We do (A + B) * (C + D) * (E + F)
July 21, 2014 9:54 AM   Subscribe

I need to write a short blurb describing the services our group provides, which is basically defined in three dimensions, eg. "We provide services (A + B) for data types (C + D) in domains (E + F)." I imagine this is something faced by technical writers, is there some best practice for writing this sort of thing so that it is readable in plain English?

Our two candidates right now (names changed to protect the guilty):

1. Org provides ServiceA, and ServiceB, for DataTypeA and DataTypeB. This includes DomainA, DomainB, DomainC and DomainD.

2. Org ServicesA, and ServicesB, DataTypeA and DataTypeB, including DomainA, DomainB, DomainC, and DomainD.

My concern with both of these is the many commas and conjunctions. The data types and domains are all relatively long technical terms (eg. "hydroacoustic"), so the overall structure of the sentences and grouping of terms doesn't scan very easily.

This needs to be very short and readable, it is basically a subheading in a document. The PTB insist that it cover all these features, since this is basically advertising the group within our organization.
posted by bjrubble to Writing & Language (6 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Does it have to be in sentence form? As an alternative, for example, it might be the kind of thing that would ideally be communicated in a short graphic/flowchart.
posted by three_red_balloons at 10:10 AM on July 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

The way you phrase it in your title is by far the most readable to me.

We provide serviceA and serviceB for datatypeC and datatypeD in domainE and domainF.
posted by magnetsphere at 10:15 AM on July 21, 2014

Agreed with magnetsphere: "We provide ServiceA and ServiceB for DataTypeC and DataTypeD in the fields of DomainE, DomainF, DomainG, and DomainH." is most readable to me.
posted by augustimagination at 10:18 AM on July 21, 2014

I will fully caveat this recommendation with the fact that it may not be (likely isn't?) the appropriate use of the ampersand, but I use it all the time for this purpose. I find reading "and" written out to be the part that is confusing about sentences like this, so in my work (management/strategy consulting) I tend to do things like:

"The company provides ServiceA & ServiceB for DataTypeC & DatatypeD in the fields of DomainE, DomainF, DomainG, & DomainH."
posted by CharlieSue at 10:29 AM on July 21, 2014

The guiding principle here is to use syntax, the linguistic equivalent of the math-like notation in your title, to convey the structure of the information. The problem you're encountering is that multiple lists in the same sentence confuse readers — because lists don't provide enough syntactic cues, they tend to run together.

What this means in practice: First, if possible, you should try to break one of the mini-lists out into a separate sentence, rather than running them all together — so option #1 should be preferred. But then, ideally, that sentence's subject and verb should also provide a meaningful cue to readers about what is being listed: "We do this work in the domains of A, B, C, and D" or something like that is much preferable to the vague "This includes." Option #1 is better in this way as well — using the verb "provides" is much better than not having a verb at all — but even that could probably be improved. Each sentence should use the strongest (most specific and meaningful) verb that you can find to convey information about what the list is a list of. Whenever you can, write real sentences!

Also, if your example is accurate as to the number of items in each category: don't use commas to break up lists of only two items. "Org provides ServiceA, and ServiceB," is more confusing than "Org provides ServiceA and ServiceB"; the commas add unnecessary syntactic ambiguity.

I find reading "and" written out to be the part that is confusing about sentences like this

That's ridiculous.

posted by RogerB at 10:57 AM on July 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thanks, RogerB, this explicates the problem I'm having really well -- I have a list of lists, and I'm having trouble keeping them from running together. (CharlieSue's answer also gets at this implicitly, I think.)

I like the idea of splitting these into separate sentences, and I'm going to think about what strong verbs I might use here. One thing that seems awkward to me is that the next sentence has to somehow restate the previous sentence -- both "this includes" and "we do this work" have a potentially hand-wavey "this" pointing off into the previous sentence. I guess this is where a strong verb can provide the proper context.
posted by bjrubble at 11:22 AM on July 21, 2014

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