction to
“practical writing” with no accompanying liberal arts component of research and consideration,
as this practice ignores the complexity of language, the specific situation in which a technical
document is constructed, and the unavoidably subjective experience of constructing it. She
The value of liberal-arts research in scientific and technological texts generally
seems to me to deepen and widen our own understanding of their past and present
formal characters, meanings, and functions. We teach all of these matters, under
some guise, in the introductory technical writing course. The more we know about
them in general, or so it would seem, the better able we are to deal with the
concrete, unique situations that arise when we talk to students about their own
writing. (636)
The discussion of the function and value metaphor in technical communication is not
only significant; it is essential. It contributes to a rich and accomplished history of the discussion
of technical communication as it relates to literature and rhetoric, and continues its evolution as a
field of study. The more this topic is explored and analyzed, the more effectively technical
communicators will be able to incorporate metaphor in support of the humanistic value of
technical texts, and, consequently, the more successful those texts will be.
The primary goal of technical communication is to convey information, ideas, or
instruction to an audience as clearly and efficiently as possible. However, due to the oftencomplex nature of technical content, a user is likely to feel alienated, overwhelmed, or simply
uninterested if the information presented seems exceedingly unfamiliar or complicated. If a user
experiences any of these feelings, he or she would be inclined to abandon the document,
automatically rendering it unsuccessful.
Humanization of a technical document through incorporation of textual and visual
metaphor can curtail such an occurrence by establishing a link between the document and user
through the following process:
Figure 1: Metaphor's linkage of understanding
Users are presented an idea with which they are familiar and can connect. This known
idea is connected with the new, likely complicated, unknown idea. Thus, the known serves as a
bridge between the user and the unknown, allowing the user to grasp the unknown idea. A wellused metaphor can facilitate quick user comprehension, and therefore relieve the technical
communicator of much explanatory burden.
This thesis is organized in the following manner:
Chapter 1, the Introduction, provides an initial overview of the use and value of metaphor
as a communication tool, specifically within technical communication. Metaphor is described as
a figure of speech that can render a technical text more understandable, relatable, and colorful.
The significance of the topic is substantiated through a historical approach that traces some of
the evolution of the field of technical communication as it relates to humanism, laying the
foundation for the use of creative, literary, and rhetorical elements within technical texts. The
thesis’s extent of theory of belonging and examples of metaphor and technical texts is
established as the scope of the study, and an outline of the sections and order of the thesis is
Chapter 2, Theory of Belonging, begins my review of relevant literature that explores
theory regarding the relevance and role of metaphor in technical communication. I incorporate a
range of opinions and ideas from a variety of scholars in order to develop a well-rounded and
thorough study of how metaphor functions in technical documents – specifically how the device
allows users to connect with technical documents, thereby increasing their ability to comprehend
them and use them successfully. Categories within the discussion of theory of belonging include
creative technical communication, audience and subjectivity, reader response, and metaphor and
the historical perspective.
Chapter 3, Examples of Metaphor in Technical Texts, identifies methodologies of
incorporating visual and textual metaphors into a technical text to effectively connect with users
and efficiently facilitate comprehension. In order to determine these methodologies, I examine
practical examples of the use of metaphor in technical documents, how they are used and
interpreted, and how they affect these documents. Categories within this chapter include
metaphor in nature writing and popular science writing, metaphor in scientific texts, metaphor in
computer documentation, metaphor in product documentation, and variations of metaphor.
Chapter Four, the Conclusion, summarizes the most important information and key points
from the body chapters and discusses opportunities for further research.
Metaphor is a figure of speech that is both an efficient and effective communication tool
used to facilitate a user’s comprehension of unfamiliar or complex information. In technical
texts, an easily understandable metaphor can be used as a bridge of understanding between a
nonspecialist and specialized technical content. The metaphor can thus bear some explanatory
burden, making a technical writer’s job easier and a technical text more concise and effective.
In Chapter Two, I explore research regarding the place of metaphor within the field of
technical communication. This discussion comprises many scholars’ ideas and opinions
regarding the objectivity versus subjectivity of technical texts, as well as the creative versus
scientific, and the compromise and balance of these binaries. Comparisons between technical
communication and literature, and technical communication and rhetoric, further enrich the
exploration of how metaphor functions in technical texts.
In order to determine the role and significance of metaphor in technical communication,
definitions of both terms within the scope of this analysis must first be established. Metaphor is a
creative textual or visual expression in which one thing or idea is stated directly is or as another
thing or idea. In technical communication, this figure of speech can be employed in order to
transfer complex or unknown information to a user via more accessible or easily comprehensible
As will be substantiated and discussed more in-depth later in the chapter, metaphor can
also be used to make a technical text more vivid and engaging. This outcome is typically not the
primary purpose of metaphor in technical communication, as is often the case in traditional
literary fields. However, this effect is a valuable by-product of the use of metaphor, in that a text
that is colorful and aesthetically appealing is more likely to capture and maintain an audience’s
interest, thereby increasing the text’s likelihood of success.
To pinpoint what “success” of a technical text entails, it is necessary to also specify a
working definition of technical communication and its objectives for the purposes of this study.
Technical communication can be described through an explanation of communication in general,
in that its primary purpose is to impart or exchange information. However, the word “technical”
signifies the purpose this specific type of communication, which aims to analyze, explain,
interpret, inform, or instruct. In “What’s Technical About Technical Writing?” David N. Dobrin
conducts analyses on a variety of definitions of technical communication, and establishes a
resulting definition: “Technical writing is writing that accommodates technology to the user”
(237). The author further distinguishes the following terms in his definition: writing as “a way of
thinking and establishing human relations in a group,” accommodate as “the invasive quality of
technology and the self-effacing role technical writing plays,” user to reflect “the fact that
technical writing exists within a system which measures actions, people, and things by the
criterion of use,” and technology as “more than an array of tools or procedures,” which “extends
to the way human being deploy themselves in the use and production of material goods and
services” (237).
Furthermore, “technical” comes from the Greek word techne, meaning “art and skill,”
suggesting that a successful technical communicator analyzes, explains, interprets, informs, or
instructs through a text both artfully and skillfully. Metaphor contributes to both art and skill, as
it delivers information by establishing a vibrant bridge between a nonspecialist and specialized
If metaphor can facilitate the comprehension, acceptance, or use of information artfully,
by delighting and even entertaining the audience through accessibility and humanization, the
communication arguably has an even greater probability of effectiveness. However, the
relevance and value of emotional, subjective qualities such as delight and entertainment within
technical communication is not always agreed upon or clearly defined, though such qualities
seem to garner acceptance within the field as it continues to evolve.
The purpose of this chapter is to explore scholarly theory regarding whether and how
metaphor should be used in technical communication. These theories establish the framework by
which metaphor is presented as a device that can both humanize a technical text and facilitate a
user’s comprehension of technical information. Further, such theory establishes a methodology
by which to analyze the examples of metaphor in technical texts in Chapter Three.
Creative Technical Communication
In “Metaphor, Creativity, and Technical Writing,” Jerome Bump laments the fact that
most technical communication textbooks either omit entirely or even warn against the use of
metaphor in technical texts, suggesting this attitude might be a result of the “traditional
association of metaphor with emotion” (444). To support his claim, Bump cites the 10th-century
On the Sublime, in which Longinus associates metaphor with strong emotion in summary of
what the sublime encompasses, including “great thoughts, strong emotions, certain figures of
thought and speech, noble diction, and dignified word arrangement” (Leitch 136).
However, Bump goes on to point out that Longinus “recommend[s] metaphor in
description as well, choosing as his example what we would now call technical writing: the
anatomical description of the human body” (452). This early example is noteworthy in its
acknowledgement of metaphor’s multiple uses and results – subjective, personal connection and
objective transmission of information – that do not necessarily conflict, and can actually coexist
even within a single metaphor to strengthen a text.
Bump elaborates this idea, claiming, “This more personal, emotional approach to science
is apparently more conducive both to metaphor and to other manifestations of the revolt against
dualism which the fusing process of metaphor epitomizes, such as ‘both/and’ thinking and
interdisciplinary thought” (445). The both/and method of thought employed through metaphor
can be extended to technical communication as a discipline altogether, in that it need not be
entirely constricted to designation as either subjective or objective, nor either creative or
systematic, as these concepts are not mutually exclusive.
Indeed, technical communication is both subjective and objective, both creative and
systematic. As Bump explains further, “Instead of taking literally the simplistic partition of a
subject into ‘either’ the first ‘or’ the second of two categories, creative breakthroughs are often
achieved by perceiving that in reality the subject consists of ‘both’ the first ‘and’ the second
parts” (445). By not imposing limits of either/or categorizations, the technical communicator
fortifies a text through the freedom to pursue a variety of creative techniques to most effectively
meet the needs – and even the wants – of the user.
Further attesting to the role of metaphor in technical communication, Bump asserts that
the subjects of many technical documents are founded in creativity, whether new ideas,
discoveries, or information; therefore, it seems appropriate that writings on those subjects retain
certain aspects of creativity as well. Bump references many scientists and engineers who employ
metaphor in their writings, including George Wald, Charles Darwin, Garrett Hardin, John
Smeaton, and others (444-446). The author states, however, that these writers “are not using
metaphor naively or unscientifically,” rather, “they are objectively aware of the limits as well as
the powers of their metaphors” (446). Such limits and powers will be discussed more in-depth in
the next chapter through analysis of practical examples of metaphor in technical texts.
In the years since the publication of Bump’s article, technical communication has
continued to develop and evolve, with its primary focus shifting from the content of a document
to the actual user of the document. This shift entails a progression from the strictly objective
(systematic content) to the acceptably subjective (dynamic audience). As a result, an audience
should not be simply a vague vision of the technical communicator, but actual individuals who
need the information being presented and need to know how to use it or apply it effectively.
Audience and Subjectivity
The recognition of the value of user-focused technical communication is certainly
significant to the discussion of metaphor, in that it not only enables the possibility for
subjectivity, but actually encourages it. In fact, in “Rhetoric of Science: Enriching the
Discipline,” Jeanne Fahnestock laments that metaphor seems to be the only rhetorical or creative
device that has already aggressively been adopted and accepted in the scientific realm, and that
in order for science writing to be more successful as a persuasive enterprise, there is a need to
incorporate more flexible stylistics and an appreciation of the role of visualization in scientific
argument (277).
What is most significant for the purposes of the current analysis, however, is that a
stronger emphasis on the subjective audience and the acknowledgement of a text as the means to
transfer information from technical communicator to user is a primary argument for and enabler
of the use of metaphor in technical communication.
In order to create a document that is usable and effective, it is imperative that the
technical communicator bear in mind the document’s context and audience, which arguably go
hand-in-hand. An audience derives meaning through the interpretation of a text, and audiences
have different needs and contexts that must be considered in order for the interpreted meaning to
parallel the technical communicator’s intended meaning. If the communicator is misguided or
heedless in regard to audience, his or her goal will not likely be met, even if the information
itself is valuable and high quality.
As Robert R. Johnson states in “Audience Involved,” “The very nature of technical
communication begs for conceptions of audience because technical writers are fundamentally
charged with the responsibility of translating information from one context to another” (92). The
context of the technical communicator is one of pre-established understanding of the subject at
hand, whereas the initial context of the audience is characterized by a lack of knowledge or
understanding, of which the extent varies. Thus, the primary goal of technical communication is
to facilitate the audience’s understanding, and this can only be achieved if the communicator
identifies important attributes of the audience and conveys the information accordingly. Such
attributes might include whether audience members are technical or non-technical, what
information they lack, and their educational background.
Audience-focused principles of effective technical communication were employed long
before they were formally examined and accepted. In “Chaucer’s A Treatise on the Astrolabe: A
600-Year-Old Model for Humanizing Technical Documents,” Peter J. Hagner and Ronald J.
Nelson use the work of Geoffrey Chaucer, who is considered one of the earliest published
technical writers in English, as a guide for modern technical communicators in learning how to
humanize a work and focus on the user. These goals are accomplished by bridging the gap
between writers and readers and balancing objectivity with subjectivity. The authors state,
“People all too often forget that writing, in whatever form, is from one human being to another”
Reader Response
Although reader-response theory as a whole offers analyses of how readers interact with
and shape literary texts, some critics’ examinations, such as those of Wolfgang Iser in “The
Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach” and Peter Rabinowitz’s in “Before Reading,”
can be effectively applied to the field of technical communication as well, and can help explain
how metaphor functions in technical documents. The incorporation of literary theory into the
discussion of metaphor in technical communication is appropriate, considering the historical
perspective of metaphor, and also offers a more well-rounded analysis and additional means to
explore the role and response of the audience.
As established, metaphor serves several purposes in technical communication, including
humanization of texts and facilitation of understanding of new and complex ideas – both of
which tie into reader-response theory. Although Iser’s discussion of the reading process focuses
on literary texts, his ideas can be effectively applied to technical communication as well – in
both contrast and comparison – in order to understand the function of metaphor in such
documents. Contrary to literary works, as Iser discusses, the goal of technical communication is
a single interpretation, but the process of arriving at that interpretation must be bearable and
engaging in order for a technical document to be successful. In this way, Iser’s ideas about reader
response and the reading process connect to the role of metaphor in technical communication.
Iser claims, “the more a text individualizes or confirms an expectation it has initially
aroused, the more aware we become of its didactic purpose, so that at best we can only accept or
reject the thesis forced upon us. More often than not, the very clarity of such texts will make us
want to free ourselves from their clutches” (1004). Of course, technical documents and literary
texts are read for different purposes, and clarity and fulfillment of expectations are considered
actual goals of technical communication rather than overly simplistic and undesirable practices.
However, the notion of the unappealing nature of an indifferent, unyielding, or uninteresting text
applies to technical communication as well. If a technical document does not actively engage the
reader in some way, the reader will not be as attentive and will likely miss or misunderstand
information, or even abandon the document due to lack of interest or frustration.
Metaphor is an effective way to captivate a reader’s attention for several reasons. By way
of Chaucer, Hagner and Nelson advise, “By integrating the human voice into their writing,
technical writers (1) establish a rapport with readers, (2) engage readers into the content of the
document, and (3) facilitate readers’ comprehension. As a result, the chances of the document’s
achieving its purpose(s) are significantly improved” (87). The focus, therefore, is not merely on
the objective information being relayed to the audience, but the audience members themselves,
and establishing a connection – for example, via the bridge of metaphor – can increase the
effectiveness of the document. Metaphor humanizes a text partially by reminding the reader that
an actual person produced it. At its core, technical communication is about helping people –
helping them understand, use, create.
Metaphor is also relevant in relation to Iser’s point that “…it is only through inevitable
omissions that a story will gain its dynamism. Thus whenever the flow is interrupted and we are
led off in unexpected directions, the opportunity is given to us to bring into play our own faculty
for establishing connections – for filling in the gaps left by the text itself” (1005). Metaphor can
fulfill this dynamism and stimulation for making connections in technical communication as the
“inevitable omissions” and “twists and turns” do in literary texts, on a smaller but comparable
The “gaps” created by metaphor are intended to be helpful, encouraging readers to
connect something new and unclear with something familiar and understood. While they are not
exactly the same kind of gaps Iser discusses, they achieve a similar end in that they take readers
out of the text temporarily, giving them a chance to sort out ideas, make interpretations, and
actively searching for meaning. Iser states, “…no author worth his salt will ever attempt to set
the whole picture before his reader's eyes. If he does, he will very quickly lose his reader, for it is
only by activating the reader's imagination that the author can hope to involve him and so realize
the intentions of his text” (1007). In the case of metaphor in technical communication, readers’
imaginations are not running quite so freely, but they are nevertheless active and engaged. As
Iser claims the “‘unwritten’ part of a text stimulates reader’s creative participation” (1003), in
technical texts, metaphor in stimulates within readers a kind of critical thinking and problem
solving, but still imaginative, participation.
In order for metaphors in technical documents to aid readers’ comprehension
successfully, the author must first have some idea of the audience of the particular form of
communication. Before producing a text, technical writers often analyze their audience and
shape the material accordingly. The more aware technical communicators are of their audience –
what the readers know and what they do not know – the better they can craft and organize the
information being presented to expedite comprehension. Technical communicators sometimes
have knowledge of what Rabinowitz refers to as actual audience (the “flesh-and-blood people”
who will read a text) – often to a greater extent than writers in the literary field. However, in the
same way as writers of literary texts, technical communications are primarily limited to writing
for an authorial audience.
As Rabinowitz states, “Each member of the actual audience is different, and each reads in
his or her own way, with a distance from other readers depending upon such variables as class,
gender, race, personality, training, culture, and historical situation” (1043). When creating a
technical text, the author must keep in mind the differences among members of the actual
audience and incorporate metaphors accordingly; otherwise, a metaphor could play a negative
role in the communications.
However, Rabinowitz explains, the author is forced to speculate regarding audience to a
certain extent:
…he or she cannot begin to fill up a blank page without making assumptions about the
readers’ beliefs, knowledge, and familiarity with conventions…[thus,] artistic choices are
based on these assumptions – conscious or unconscious – about readers, and to a certain
extent, artistic success depends on their shrewdness, on the degree to which actual and
authorial audience overlap. (1043)
In the case of technical communication, these assumptions are often related to the
audience’s level of knowledge and experience, and can be made based somewhat on the type of
document being produced. If a technical communicator at a public relations firm were producing
a communication plan for a large cable company, for example, he or she might assume that
metaphors (and information being presenting in general) about television, cable and big business
would be effective and easily understood.
However, a technical communicator developing a set of instructions on how to put a
piece of furniture together could not assume that the user would know the names of certain
screws, what tools he or she needs, and so on, because there is no certain base level of
construction skill possessed by all buyers of unassembled furniture. However, the technical
communicator could likely assume, for instance, that a user would understand a metaphor of
turning a certain piece “in a clockwise motion,” since anyone who is able to buy a piece of
furniture and attempt to assemble it is likely aware of the way and direction in which hands turn
on a clock. Writers must make these decisions about the authorial audience in order to produce a
text, and the assumptions are more likely to overlap with the actual audience if the writer
employs common sense, careful consideration, and an understanding of the document being
Rabinowitz even uses a technical communication process – assembling a swing set using
a set of instructions – as a metaphor for reading, stating:
It comes with rudimentary directions, but you have to know what directions are, as well
as how to perform basic tasks. It comes with its own materials, but you must have certain
tools of your own hand. Most important, the instructions are virtually meaningless unless
you know, beforehand, what sort of an object you’re aiming at…The same is true of
reading. You must be somewhere to begin with. Even when a text gives some fairly
explicit guidance, you need to know how to recognize it and how to apply it. (1053)
The fact that a user must start from somewhere is the very reason metaphors are
successful in facilitating understanding. Users may not understand new and complex ideas,
which are often expressed in technical and scientific texts, but they do have some sort of
foundation of knowledge. The key, then, is to determine what users’ knowledge core consists of,
based on the established authorial audience. If technical communicators understand the users in
their audience to a certain degree, they formulate metaphors that successfully facilitate users’
comprehension of complicated information through information that is likely already understood
by and familiar to the reader. This methodology shows showing the reader, as Rabinowitz states,
“how to recognize [the guidance] and how to apply it.”
Heeding the guidance of Iser and Rabinowitz, the technical writer can employ metaphor
to enhance communication in several ways: bridging the gap between technical communicator
and audience by humanizing a document, engaging the reader by encouraging an active search
for meaning and “filling in the gaps,” and facilitating understanding by recognizing an authorial
audience and establishing bridges accordingly.
Metaphor and the Historical Perspective
The appropriateness and value of the use of metaphor in technical communication can
further be argued by considering the historical perspective of the discipline and tracing its
evolution more thoroughly. In “History, Rhetoric and Humanism – Toward a More
Comprehensive Definition of Technical Communication,” one of Russell Rutter’s primary
arguments for improving the practice of technical communication is to “increase attention to its
origin and development and to the tradition of humanistic rhetoric and the oratorical ideal to
which it rightly belongs” (22). Rutter’s claim is congruent with interdisciplinary and both/and
thought, as is his acknowledgement and acceptance of the idea that what comprises and is
befitting within technical communication has expanded.
Rutter further points out that technical communication is part of the liberal arts tradition,
which “insists that the person thinking is more important than the tools used or the system acted
upon” (22). Thus, an understanding of the origins of the technical communication and a
corresponding liberal approach to technical communication enables opportunities to employ a
more well-rounded bank of knowledge and strategy for the technical communicator. Rutter
posits that viewing science and technology as purely objective and formulaic is reductionist and
purposelessly limiting, and, consequently, writings on these subjects need not be purely objective
or formulaic either.
This idea also relates to Rutter’s emphasis on the importance of humanism in addition to
the pragmatic – another instance of both/and thinking in lieu or either/or. Essentially, technical
communication is about helping people – helping them understand, use, create. It is not stagnant;
rather, it is dynamic. As Rutter effectively states, “technical communicators, because they
depend on both ‘knowledge and practice,’ because they rely on learning as a guide to experience,
and because they need to bring eloquence, empathy, and imagination to the world of work are –
and should be expected to be – rhetoricians” (29). As rhetoricians, technical communicators have
a direct relationship with users, and the ability to understand, connect with, and anticipate the
needs of those users should not be underestimated.
In his article “The Role of Burke’s Four Master Tropes in Scientific Expression,” David
Tietge explores the role of literary and rhetorical tropes in scientific and technical discourse,
referencing Kenneth Burke’s A Grammar of Motive, in which Burke suggests that all forms of
discourse rely on metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony to express ideas. Science and
technical communication are no exception, and the inclusion of creative devices in the discourse
of these fields is inevitable.
Tietge supports Bump’s previous argument, stating that literary and rhetorical devices are
often ignored because the fields are regarded as entirely separate or even conflicting. However,
he states, “if we look closely at scientific explanations—especially those designed to inform a
general public—we find that they are as reliant on, if not more so, than more ‘subjective’ forms
of public discourse” (317). The author goes on to summarize that “contrary to what many
members of the scientific (and lay) community suppose, rhetorical and literary tropes are
necessary components to a linguistic understanding of complex scientific concepts; that such
tropes do not hinder our understanding, but are in fact necessary to it” (317).
With a variety of relevant theories established, an analysis of instances of metaphor in
technical texts can be thoughtfully conducted. The next chapter illustrates how exploring actual
examples of metaphor not only provides opportunities to apply theories of belonging, but also
enables testing and supporting of those theories. The analysis serves as the next phase of the
consideration of metaphor in technical communication, in which more a complete understanding
of how metaphor functions in technical texts is achieved through examples and inclusion of
guiding principles for the use of metaphor in such texts.
The variety and abundance of examples of metaphor found in technical texts not only
speaks to the appropriateness and power of metaphor, but also provides insight regarding how
technical communicators can apply it most effectively. Through thoughtful analysis of these
examples, one can identify successful methodologies of incorporating metaphors into a technical
text in order to connect with users and efficiently facilitate comprehension. The purpose of this
chapter is to apply the scholarly theories of belonging explored in the previous chapter by
examining documented occurrences of metaphor in technical texts, and to further expand upon
these examples through the discussion of guidelines for most efficiently and effectively
incorporating metaphor into a text.
Metaphor in Nature Texts and Popular Science Writing
The use of metaphor to artfully describe natural phenomena is prevalent in both nature
texts and popular science writings. In Michael Bryson’s article “Nature, Narrative, and the
Scientist-Writer: Rachel Carson’s and Loren Eiseley’s Critique of Science,” he explores
scientist-writers Carson’s and Eiseley’s use of metaphor and other figurative language to
describe natural phenomena and explain scientific concepts (369). Bryson asserts that their
writings, which combine the genres of science writing, nature literature, and technical
communication, discuss scientific matters with a precise yet eloquent and artful prose style to
effectively connect with non-technical readers (369). Of course, the works of popular science
authors have a broad appeal because of the effective use of metaphor as well, including, for
example, Lewis Thomas’s The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher, Stephen Jay Gould’s
The Mismeasure of Man, and Oliver Sacks’s Awakenings.
Bryson commends Carson’s incorporation of metaphor in her writings, stating that it “not
only demonstrates her skill as a writer, but also provides insight into her perspective on nature
and its relation to scientific practice and literary strategies” (372). He further acknowledges
Carson’s skillfulness in her methods of metaphor incorporation, as he posits, “…despite her
enthusiasm for expressing wonder and celebrating beauty in nature, Carson does not romanticize
the natural environment, nor does she draw explicit moral lessons from natural phenomena. Her
use of metaphor is thus a carefully controlled technique that synthesizes literary expression and
scientific accuracy” (374). This discussion offers valuable insight into the effective and
appropriate employment of metaphor to enrich a text and facilitate connection and
comprehension without misguiding the audience or interfering with the primary purpose of the
The author notes that Carson’s subject matter naturally lends itself to figurative language,
which enabled her to effectively incorporate metaphors remaining within the realm of nature.
Bryson explains, “Natural phenomena themselves proved a rich resource of rhetorical ideas, as
Carson taps into her readers’ general knowledge of nature to describe unusual marine organisms,
habitats, or behaviors” (372).
The author illustrates Carson’s use of corresponding natural metaphors, citing her
comparison of eels’ migration patterns with the increase sunlight as time passes in the Arctic,
using “one natural event [as] the explanatory tool for conveying another, less familiar process”
(372). Bryson further explains the significance of this usage of metaphor, stating “…this
technique has an added and no less important effect: such metaphors reinforce Carson’s view
that all of nature is interconnected and unified; consequently, rhythms and processes in one part
of nature correspond in form or function to other cycles and patterns” (372).
Bryson goes on to acknowledge the challenges of balancing subjectivity and objectivity,
and the objections that often ensue in response to the humanization of technical subjects. He
states, “From a strictly scientific perspective, anthropomorphizing nature is problematic…for it
infuses subjectivity into ostensibly objective scientific discourse, indulging in potentially
misleading rhetoric rather than straightforward empirical description” (372).
He argues, however, that such a perspective is unrealistically limiting, claiming “this
view glosses over the fact that try as we might to be as objective as possible in our scientific
descriptions of nature, we cannot help but anthropomorphize organisms and natural processes to
some degree” (372). Bryson’s discussion of nature and science writings expands upon and
supports the idea that figurative language and creativity is well suited to technical documents,
whose subjects are so often creatively inspiring and subjectively affecting.
Bryson further attests to the natural inclusion of metaphor in technical texts from a
historical perspective, as he states, “…in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when little
distinction existed between popular and technical scientific writing, natural historians freely used
anthropomorphic metaphors as one way to reach beyond mere physical description and thus
communicate with a broad readership” (372-3). This reference concurs with the arguments put
forth by Bump and Rutter, further suggesting that perhaps it is only our own constructed
classifications of genre that prohibit, or advise the prohibition of, metaphor and other types of
language typically designated as “literary” or “rhetorical” from being used in technical texts.
Metaphor in Scientific Texts
Metaphor also occurs frequently in scientific texts. In “The Uses of Metaphor in Citation
Classics from the Scientific Literature,” Joseph E. Harmon observes to the frequency and range
of use of metaphor in technical communication. Harmon succinctly explains that an effective
metaphor can achieve three main purposes:
1. To introduce colorful imagery into what otherwise would be an ordinary (or
plain) expression. This effect is primarily decorative.
2. To convey information inexpressible, or at least not easily communicable, by
ordinary language. This effect is explanatory because it gives a better
understanding of some object (how it behaves, what it looks like, what it feels
like, etc.) or makes the abstract concrete.
3. To express something more concisely than possible with ordinary language.
He also notes an additional function of metaphor, stating that it can assist in problem
solving, especially in science. Harmon further acknowledges metaphor’s contribution to
scientific progress, “particularly in the formulation of new theoretical constructs,” citing a
number of milestone metaphors in the field, including, “the workings of the universe and
clockwork,” “the behavior of light and that of waves and particles,” “the sequence of bases in
genetic molecules and a code,” and “the birth of the universe and the big bang” (180), among
Rather than explore these big-picture metaphors in depth, Harmon instead conducts an
analysis of how and why authors use metaphorical constructions in scientific papers. He reviews
89 journal articles from the 400 most-cited documents from 1945 to 1988 in the Science Citation
Index database and finds that metaphors are used often and in a variety ways. Harmon first
explores central metaphors that are “intimately connected with the major discovery being
reported” (183). These metaphors include ribonucleic acid (RNA) as messenger (183), the
Buddhist term eightfold way to describe “eight stable or metastable baryons as aspects of one
particle” (184), and “cell membranes as mosaic structure of oriented globular proteins and lipids”
(184), all of which employ metaphors unrelated to science to explain complex scientific
discoveries to the audience.
Harmon goes on to provide two examples of scientific metaphors that actually influenced
and enabled scientists’ discoveries, including “the surface membrane of a giant nerve fiber to an
electric circuit” and “the action of a biological cell to that of an electro-chemical fuel cell” (185).
Thus, the author states, “…metaphor [not] only functions as an explanatory device to
communicate a discovery or observation, but also actually contribute[s] to the process of
scientific argument and invention” (182).
Transitioning to non-central metaphors, Harmon explores metaphorical technical
terminology and usage conventions, stating, “The vehicle of metaphor, quite often, is an image
drawn from nature or human experience. A well-chosen such metaphor helps the reader visualize
and remember a new concept or thing and helps the writer concisely communicate that concept
or thing” (187). In support of this argument, he lists many original metaphorical terms invented
by scientists to explain new phenomena, as well as standard metaphorical terms that reinforce
already-established metaphors.
Harmon further discusses the result of the frequent occurrence of such metaphors, stating,
“Certain specialties…use so many metaphorical technical terms that the resulting texts possesses
a kind of poetic gloss that deviates from the dry literal prose one normally encounters in
scientific papers” (188). This observation reinforces metaphor’s subsidiary function of
aesthetically enriching a technical text.
Timothy D. Giles also cites many examples of the use metaphor in scientific articles
documents in his article “The Missing Metaphor,” claiming that metaphor has been
acknowledged and documented as a tool for successful instruction (273). The author examines
articles published in Time, Nature, Nature Biotechnology, and Science that recount the cloning of
the sheep Dolly and finds an array of figurative language, which includes a wealth of metaphors,
used to describe the event.
The author notes metaphor’s ability to define a revolution in science, to encourage
scientists and society to reexamine their interpretation of phenomena and develop a new, more
sophisticated understanding (273-274), as also touched upon by Harmon. In his article, Giles
aims to pinpoint one such “generative metaphor for cloning, to observe its effect on subsequent
publications, and to note other usages of figurative language in these articles to discern how they
may contribute to a central metaphor” (374). However, the author concludes that while the
writers each use metaphorical expression in the articles, no single central metaphor emerges as a
primary illustration of the cloning of Dolly.
The variety of metaphors used in the articles to describe the cloning of Dolly serve to
facilitate quick comprehension of parts of the process, rather than a comprehensive understand of
cloning as a whole. While Giles does not identify a single central metaphor from the sampled
articles, his discussion of the subject is no less effective. His article further supports the notion
that in addition to helping individual readers comprehend complex or new concepts, a central
metaphor can be used by many communicators to unify the explanation of a phenomenon within
a technical community.
Metaphor in Computer Documentation
In computer documentation, metaphor can enable users to understand a new
technological concept or process before they actually engage in the use of a program or
application. Though Richard M. Chisholm’s “Selecting Metaphoric Terminology for the
Computer Industry” was published more than 20 years ago, discussion of the use of metaphor in
computer documentation remains relevant, as the generation range of computer users continues
to expand. Chisholm explains, “Well-selected metaphoric terminology can reduce the fear and
ignorance that often dishearten first-time computer users and can help them grasp new concepts
and procedures” (195). The author cites metaphors such as bit and byte as examples that render
computer documentation more entertaining and colorful, and metaphors such as menu and wild
card as examples used to enlighten the audience (195).
However, Chisholm warns, not all metaphoric terminology that is frequently used in
computer-related discussion is well-received by users, stating, “They bridle at words like
memory and intelligence applied to computing machinery. They are annoyed by casual uses of
interface and parameter or puzzled by words like spool, boot, and argument” (195). To remedy
this potential shortcoming, the author outlines seven criteria based on usability to guide the
incorporation of metaphor in computer documentation:
1. Is a metaphoric term needed?
2. Is the old word familiar?
3. Is the metaphoric relation close?
4. Is the usage of the word consistent?
5. Is the metaphoric word brief?
6. Is the metaphoric usage acceptable?
7. Is the metaphoric word memorable? (195)
Though these principles might seem relatively simple, they can essentially dictate whether or not
a metaphor is effective.
As discussed, metaphor, when used effectively, can improve a document substantially;
however, when used irresponsibly or without sufficient audience knowledge, metaphor can
actually render a document unsuccessful. “From Fighting Fires to Building Bridges: The Role of
Metaphor in Systems Requirements” by Dermot Casey and Catah Brugha and “Broken
Metaphor: The Master-Slave Analogy in Technical Literature” by Ron Eglash offer cautionary
advice to the technical documenter regarding the use of metaphor. Casey and Brugha assert that
metaphors should not reduce their subjects and discuss the need to use metaphors that do not
cause an unconscious oversimplification of the complex processes involved in systems
development. While metaphor can help readers understand complicated ideas or processes, it is
essential that they do not oversimplify what they are being used to explain. This could cause a
user to believe they understand a concept or instruction when in fact they do not, which could
result in a range of detrimental consequences, not limited to frustration and failure.
Even more concerning, as social scientist Ron Eglash points out, is that it is possible for
metaphor to play a particularly negative role in a technical document if used poorly. He points
out that “the use of the term ‘master-slave’ is quite common in technical descriptions of control
relation between two devices: automotive clutch and brake systems (master cylinder, slave
cylinder), clocks, flip-flop circuits, computer drives, radio transmitters, and others” (360) in a
variety of documentation. This metaphor can unnerve, alienate and certainly offend the reader,
making it impossible to achieve the goal facilitating comprehension. While this metaphor may be
vivid, Eglash states that it is “ethically suspect,” and that surely technical communicators and
documenters can produce a more suitable comparison to express this idea. Thus, it is imperative
that technical communicators carefully consider whether a metaphor is appropriate as well as
whether it will be effective.
Monique N. Mulder offers practical examples of metaphor in software documentation in
her article “Perception of Anthropomorphisitc Expressions in Software Manuals.” She asserts
that the most easily understood concept for humans is actually the human being, the metaphor of
which is referred to as personification or anthropomorphism (502). She states, “Expressions in
which it is suggested that programs have feelings, have some affective relationship to us, that
they are able to communicate intentional activities through human language use and to perform
non-routine (mental) activities, appear to be perceived as anthropomorphistic” (502).
Furthermore, she supports this anthropomorphism, stating, “the characteristics of affection and
non-routineness seem to fit well into the common idea of humans as emotional, creative, and
unpredictable beings as opposed to computational, automatic, emotional machines” (502).
Mulder explains that the use of such metaphors in software manuals is a practice that can
help readers understand how to use a computer program more easily via relatability and
familiarity. She posits, “ [the] strongly anthropomorphizing effect of affective expressions
revealed...suggests that anthropomorphism might be most powerful in motivating people to work
with computers – which could provide a positive attitude to learning” (502). Thus, by using an
actual humanistic metaphor for software, the documenter can essentially connect the user to
another person, and this kind of connection can contribute to the user’s comprehension and
Through its development and advancement, technical communication has shifted from a
focus on content to a focus on the user of the document. This remodeling of the field translates to
a focus on task orientation, which Thomas T. Barker strongly emphasizes in Writing Software
Documentation and defines as “a design strategy for software documentation that attempts to
increase user knowledge of and application of a program by integrating the software with the
user’s work environment” (10). Barker asserts that the purpose of computer documentation is to
assist a user in performing a task as easily, efficiently, and accurately as possible. Therefore, the
focus is not on the task itself, but on the user and his or her individual result in a particular
setting. Software functions for a specific user, and within that user’s work environment – not by
a machine, nor in a vacuum.
The user’s goal should be the technical communicator’s goal. Regarding task orientation,
Barker explains, “If the documenter has done the job well, the user will not just press the correct
key or button but do so in the context of meaningful work…the key to usability lies in describing
operations in such a way that they’re meaningful to users” (426).
In addition to textual metaphors, Barker also explores the idea of visual metaphors related
to identifying users’ needs for graphics. He explains that “metaphors show the basic nature of an
idea by relating it to something the user already knows” (411), but expands the definition beyond
text to graphics as well. Barker provides examples of these graphic metaphors, such as a font that
looks like typewriter to indicate typing, and a graphic of a paint bucket to indicate filling an area,
such as in MS paint, a simple program with which many computer users are at least somewhat
familiar (414).
Graphic metaphors and textual metaphors both facilitate understanding by linking
something unknown or complicated with something familiar and simple in another domain – as
Barker states, they “allow the user to know something without having to learn it from scratch.
Users can rely on their previous experience in the world to do some of the explaining for them”
(411). Thus, metaphors bear some explanatory burden, and provide a “workaround” for
complicated software terminology. Barker further explains, “metaphors of language, where we
compare two things, gain strength when we support them with the actual images suggested by
the words” (412), and he provides the example of the “MS-DOS 5-minute workout” containing
graphics of runners, gym equipment, etc. to support and augment the metaphor. A documenter
can therefore incorporate both textual and accompanying graphic metaphors to facilitate user
comprehension most efficiently and effectively.
Metaphor in Product Documentation
Metaphor plays a unique and vital role in product documentation, in that it enables a user
to “experience” a product vicariously before initiating the use of that product, thereby avoiding
product failure or more damaging results. In “Technical Communicators as Purveyors of
Common Sense,” Pete Praetorius discusses product documentation and strategies to increase its
effectiveness, including the use of common metaphors. Praetorius notes that when creating
documentation, technical communicators often expect users to employ a certain level of practical
judgment; unfortunately, if that expectation is not met, the consequences for the user can be
damage to the product, injury, or even death (337). Therefore, Praetorius argues, instead of
assuming the user will apply common sense, it is advantageous to encourage, enable, and help
develop that common sense.
After exploring definitions of common sense, Praetorius offers insight about the use of
metaphor that is relevant to our discussion. The author laments, “Unfortunately, a lot of technical
writing is written as though it was created for and by machines rather than by one person for
other people” (346), as has been previously discussed. Such writing often results in a lack of
understanding within the user. He notes that one way technical communicators can avoid this is
to equip users with common sense about a product by helping them experience it vicariously,
since there is little room for error if immediately experiencing a product firsthand.
Praetorius states, “…technical communicators can play a part in promoting a continuity
of experience among a product’s users is through the use of common metaphors” (347). He goes
on to provide the example that “the folder icon used in Windows and Mac operating systems are
much easier for new users to conceptually visualize than the architectural—and very
Cartesian/mechanistic-reductionist—multilevel directories” (378). Praetorius’s discussion is
significant because it establishes yet another benefit of metaphor in another type of document. In
this case, metaphor is not only a purveyor of common sense, but actually enables product
preservation and success, as well as safety, which is an especially important consideration for
technical texts. Praetoius effectively summarizes:
Through the use of scenarios, common metaphors, and language that promotes
procedural knowledge, technical communicators can help to provide users with a
continuity of experience and strengthen their common sense understanding of a
product. By ignoring common sense appeals, technical communicators are turning
their backs on a pragmatic tradition and are passing up a sound persuasive
opportunity. (349)
Variations of Metaphor
Many scholars have explored variations of metaphor, such as “scientific analogies” and
“poetic metaphors,” to analyze whether distinctions exist among them. Michael D. Finney
distinguishes between metaphor in technical communication and metaphor in other fields in his
article “An Approach to Understanding and Using Metaphor in Scientific and Technical
Writing.” He claims that the strength of metaphor lies in its ability to facilitate comprehension,
and that technical metaphors, unlike poetic metaphors, attempt to relay meaning that is
functional rather than exclusively artistic (751-2).
Finney also acknowledges that the appropriateness of metaphor in technical texts has
been questioned and criticized, and offers the following possible reasoning:
[The] distance between writer and reader is brought about because metaphors may
hold many meanings and readers may transfer varying degrees of unexpected
meaning. When writers employ metaphor, they generally assume that the reader
will make a metaphorical interpretation of the text opposed to a literal one. Such
assumptions mean that writers expect the reader to transfer only certain
characteristics to determine meaning. However, this expectation may be
unreasonable. (752)
However, Finney proposes Chisholm’s guidelines as a sufficient safeguard against such incorrect
interpretation by the reader, and concludes with an advisory thought, stating, “Since technical
metaphor is already embedded in technical and scientific writing, writers should work at using
metaphor more skillfully rather than trying to eliminate it altogether” (753).
In “Are Scientific Analogies Metaphors?” Dedre Gentner also examines the difference
between two types of metaphors, supposing that literary metaphors are more complex and rich
than scientific metaphors, which are usually clearer, more specific, and more systematic to aid in
reader understanding. Gentner argues that “complex analogies can be psychologically
characterized as structure-mappings between domains” (127) and that “this framework allows us
to state structural distinctions that distinguish good explanatory-predictive analogy from other
kinds of metaphor” (128).
She asserts that literary metaphors are aesthetic and serve as tools of expression, while
scientific metaphors are factual and used primarily for explanatory purposes, but answers her
initial question of “Are Scientific Analogies Metaphors?” with “yes and no” (128), claiming they
are more similar than not.
In his article “Literary and Nonliterary Aspects of Metaphor” Gerard Steen uses
Gentner’s insights as a platform for further examination and supposes that a distinction between
metaphor and analogy cannot be made based entirely on field of communication – that is,
literature or science. Steen elaborates on the discussion of the constructed boundaries of
discipline initiated earlier in this chapter, stating:
The concepts of scientific and literary discourse are socially constructed, that is,
defined as domains of discourse in which people can participate by means of
various capacities or roles: as readers or as producers of texts, for instance. Types
of discourse are defined at a macro-social level through aesthetic and polyvalence
conventions or, on the contrary, through factual and monovalence conventions.
These conventions embody the aims, needs, and abilities of people as they
participate in a particular domain of discourse. (690)
This explanation sets up his claim that “it is incorrect to call the scientific phenomenon ‘analogy’
and the literary one ‘metaphor’” (691), and his subsequent mission to reformulate the terms.
Ultimately, Steen claims that the impact and comprehension of metaphors, and whether
there is a difference between those in literature and those in science, is determined by a number
of factors that cannot be defined by field alone. The author explains that “distinctions have to be
made among the various stages of a metaphor's impact: in literary reading, ordinary and quick
reception is probably different from repeated reception, which in turn may be different from
study or from criticism” (703).
Steen argues that in order to distinguish between the role of metaphor in literature and the
role of metaphor in science, it is necessary to analyze differences at each of these stages. He
further claims, “It may very well be that, at the level of quick and automatic comprehension,
their impact does not differ at all,” (703), but acknowledges that further empirical evidence is
required to substantiate this idea.
Though application informs and enriches the analysis of metaphor in technical
communication, the subject is so expansive and implicative that its exploration will likely never
be complete. The more technical communicators use metaphors in technical texts, the stronger
the argument for their inclusion and acceptance, and the more examples available to analyze and
learn from. The next chapter provides a brief summary of the issues discussed in this chapter and
the previous chapter, and offers insights regarding additional opportunities for consideration and
study of metaphor in technical communication.
The use of metaphor has long been significant and frequent in technical communication,
and seems to only increase in commonness and acceptance. As illustrated by the previously cited
scholarly research, this device not only lends itself naturally to technical and scientific writings,
but also increases the effectiveness of those texts in many ways. When used responsibly,
metaphor and other creative devices can enhance technical communication by facilitating
understanding and bridging the gap between technical communication and audience.
However, the struggle of technical communication to establish its place within the
university, which has far-reaching implications for the use of metaphor, is certainly not a new
one, nor is it one that has been fully resolved. Technical communication is perhaps still
cementing its place of belonging in the university, and technical communicators are still striving
to learn how to balance subjectivity with objectivity, humanism with science, and creativity with
The following is what I consider to be an interesting illustration of technical
communication and its classification in the university setting: In a previous course during my
study in the technical communication master’s program, I took part in a group project to produce
a recommendation report regarding the University of Central Florida’s online master’s degree
program in technical communication that launched in fall 2007. We conducted research on ten
other schools that already had similar programs already in place, and found that half of the
schools categorized their technical communication programs within the domain of Master of
Arts, the other half within Master of Science. In many ways, technical communication is a work-
in-progress, but its ever-evolving nature can only enable its professors and students to achieve
deeper understanding, effectiveness, and balance.
The technical communication field might benefit from further practical study on the use
of metaphor – for example, usability testing of documents that incorporate metaphor versus those
that do not, in a range of situations, such as the workplace, online classroom, or research lab.
More in-depth feedback from actual users of technical documents that incorporate metaphor
would be helpful in determining why certain techniques are effective and others are not.
Furthermore, it would substantiate whether literary metaphors do in fact differentiate from
scientific metaphors. As Steen states, “At the most extended level of study, however, their
functions may indeed differ, with monovalence and polyvalence as well as facticity and
aestheticism acting as arbiters of their success in science or literature, respectively” (703).
However, without specific empirical study to determine this, one can only speculate (703).
Most of the articles that address the use of metaphor in technical communication,
including the sources explored in this thesis, are either theory-focused or empirically focused.
Perhaps the best way to explore the subject in depth and determine how metaphor affects users
would be to discuss a particular theory, whether new and original or already established, and
then apply it by conducting a usability study using technical texts that employ metaphors versus
technical texts that do not include metaphors. This methodology would provide an understanding
of exactly how metaphor links a user with a text, and whether it enables more effective
comprehension of technical content. Immediate feedback from users would offer valuable insight
into how a metaphor is interpreted and associated, and the resulting user response. The greater
understanding we have of how creative devices function in technical documents, the better we
will be able to incorporate them effectively and achieve the goals of audience comprehension.
Such a usability study could also employ an advanced and modern application of the shift
to user-focus – the audience involvement in the development of a form of technical
communication as discussed by Robert R. Johnson in his article “Audience Involved.” Johnson
explains, “The very nature of technical communication begs for conceptions of audience because
technical writers are fundamentally charged with the responsibility of translation information
from one context to another” (361).
Accordingly, Johnson proposes a system that goes beyond the technical communicator
simply understanding his or her audience to actually involving the audience in the creation of a
technical text by providing immediate feedback, as Johnson discusses usability as “a part of an
iterative process that allows users to provide feedback during the conceptual design and
production stages of a product’s development” (365). In this process, technical communicators
function as usability specialists, and Johnson further advocates an approach to usability that “is
not just end-of-the-line testing; rather, it is a process of discourse production fro m beginning to
The author outlines the resulting advantages as a result of considering usability in this
extended view, including that it “furthers arguments for the early inclusion of technical
communicators in the development process” (365). Johnson elaborates on a second advantage
that if technical communicators are “part of the development continuum, then we might be
perceived as part of the development team, rather than just the scribes who ‘write up’ technical
information” (365). Finally, the author notes a third advantage, stating:
…writers can effectively implement audience knowledge (and here I mean user
knowledge) into the development process. In this way technical communicators
are modern rhetoricians – experts of audience analysis. Usability specialists take
audience analysis into a new context – the context of technological use – and
study how this interactive audience users various texts that reside in a given
discourse community’s arena. (365)
Applying this “participatory model of writing” to technical texts that include metaphor could
provide the valuable opportunities previously discussed, including interaction between technical
communicator and user to understand exactly how users react to the metaphors such texts. The
ability to use “practice users” to test metaphors for effectiveness and efficiency before wide
distribution of technical text would be invaluable to all involved, saving money, time, avoiding
misunderstand and alienation, and all but ensuring success on a broad scale, similar to the benefit
of Praetorius’s protective approach to product documentation in which metaphor serves as a
buffer between user and product implementation.
Like many fields, technical communication is ever evolving, as its participants increase
their understanding of what works and what does not. If the ultimate goal of the area of study
and practice is to facilitate learning and understanding and application for the audience, it makes
perfect sense to apply the ultimate exemplification of user-focused technical communication in
the form of actual user involvement. This progression is an arguably positive change in the field
and profession, as it will increase technical communicators’ understanding of their audience
through forming a direct relationship with the audience, and the instant response from the
audience will likely save time, money, and effort while increasing the effectiveness and success
of the communication. Such a pursuit is decidedly invaluable, based on the extensively
illustrated central role of metaphor in technical communication.
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