Using "a", "an", "the" articles in technical manuals
Thread poster: Grzegorz Michałowski

Grzegorz Michałowski
Local time: 06:50
English to Polish
+ ...
Dec 26, 2011

1) Why there are no articles in sentences "Do not pull machine by cord or plug", "Do not stretch cord" (it looks like an American manual Other sentences from the manual sometimes have "the": "Place the handle in the upright position and tilt machine back until handle rests on the floor" or "During operation, to make the machine go right, gently raise the handle. To make the machine to left, gently lower the handle." What is the rule here?

2) If I mention several times to use an Allen wrench, but every time it is a wrench of a different size (use "Allen wrench s4", use "Allen wrench s6" etc.) should I use "the" or "a"?

3) Shouldn't be at least one more "the" in the following sentence?

"Using a torx T15 screwdriver, unscrew bolt (Figure 8, Item 3), remove external insert (Figure 8, Item 2) and clean the socket."

Is the last "the" correct?


Jack Doughty  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 05:50
Member (2000)
Russian to English
+ ...
They are not used consistently in English Dec 26, 2011

The manual you quote is not consistent, and this is often the case, though logically it ought not to be. Leaving out the articles is a device to make the sentences shorter without loss of clarity, though strictly spreaking it is grammatically incorrect. It is frequently used for manuals. In the sentence about placing the handle in the upright position, I would say the articles should either all be put in or all be left out.
Where there is a reference to a diagram, I generally leave the article out. "Use wrench 5 to tighten nut 6 on bolt 7". As for the Allen wrench sizes (I would call them Allen keys), I would say "use size 4 Allen key" or "use a size 4 Allen key", depending on which is consistent with the rest of the manual. All your other examples would in my opinion be improved by either using articles throughout or not using them at all.


French to English
+ ...
ASD Simplified Technical English (STE) Dec 26, 2011

There is a standardised guideline known as ASD Simplified Technical English, used mainly in the aerospace industry.

The purpose is to use the simplest, clearest language so that even technicians with a limited knowledge of English can understand what they are reading. STE recommends the use of articles.

Slides 18 and 19 in this presentation give interesting before and after examples:

For example: "Set supplemental wing supports, using cradles or separate supports at the front and rear spars."

In STE, this sentence becomes: "Set the supplemental wing supports. Use cradles or supports at the front spars and at the rear spars."


B D Finch  Identity Verified
Local time: 06:50
Member (2006)
French to English
+ ...
Conventions Dec 26, 2011

On the whole, I agree with Jack. However, in my view, inserting all the definite or indefinite articles would be very poor style. In a technical manual it is best to use the minimum of articles - using the occasional definite article can, nonetheless, help the flow; so, I disagree with Jack about the need for total consistency. This is really a very difficult question of style for a non-native speaker of English to get right. Even a native speaker of English really needs to be familiar with current usage in the linguistic community that writes and uses such manuals.

"During operation, to make the machine go right, gently raise the handle." is poorly written. Besides being ambiguous ("right" could, at first sight, mean "correctly"), "go" is too vague. The following might be better, depending upon what is really meant:

During operation, direct machine to RHS by gently raising handle.

[Edited at 2011-12-26 12:11 GMT]

[Edited at 2011-12-26 12:21 GMT]


Heinrich Pesch  Identity Verified
Local time: 07:50
Member (2003)
Finnish to German
+ ...
Better not use articles if you are a non-native :-) Dec 26, 2011

For translators who's native language does not know articles (Russian, Finnish etc.) the choice of the right article or article-less form is very difficult sometimes.
It always hurts when I hear the pre-recorded announcement in Finnish trains: "The next stop: xxx".


neilmac  Identity Verified
Local time: 06:50
Spanish to English
+ ...
Total agree Dec 27, 2011

Heinrich Pesch wrote:

For translators who's native language does not know articles (Russian, Finnish etc.) the choice of the right article or article-less form is very difficult sometimes.
It always hurts when I hear the pre-recorded announcement in Finnish trains: "The next stop: xxx".

I smelt a rat when I saw the query. A native speaker should have no problem with this issue.


Artem Vakhitov  Identity Verified
English to Russian
+ ...
A good downloadable manual on articles in technical English? Feb 13, 2012

Can anybody point me to a comprehensive freely downloadable manual describing article usage in technical English beyond simple cases?

I am interested in a guide that would cover the following things (in addition to the issue brought up by the topic starter):

1) Lists

For instance, here is an excerpt from a technical manual that I am currently translating to English:

The MPI Unit is comprised of:
Control panel;
Bench, including:
- Contact and clamping unit (hereinafter the "CCU");
- Magnetic coil;

On the one hand, all the list items above are new information and are not abstract. On the other hand, each of the items is specific to this particular model of MPI unit. However, intuitively (but not necessarily correctly), I am reluctant to use articles here at all based on vague visual memories of some native English technical manuals I have read, which is reflected in the above example.

2) Abstract nouns

Another excerpt from the same manual:

The main attestation tasks are:
- Check of the reproducibility of test conditions according to the MPI unit specifications and the requirements of GOST 21105-87;

Reproducibility is an abstract term. There was no talk about reproducibility before in this text. However, the noun "reproducibility" is followed by the description "of test conditions". Does that alone warrant using "the"? Visually, I remember the definite article used quite often with abstract nouns in situations like this one - and indeed, googling "check of reproducibility of" gives only 595 links versus 52,500 for "check of the reproducibility of".

3) Detailed guidelines on deciding if a thing denoted by a noun is "definitive enough" (from the context) to use "the". Example:

The main attestation tasks are:
- Review of [the] technical documentation for the MPI unit;
- Determination of [ ] rated parameter values of the MPI unit;
- Check of the reproducibility of test conditions according to [the] MPI unit specifications and the requirements of GOST 21105-87;
- Documentation of [ ] attestation results;
- Assignment of [an] attestation interval.

Here, I am unsure pretty much about every place that I have enclosed in square brackets.

(1) There is one set of technical documentation, if it exists at all.
(2) The rated parameter values are for this particular MPI unit. However, we do not know the values themselves at this point. In addition, the list of the parameters that are rated comes later in this text.
(3) Wel talk about the specifications for this particular unit. However, the specifications themselves come later in this text.
(4) At the time of reading the manual, we have not obtained any results yet. However, the results we talk about are for the specific procedure described in this manual. Any such procedure will have results.
(5) Similarly, we do not know the interval yet, but any attestation will have an interval assigned to it.

Thank you in advance for your recommendations and insights.

[Edited at 2012-02-13 19:28 GMT]


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