A while back I wrote a series of posts on figures of speech. Figures of speech are ways of playing fast and loose with the language, on purpose, and managing to be understood when you do so. Someone (Hi, Sara) asked me to write about anthropomorphism, a figure of speech you don’t generally find in technical writing. Technical writing is supposed to be as direct and plain as possible.
Anthropomorphism is attributing animal (or inanimate) characteristics to humans (You lucky duck, you) or human characteristics to animals (or inanimate things), such as when you draw a comic with talking animals. Ahem:
Does this figure of speech have a place in technical writing? Perhaps, if it’s the best way to make an obscure point clear. Abstruse subjects can be made easier to understand with an illustration, an analogy, and that illustration could, sometimes, be an anthropomorphism.
I run into this a lot in the field of computing. We say computers think, have memory, and want things. A message recently popped up on my screen saying that a website wanted to know my location. Pure anthropomorphism! More than one mathematician has said that an asymptote (look it up) is a line that wants to approach something but never quite can. I’ve heard genuine astronomers refer to the man in the moon, an image of a face. As luck would have it, I just ran into this passage from a Scientific American article:
When I look at the Moon I see the history of our planet engraved on its pale grey surface. I have to see something, I still can’t make out this “man” you tell me about.
I suppose I could include an anthropomorphism that goes the other way. The first thing that came to mind was the title of an old hymn, Rock of Ages.
Now that you’ve seen a few examples, keep your eye open for this figure of speech in technical subjects. If you think of or notice a good one, share it in the comments.