Now entering the 4th dimension?

Subject: Now entering the 4th dimension?
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: Technical Writing <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>, salt -dot- morton -at- gmail -dot- com
Date: Thu, 01 Jan 2009 09:10:06 -0500

Chris Morton wondered: <<We're following the *Chicago Manual of Style
*in writing to the medical community.>>

Isn't that kind of like following the American Psychological
Association style guide for accountants? <g>

Just kidding -- mostly. So long as you maintain some sensitivity to
the vocabulary and needs of your audience, pretty much any style guide
will cover the basics. Where a general guide such as Chicago will fail
for your audience is that it doesn't cover any of the specialized
situations a medical writer working for a medical audience will face.
If you haven't already done so, you need to come up with your own
(gradually growing and evolving) house style guide to cover the many
things that Chicago doesn't. For example:

<<That said, the marketing folks like "3D" (thinking it's more
"progressive"), whereas all of our engineering docs, SOPs, etc., use
"3-D". We also reference 2-D and 4-D. My own take is that while 3D may
be readily comprehended, a reader may stumble—if even for a moment—on
2D and 4D.>>

The only purpose for the hyphen is to indicate a compound adjective
(e.g., "a three-dimensional image"). But once you replace a hyphenated
phrase with an abbreviation, the need for the hyphen essentially
disappears: a single word clearly functions as a unit modifier, and
unit modifiers don't require a hyphen. <g> Retaining the hyphen isn't
wrong, particularly in the early phases of an abbreviation's adoption
(when the hyphen may help readers recall the full expanded phrase);
it's just redundant. Nowadays, I can't imagine anyone stumbling over 3D.

The more important points. First, clarity trumps all other
considerations. If readers clearly understand the context, and the
meaning of "D" is clear in that context, which solution you choose
probably isn't crucial (so long as you choose... see the next point).
If you follow standard practice of defining key acronyms and
abbreviations the first time they appear, then the meaning of 3D and 3-
D will be equally clear. Readers won't encounter much difficulty with
the meaning. I have a preference for the unhyphenated form, both
because it's equally clear and because you'll never have the problem
of your helpful software splitting the word over two lines. <g>

Second, consistency is important because every inconsistency, no
matter how small, slightly increases the burden on the reader until
they figure out the cause of the inconsistency and whether or not it
changes the meaning. If the rest of the subject matter is sufficiently
complex to require full attention, all the small additional burdens
that arise from repeated inconsistency may eventually add up to the
straw that breaks the camel's back -- or at least the straw that gives
the camel a backache. It really doesn't matter which of the two
abbreviations you choose (with or without the hyphen), so long as you
use it consistently. If the vast majority of your docs use the hyphen,
then continue using the hyphen and tell your marketing folks to pay
attention to marketing.

Geoff Hart (
ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca / geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com
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