Chapter 1: Rhetoric And Ethics

Chapter 1 Authors

David Smith
Justin Buchanan
Jennifer Carbon
Andrew Colombino


Rhetoric is the art of using language to communicate effectively. In technical communication, rhetoric is used to reflect unbiased, practical and objective information.


Professionalism includes the qualities or character traits that distinguish someone as a professional in their field. Technical communicators must convey professionalism in all work they produce to maintain the company’s integrity as well as their own. Employing rhetoric in technical communications is one way of conveying professionalism.


Using professionalism in correspondence is necessary in the workplace to maintain a standard of expectations for yourself and your employer. Choosing the correct medium for corresponding is pertinent in conveying professionalism. For instance, information that is of high priority should be handled with more care. Companies communicating important information regarding employee benefits should choose to send a memo with company letterhead rather than an email that can be lost or deleted without ever being read.

Including proper salutations, closings, and signatures on all correspondence demonstrates professionalism, as well. Signatures also show that you are taking responsibility for the message. (See the Addressing the Audience section for more information.)


The line between professionalism and harassment can oftentimes be gray. When emails become too frequent or bothersome to the recipient, they can be considered a form of harassment, especially if the person has asked to stop receiving the messages. To avoid email abuse, companies set firewalls or barriers that block mass emails, chain letters and spam. Repeated abuse can be punishable by loss of employment and may have legal ground if the messages are harmful or recurring after being asked to stop.

Professionalism in Email

Email has become a major form of communication. To remain professional, the following points should be observed:

  • Include a relevant and specific subject that clearly tells the recipient what the email is about
  • Avoid use of emoticons such as :-) :-(
  • Avoid slang or abbreviations such as BTW for by the way
  • Avoid using all uppercase (SHOUTING) or using all lowercase letters
  • Avoid sending spam, jokes, or flames (emails that contain abusive, obscene, or derogatory language)

Writing for an Audience

Using clear and concise writing is another way to maintain professionalism in your communications. To be effective, technical writers avoid the use of gobbledygook in their work. Gobbledygook is the use of excess abstract words, affectation, buzzwords, clichés, euphemism, inappropriate jargon, stacked modifiers, and vague words. A master of such language, Alan Greenspan, in 1974 addressed a Senate committee saying, “It is a tricky problem to find the particular calibration in timing that would be appropriate to stem the acceleration in risk premiums created by falling incomes without prematurely aborting the decline in the inflation-generated risk premiums.” Writing clearly and concisely is the one of the simplest ways to convey professionalism in technical communications.

Revising and editing technical publications for errors also conveys professionalism by demonstrating that the writer took the time to ensure that it is correct and easy for the audience to read.

Additional Resources


Using proper etiquette is important in many different areas of life, and technical writing is no exception. However, the etiquette used is different in some areas of writing depending on the situation. For example, an email to a superior within a company regarding an instruction manual requires different rules of etiquette than when actually writing the instruction manual. However, there are a few rules most formal writing situations have in common.

Addressing the Audience

In writing instructions and other technical manuals, addressing the audience will not often be an issue. However, addressing the audience is required in many communications within companies, as well as with addressing the concerns of customers. In these cases, it is recommended to use a person’s formal title, such as Dr., Mr., Ms., or Mrs., if it is known which is appropriate. If this cannot be determined, use the recipient’s job title if relevant to the communication, or “customer” if responding to a customer’s communication. Also, never address a doctor by using anything other than Dr.

Use Proper English

It is important to remember that writing a formal document requires a much more precise set of grammatical and conventional guidelines than in other situations of communication, such as conversing with friends or sending a text message. It would be a very bad idea to send an email to your boss in textspeak.

Additional Resources

For more information, see Chapter 2: Writing Styles of this guide.

The Purdue Online Writing Lab also contains additional resources for using proper English:

Persuading Your Audience

Even in writing technical documents, there will be times when persuasive language will be required. An example of this is warning labels, the goal of which is to warn someone about something not to do, and persuade them not to do it. Generally, in persuasion there are three types of appeals, referred to as logos, ethos, and pathos.



The term ethos refers to appeals based on the character of the author. A good way to build credibility is to make the writing look professional. Avoiding spelling mistakes and blatant grammatical errors is a must, and don’t rely on spell check. Spell check cannot catch errors when a misspelled word in fact makes another word, so there is no true substitute for proofreading yourself. It is best to use a clear, readable font in a good size, and employ other techniques to make your writing aesthetically pleasing, such as the use of images.


The term pathos refers to appeals based on emotion. The method for the appeal will largely differ depending on the emotion you wish to play into in your appeal. (Going back to the warning label example, if performing the action you are warning against with the product could lead to serious injury, you should make your audience aware of this in no uncertain terms.) Large, bold print in a bright color associated with warnings, usually red, is a classic method for this.


The term logos refers to appeal based on logic and is the most frequent form of persuasion in technical documents. Logos can be further broken down into two types of reasoning: inductive and deductive. Inductive reasoning involves drawing general conclusions from specific observations, and deductive reasoning involves drawing a specific conclusion from several general ones. Whichever you use, it is very important to avoid what are known as logical fallacies. Logical fallacies are invalid ways to argue a point, though they may seem to make some kind of sense at the time. These are a few examples of logical fallacies:

Appeal to Common Practice

  • Structure: “X is a common action; therefore X is correct/justified, etc.”
  • Example: “The power button on other models of our product is located (at location X), so the power button on this product is also there.”

Misleading Vividness

  • Structure:
    1. Dramatic or vivid event X occurs (and does not agree with statistical evidence).
    2. Therefore, events similar to X are likely to occur.
  • Example: Misrepresentation of the probability of a catastrophic failure of a product when a certain action is taken. (This emphasizes to not perform the action but is dishonest)

Appeal to Tradition

  • Structure: “X is a traditional method/action, therefore method X is the best method.”
  • Example: “When assembling product X, use (traditional) method Y. (Method Y using old fashioned tools, techniques, etc, disregarding more efficient ways to assemble the product)

Confusing Cause and Effect

  • Structure: “Event A and event B regularly occur together, therefore event A is the cause of event B.”
  • Example: “Failure of part X is a result of action Y.” (when action Y is not in fact related to part X)

(Names and structures of the examples taken from The Nizkor Project website.)

Persuasion Summary

There are three types of appeals: Ethos or appeal to credibility, pathos or appeal to emotion, and logos or appeal to logic. In appeal to logic, it is possible for logical fallacies to be committed, but most can be avoided fairly easily. These appeals are used not only in some instances of technical writing, but in many other areas of life.


Ethics involves right and wrong decision-making behaviors, especially in educational and business environments. All communication is based on what to say, what not to say, and how to say it. Today we have the opportunity to communicate with people all over the world via the Internet. Ethics play a huge role in defining a technical writer’s character. The choices made will reflect back on the writer and can make or break a reputation.

For example, in a classroom situation should you share notes with classmates who are absent? You were there to take the notes, but your classmate was absent. The professor made it clear that attendance is important. If you give the classmate your notes you know he or she will keep asking throughout the semester. Do you give the classmate the notes or do you tell him or her to show up to class more often?

Another example, in the workplace you may be asked to stay longer than your shift requires without receiving overtime pay. If you stay you will be rewarded with a day off this weekend. Company policy states you must report overtime work. Do you stay and risk someone finding the unreported hours? Do you refuse and report your boss?


Honesty is the backbone of integrity. When trying to establish a good character reputation as a technical writer, honesty is the best way to gain the trust of your reader. The subjects that will be covered in this section are misleading language, supportive evidence, omission of data and statistics, plagiarism, and self-representation.

Misleading Language

Misleading language involves using words to deceive, confuse, or gain an unfair advantage. For example, when writing a technical document or instruction manual for something involving electricity the writer must think about the dangers involved. An instruction manual for a ceiling fan would include how to hook up the live wires and the ground wire. These wires would need to be color coded or have some other way to identify which is which. Leaving out this information is when the language becomes misleading and could be considered as deception. Be clear in your writing; avoid writing things that may confuse your potential reader. Be straightforward with your reader.

Supportive Evidence

Supportive evidence for facts can be an overlooked honesty issue. A writer cannot simply write, “95% of Americans chose pizza as their favorite food” without evidence to support the claim. A company cannot write that its product has the highest approval rating without evidence. Who's approval rating? Where is a citation for the data?

Omission of Data and Statistics

Omission of data and statistics is another honesty issue. For example, you show a bar graph of your product versus other products that has information for all products but only your product is named. Purposely leaving out information on the other products is a way of dishonestly presenting data.


Another ethical issue is plagiarism, a problem in every type of communication that can easily be avoided. To avoid plagiarism just give the source of the information. Use MLA, APA, or some other format for citation. Not only will plagiarism lead a student to failure and possible expulsion, but in the office setting, plagiarism can lead to legal trouble.

For More information, visit this link.

Self Representation

The last issue with honesty is self representation. When sending a memo, do not claim to be someone you are not just so your memo will get more notice. Do not give yourself any title unless you have been given the title by the company. When you are representing your company, do not make claims about the company that are not true. Do not claim to have unrealistic sales numbers or results.


Fairness is very important to consider when building character as a technical writer. If a potential client can see inconsistency in a technical writer's work it can ruin the reputation of the writer. The fairness issues covered here will be bias, avoiding derogatory terms, gender bias and racism, and appropriate level of diction.


In some circumstances bias will become an issue and it must be avoided. Bias involves showing obvious favor toward one side of an argument. This can become an issue in a professional setting between employees and consumers. Another example could involve making a financial decision for a company. In order to negotiate a good deal one must not show favor. If the buyer sees that you favor one thing over another you may wind up paying more than you should.

Avoid Derogatory Terms, Gender Bias, and Racism

Avoiding derogatory and racist language as well as gender bias should be simple, right? Actually, it can be an issue that slips by unnoticed. For example:

“The mailman should be here by one.”

In casual conversation this may slip by unnoticed. However in a professional setting it is important to not label a job by gender. In a professional setting the sentence would be:

“The mail carrier should be here by one.”

These changes can be seen in other instances too like “fireman” becoming “firefighter” and “policeman” becoming “police officer.”

Appropriate Level of Diction

Using an appropriate level of diction is also an important issue. Diction involves carefully choosing words to include in a document. For example, children's books use short, simple words instead of words that may be seen in college level texts. A technical communications example would be, do not write a memo about the intricate inner workings of a product unless the memo is addressing the subject matter experts or technicians who understand the technical jargon. When addressing management or administration, use language that is appropriate. Remember to consider your audience at all times.


Technical writers are expected to be professional and easy to understand. Legality issues can greatly lower clients and employers trust in a technical writer. The legal issues covered in this section will be avoiding writing that promotes illegal activities, avoiding scare tactics and blackmail, and harassment

Avoid Writing That Promotes Illegal Activities

Avoiding writing that promotes illegal activities is another issue that seems easy to avoid, however, this can go unnoticed until later review. For example, providing a link to a website that hosts copyrighted material can lead to legal backlash if the copyright holder reads your document. By linking the website you are promoting Internet piracy. In order to legally use copyrighted materials you must receive written consent from the original owner.

Avoid “Scare Tactics” and Blackmail

As an author you must gain the trust the reader. It is important to never use “scare tactics” or blackmailing. Do not send an email asking a fellow employee for a favor using threatening language. Do not promise a reward for ethically questionable favors. For example, do not spread a memo saying that everyone in the company will be fired if a deadline is not met.


Harassment is a common and sometimes overlooked issue. Emailing co-workers about the job is fine. Sending personal email is acceptable – but when the personal emails become bothersome to the recipient it is no longer permissible to send more emails. For example, if you have a co-worker on your personal email address book and you send a lot of mass messages you may be sending spam. This can be punishable by loss of employment and may have legal ground if the messages are harmful or recurring after being asked to stop.


Ethically, technical communicators are responsible for protecting the confidentiality of their employer and others. Most companies have an area in their Code of Ethics that addresses issues of confidentiality. The following are the most common concerns regarding technical communications.

Protecting Intellectual Property

Companies protect their assets with policies that restrict information from being disseminated to outside parties. Examples of such assets include designs, formulas, lists, methods, patterns, or processes that offer competitive advantages over parties who do not have the same information. Restrictions may include the prohibition of instant messaging, blogging, or texting while at work.

In many industries, employees are must sign a non-compete document that places restrictions on who and/or where the employee may work for within a defined time period upon their resignation or termination.

Internal and External Communications

Always operate under the assumption that someone else may read what you are sending. Avoid sending any information you would not want others to read. For example, someone other than the intended recipient may intercept an email sent from one colleague to another. More importantly, most companies back up and save all company email, so a deleted email is never truly deleted. Legally, the company may be required to provide such emails in a court of law if asked.

Obtaining Personal Information and Privacy Policies

Technical communicators create documents that are sometimes designed to obtain personal information that may be of a sensitive nature. In such instances, present the questions in a way that is not invasive or illegal. Unless otherwise indicated, the person filling out the form should expect confidentiality. In some cases, a release form or disclaimer will be included that allows for the company’s discretionary use of the private information. To ensure legality and fairness in these forms, an attorney should prepare or look over the document.

Being careful to respect the privacy of others is imperative. Recently, an employee at the University of Hawaii unintentionally posted grades and other personal information of more than 40,000 students on an unprotected server for more than a year. While it was not a malicious act, the consequences are great. Taking measures to ensure the privacy of others is not infallible, but technical communicators must have a heightened sense of awareness and immediately report any issues that compromise the privacy of their clients.

Cultural Considerations

The technological advances of the last century make communicating with people around the globe easier than ever before. With that great convenience comes a need to understand the way different people around the world communicate.


Many cultures differ in the way they use context when conveying a message. Context is the background information that supports a message and allows the communicator to omit information that the audience already knows. For instance, notice how this paragraph does not start off by explaining, “The writers of this guide wish to explain what context is because it relates to technical communication.” Why? Because you—the reader—already know that. The context of this guide and of your situation makes it redundant to include such a statement. However, not all cultures rely on context in the same way, and when writing to a global audience it is best to keep in mind the differences between the two extremes of context usage.

The first of these extremes are low-context cultures. Low-context cultures do not rely heavily on context, preferring instead to explain everything in an organized and consistent way. North American, German, and Scandinavian cultures are a few of the low-context cultures in the world. Low-context cultures are vulnerable to miscommunication if the speaker assumes too much. When writing in a low-context setting, ensure that you are clear and avoid omitting too much information. Without the proper context, readers may interpret the text as vague, ambiguous, and possibly confusing. Ensure that any instructions you provide are detailed and that each step flows directly into the next.

High-context cultures, on the other hand, prefer to exclude information that they feel the audience should already know. High-context cultures tend to be very homogeneous; that is, they include people of the same ethnic, religious, moral, linguistic and historical background. This common background gives high-context communicators a better understanding of what the audience knows. The Japanese are a well-known high-context culture, but they are not alone. Many other Asian cultures, as well as Arabic and Latin American cultures are high-context.

Avoid sending the wrong message by understanding how readers who are accustomed to one context level interpret writing that uses a different context level. To low-context cultures, high-context communication seems very vague and indirect; passive voice and impersonal statements are very common. To high-context cultures, low-context communication may come across as rude, because of its highly direct and explicit nature; low-context writers aim to use active voice as much as possible.


Visuals play an important part in every document. From the text on the page to the graphics that support them, different cultures have different ways of looking at visuals.

Text Directionality

As you read this page, your eyes move from left to right until you reach the end of the line. You then repeat the process at the beginning of the next line for the rest of the text on the page. As a user of English, this is the most natural order to read the elements on a page. However, not all cultures exhibit these same tendencies, and text directionality influences the way in which people read other elements of a page, such as graphics and figures. For instance, instruction manuals arrange steps in a particular order. However, writers cannot assume that the audience will automatically read those steps in the same order, so steps are normally numbered to define the proper sequence that each step follows.

Naturally, the English language requires text to flow from left to right, and readers from any culture must accommodate this in order to read the text. However, readers are not constrained to following a particular order when reading a given page’s non-textual content.

Languages like English, French, German, Russian, and Greek have writing systems that flow from left to right and top to bottom. Readers that speak these languages expect the content of a page to begin in the top-left corner and end in the bottom-right corner.

On the other hand, languages like Arabic and Hebrew have writing systems that flow from right to left. Audiences in these cultures expect the content of a page to begin in the top-left corner of a page and end at the bottom-left corner. Websites that use Hebrew or Arabic place the scroll bar to the left side of the screen.

A third text direction uses vertical columns to align its text. This is a common practice in several Asian cultures, such as Japanese, Chinese, and Mongolian writing. These readers are usually accustomed to writing both vertically and horizontally, especially in areas such as math and science. Nevertheless, since vertical text is culturally important, writers who wish to appeal to Asian audiences may benefit from implementing visuals that take advantage of vertical text directionality.


Every culture values colors differently, and the emotions that each color conveys can vary widely from culture to culture. In the United States, red is often the color of danger or warning. On the road, drivers encounter red-colored stop signs and must stop at red traffic lights. On the other hand, the Chinese recognize red as the color of prosperity. Similarly, Western cultures consider white to represent purity and cleanliness, but in Asian cultures, white is the color of death and mourning.

In non-technical communication, colors convey the meaning that words sometimes cannot. In areas with low literacy levels, colors are often more important than words. However, colors are also important in technical communication as well. Warning labels, instruction manuals, and technical documentation use colors to highlight important sections or details; therefore, technical writers must be aware of the challenges that colors present. In practice, technical writers should never use color alone to convey a message.

Graphics and Symbols

Graphics are an important part of many documents, but writers face many challenges when choosing graphics that are appropriate for international audiences. Like colors, graphics do not always mean the same thing around the world. For instance, in the computing world, a question mark symbolizes the need for help, but the question mark is meaningless to cultures whose languages do not use the symbol.

Writers must also use caution when depicting humans and animals in graphics. For several reasons, many internationalized symbols use outlines or stick figures to represent people. The use of abstract designs to represent people usually allows writers to avoid issues of skin color, religion, gender, and age. Furthermore, photographs and other more realistic depictions of humans may be offensive to some cultures.

Fortunately for technical writers, several organizations have created standards graphics for a variety of different situations. These symbols often transcend linguistic and cultural differences. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has published its ISO 3864, which provides examples of international symbols as well as details on the creation of new symbols that are recognizable around the globe.

Global English

English speakers have an advantage in global communication due to the English language’s status as the current international lingua franca. The widespread use of English makes it an important tool for communicating to a worldwide audience, but it also comes at a price. There are some pitfalls that writers must avoid, especially native English speakers.


The English language is a living language, and as such, it varies widely from place to place. Fortunately, for the most part this variation is reserved for spoken English. Nevertheless, the written language has some minor variation that should not be ignored when communicating to an international audience.

Most non-native speakers of English learn either the British or American variants of English; therefore, it helps to highlight some of the major differences between the two. Note that no variant of English is more “correct” than the others as the English language has no regulatory body. Both American English and British English have evolved considerably since they split in the seventeenth century.

Spelling is one of the biggest differences between American and British English. One of the more obvious differences is the spelling of some suffixes. While British English tends to feature Francophile spellings (e.g., specialise, colour, and centre), American English tends to use more Latinate spellings (e.g., specialize, color, and center). For the most part, simple spellchecking programs will highlight these “errors,” but again the final decision is up to the writer.

English grammar is fairly consistent, and though there are some differences, they are unlikely to cause confusion. Lastly, while writers are free to choose whichever variant they prefer, it is bad practice to mix variants throughout a single document, so be consistent.


The English language is rich with colorful expressions and sayings. However, many of these expressions are culture-specific and can potentially cause difficulties for both global audiences and native English speakers alike. For instance, asking someone from England for their “John Hancock” would probably raise a few eyebrows. American English is naturally full of culturally influenced idioms. For example, baseball idioms are common in speech throughout the United States. Phrases like “cover all the bases” and references to things that are “out of the ballpark” are widespread in American parlance. To an American, especially a baseball enthusiast, these idioms make perfect sense. To an outsider, their meanings are not obvious. Therefore, technical writers should avoid idioms and clichés.

Native speakers of English also tend to use a large amount of phrasal verbs in speech. Phrasal verbs consist of a verb and a preposition or an adverb that, when combined, take on an idiomatic meaning. Phrasal verbs are especially problematic to readers because it is often impossible to obtain the meaning of the phrase by analyzing its components. For example,

“The printer has run out of paper. Fill the tray back up and press the power button to go on with the print job.”

This example uses at least three phrasal verbs:

  • “run out of,” which means, “consume or deplete all of something;”
  • “fill [back] up,” which means, “replace the contents of a container;” and
  • “go on with,” which means, “continue or proceed.”

In technical communication, writers should avoid these types of verbs as much as possible. An acceptable alternative to the message above would be:

“The printer needs more paper. Refill the paper tray and press the power button to continue.”

This revised message replaces each phrasal verb with constructions that are easier to read. The verbs in this revision are much more meaningful than those of the original.


Around the world, writers and readers of all cultures encounter different ways of writing dates, times, and numbers. Though most cultures convey the same information, there are differences in the way these details are formatted.


Technical writers encounter numbers much more frequently than other writers. In an international context, formatting numbers properly and uniformly is essential to avoiding miscommunication. Larger numbers often make use of punctuation to separate groups of numbers and make them easier to parse and read. Formatting currency usually follows the same rules as formatting numbers; however, the position of the currency symbol varies widely from country to country.

In the United States, readers are accustomed to separating the thousands with a comma and separating a whole number from a decimal value with a period. In some countries, like Germany, the two punctuation marks have reversed roles. Figure #.# gives a few examples of number formats in different countries.

Currency and Number Formats in Different Countries
United States Germany Italy India
Number 246,944.985 246.944,986 246 944,986 2,46,994.986
Currency $652,504.95 652.504,95 € € 652 504,95 Rs 6,52,504.95


Cultures around the world have different ways of representing dates. Date formats do not necessarily rely on language; in fact, even speakers of English from different countries use date formats that are not always interchangeable. Writing a date requires placing the date's elements (e.g., the month, the day, and the year) in a way that is meaningful to the reader. However, there are at least three different date formats in use around the world, and ambiguous date formats can cause a variety of problems when communicating to an international audience.

The first date format expresses the most specific part of the date at the end. For example:

  • 2010 July 3
  • 2010 Jul. 3
  • 2010-07-03

This date format is known around the world as the ISO 8601 standard. ISO 8601 is the preferred date format of international organizations like the United Nations as well as nations like Japan, Hungary, and Sweden. Since the units of this date format are ordered from least specific to most specific, they are easier to sort and organize; therefore, industries like computer programming use this date format almost exclusively.

Another date format gives the most detailed part of the date in the middle. It is common in the United States and Canada but not in other English-speaking countries.

  • July 3, 2010
  • Jul. 3, 2010
  • 07/03/2010, which may be shortened to 7/3/10

This third and final format is popular around the rest of the world, and it is common in English-speaking countries like the United Kingdom and Australia. It expresses the most specific element of the date first:

  • 03 July 2010
  • 03 Jul 2010
  • 03-07-2010

To avoid confusion when writing dates, consistency is crucial. Writers should also avoid using formats that are ambiguous. Short forms that use only numbers often represent two possible dates depending on the order of the month and day. For instance, "7/3/10" could represent either "July 3, 2010" or "7 March 2010."


Along with date formats, time formats differ culturally, and writers should keep in mind that some formats are less common in some parts of the world than others. Time formats are usually divided between 12-hour formats and 24-hour formats. In 12-hour formats, the day is typically split into two twelve-hour halves, whereas in 24-hour formats, the twenty-four hours of the day are numbered from 0 to 23.

In the United States, for instance, the 12-hour time notation is by far the most common. In fact, the 24-hour time format is known as “military time” in the United States because it is so uncommon outside of military contexts. However, most other countries in the world use 24-hour time. Figure #.# shows how some countries differ in the way they express two different times in written form.

Time Formats in Different Countries
United States Italy France
Before Noon 10:35 A.M. 10.35 10:35 or 10h35
After Noon 10:35 P.M. 22.35 22:35 or 22h35