Grammar and the engineer

-March 01, 2017

Engineers aren’t necessarily renowned for their authorial brilliance, but those who do pursue the craft, whether full-time, like those of us at EDN, or occasionally, as their company’s chief scribe and bottle washer, tend to – eventually at least – bring an engineering logic and style to the task.

Perhaps the best known style choice made by engineer-writers is the disappeared space between a number and its unit. Thus, while mere mortal grammarians might insist on space-wasting constructs like “1 V” or “3.3 kΩ”, many of us will pen the far more reasonable “12V” and “470Ω”. This has even been called engineering style.

Now, correct me if you think I am wrong, but many of us fall somewhere in-between, having developed a fine-tuned heuristic (or even an explicit rule set) on when to put in a space. I fall into this group, and while I would write “5V”, I'd probably also write “1 mVRMS” or “2.71828 Ω”. But is the rule so simple: to add a space when either term is long? I say not.

In fact, given a suitable length of time, and a suitable amount of wine, I believe I could codify my heuristic into a mechanical rule set.


What rules do you live by?




But forget all that. I really came here to talk about hyphens, another place where engineers may be at odds with grammarians.

In English, most compound adjectives need a hyphen separating (actually, joining) them. For example, “Did you see the bluish-black smoke pour out of that tantalum?” A simple intensifier however can do without: “Did you see the very black smoke pour out of that tantalum?”

The compound rule has led some writers to go overboard with hyphenation. For example, is it a “3.3V supply”, or a “3.3-V supply”? (of course, those examples also impinge on the Venn space of the previously discussed issue. Don’t worry about it.)

I am strongly against this hyphen nation. Never will you read about “the 1-Ω resistor” on my watch. Admittedly, heuristically, I find some instances do work better with a hyphen. What do you think of “32-bit processor”? Illogically, I would tend towards a hyphen there.

Okay, ignore that moment of weakness. Do you want further evidence against the hyphen, beyond the simple fact that it looks ridiculous? Okay.

Newsflash: Ohm isn’t an adjective. Thus, it can’t be part of a compound pair.

Many academic journals use the non-hyphenated style. In fact, a well known scientific style guide specifies it (though I’m afraid I’ve forgotten which one).

Grammar Girl says: The reason I didn’t say that I absolutely should have hyphenated “noise canceling headphones” is that if leaving out the hyphen causes no ambiguity, some style guides, such as the Chicago Manual of Style, say it’s OK to leave it out; and I don’t think anyone would read my meaning differently with or without a hyphen.

Scientific American writes: The researchers describe one monkey they started on a 30 percent calorie restriction diet when he was 16 years old, late middle age for this type of animal.

Seems the SciAm example is missing several hyphens… To say nothing of “percent”. Really?

Linear Technology is totally in the engineering camp in their literature, such as: Uncompromised clocking solution for 16bit 2.5Gsps DAC. No spaces, no hyphens.

What if the hyphen nation wins? We’ll have to reject ads:


Conferences will be renamed: 

They must mean “Embedded-Systems Conference”.




Michael Dunn is Editor in Chief at EDN with several decades of electronic design experience in various areas.

Follow Michael Dunn on and EDN on Instagram


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