Archive for February, 2012

This was a school paper. We had to review a style manual. I didn’t have experience with IEEE before this, so it was new territory for me.

IEEE Editorial Style Manual: A Review

Amanda White

[1]       IEEE. IEEE Editorial Style Manual. [Online.] Available:

The IEEE Editorial Style Manual is published by IEEE, which stands for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and is pronounced “eye-triple-E.” It is a set of editorial guidelines used for the IEEE’s Transactions, Journals, and Letters. These include scientific publications on a vast array of topics, from Aerospace and Electronic Systems to Plasma Science.

No date, authors, or historical information on this style manual is available. I have been in touch with the IEEE to see if they could give me some background information, but as of this post I am still waiting for a comprehensive response. The latest dates cited in the references examples are in 1997, but Webster’s College Dictionary, 4th Edition, was published in 2004, so the earliest it could have last been updated is 2004.


The manual is only eighteen pages long, referring users to the Chicago Manual of Style for issues not covered in the IEEE manual. It is divided into two sections: the main body of the manual, and an extensive citation guide headed “Editing References.” The main body is divided into seven topics: IEEE Transactions Editing Philosophy, Parts of a Paper, Body of a Paper, Other Text, Other Types of Papers, Editorial Style for Transactions, and Rules of Grammar. The Editing References portion contains instructions and multiple examples for: Periodicals, Books, Reports, Handbooks, Published Conference Proceedings, Papers Presented at Conferences, Patents, Theses and Dissertations, Unpublished, Standards. It also gives instructions for citing online resources, including websites, FTP, email, and telnet. This section ends with a list of common abbreviations of words used in references, and four pages of abbreviations for IEEE publications.


The manual is short enough that no table of contents is needed. The main body of the paper takes up less than five pages, with most of the rest given over to reference examples and abbreviations. The organization of headings and subheadings did not represent a clear outline, and at times I struggled to understand what I was reading about. One example of what appears to me to be outline dysfunction occurs on the first page. The second heading (page 1) is “Parts of a Paper,” which only includes the subheadings “Paper Title” and “First Footnote.” This is followed by third heading, “Body of a Paper,” which appears in the same heading level as “Parts of a Paper,” and contains subheadings “Abstract,” “Index Terms,” “Nomenclature,” all the way down to “References” and “Biographies.” Doesn’t the body of a paper, and all it contains, fall under the category “Parts of a Paper?” Why, then, was it given its own equal heading, leaving “Parts of a Paper” with only two introductory subheadings? Another place that I thought was strangely organized was the “On-Line Sources” section of the References guide. Instead of having subsections for email, FTP, websites, etc., each type of reference is given its own heading (Books, journal articles, magazine articles, etc.) with rules for citing it as online content, followed by clarification on how it should be cited specifically for email, FTP, websites, etc. I would have rather seen a subheading for each type of online media, or these online specifications included under the main entry for each type of reference. I should mention, however, that the manual claims these online additions are based on ISO and APA standards, so perhaps they borrowed the layout of the information from one of those sources.

Examples of style choices

Spelling The IEEE manual refers users to Webster’s College Dictionary, 4th Edition, for spelling, and makes no spelling specifications of its own. It does, however, make extensive lists of acceptable abbreviations, such as “cybern.” for cybernetics and “proc.” for proceedings. The biographies section also lists abbreviations for international degrees, such as Dipl. Ing. and Diplom-Physiker, but does not give translations for these, explain what they stand for, or even list which countries or languages they are from, so I imagine this list to be impractical for most people to use.

Number use Numbers in the tens and hundreds of thousands should use “thin spaces” instead of a comma between the numbers. I had never heard of a “thin space.” I thought they might mean an “en space,” since the document referenced em and en spaces and dashes elsewhere. However, I looked up thin spaces in the Chicago Manual of Style, and they define it as a very thin space, one-fifth or one-sixth of an em space. But examples given in the IEEE Manual look more like just a regular, default space. I’m not sure if the author used the wrong term, or if the examples were originally printed with a thin space but the formatting was lost.

IEEE indicates that zeros should be used in front of decimals (which, I infer, are less than one but more than negative one), but not added to the end. That is, 0.25 is correct, but .25 or .250 are incorrect. I was curious as to how this stacked up with Chicago, so I looked it up. Chicago does not say anything about zeros tacked on to the end of decimals, but is in agreement with their inclusion before the decimal point, with the exception of firearm calibers and batting averages.

Capitalization The only note on capitalization in the IEEE style manual is for trademarks. After stating that symbols like ® and ™ are not to be used, it says that only the first letter of the trademark should be capitalized. I was puzzled by this at first. Did that mean that Coca-Cola should be written Coca-cola? But upon reflection, I think that they just meant not to put the brand name in all caps. Chicago is in agreement on both the interdiction on trademark symbols and the capitalization.

Citation Citations are where the IEEE stands out, visually, from other style manuals, with its numbering instructions: “Reference numbers are set flush left and form a column of their own, hanging out beyond the body of the reference. The reference numbers are on the line, enclosed in square brackets (page 5).”  Otherwise, differences between IEEE and Chicago are not glaring. Periodicals, for example, are structured similarly, but with a few differences: the placement of month and year information is later in IEEE than in Chicago; IEEE encourages abbreviations of periodical titles and months; and IEEE includes the abbreviation “vol.” before the volume number, where Chicago just states the number, letting the reader infer that it is the number of the volume. Here is an example taken from IEEE:

[2]       J. U. Buncombe, “Infrared navigation—Part I: Theory,” IEEE Trans.

   Aerosp. Electron. Syst., vol. AES-4, pp. 352– 377, Sept. 1944.

In Chicago style, this entry would appear:

2. J. U. Buncombe, “Infrared navigation—Part I: Theory,” IEEE Transactions on

Aerospace and Electronic Systems AES-4 (September 1944): 352-377.

Books are likewise similar. The only major formatting difference is that Chicago’s city and publisher info is contained in parentheses, and IEEE’s is not The only content difference is that IEEE requires the name of the country if the city is outside the U.S., whereas Chicago only requests it if the city name might be unfamiliar to readers.

An example from IEEE:

[2]       L. Stein, “Random patterns,” in Computers and You, J. S. Brake, Ed. New

   York: Wiley, 1994, pp. 55-70.

Translated into Chicago:

2. L. Stein, “Random Patterns,” in Computers and You, ed. J. S. Brake (New

York: Wiley, 1994).  55-70.

Other language variables: I was confused by a direction in the IEEE manual’s “Rules of Grammar” section (page 5) to “enclose parenthetic expressions between commas.” No example was given to clarify this. My first thought was that this meant that parenthesized comments needed to be set off by commas as well as parentheses, (like this), but as I had never actually seen that done anywhere, I was doubtful. After looking up the word “parenthetical” and learning that it does not necessarily require a phrase to be in parentheses, but can be applied to any sort of “aside,” I am leaning towards the explanation that IEEE prefers such comments to be contained between commas instead of between parentheses or em dashes. An example would have been helpful.

IEEE also states, “Do not use double parentheses in text expression, but keep them in math.” This is more or less in agreement with Chicago, which does not expressly prohibit nested parentheses, but “prefers” brackets, and does allow for nested parentheses where mathematics require them.


The IEEE Editorial Style Guide is short, sweet, and incomplete. I see it more as a style sheet to be used alongside the Chicago Manual of Style. I also see it as needing a revision, at least in its formatting. Additionally, it should be updated to include digital object identifiers, which are used extensively in Chicago’s 16th edition, but completely unmentioned in IEEE. Most importantly, I believe that it would benefit from examples given for all rules, not just for references. However, I do believe it serves its purpose as a style sheet for mathematic notation and specialized abbreviation, which are subjects that can be buried or incomplete in less scientific style manuals.


This was a report I wrote for the class Special Documents last semester. The assignment was to write a formal report about reports. I chose to narrow my focus to formality in language, and how it is related to but separate from formality in report style. The point of the project was more to follow all the rules about creating a formal report according to a chosen style guide. I chose APA, since I wasn’t familiar with it before starting this program. Of course, I deleted much of the front material (title page, letter of transmission) for the blog post, and WordPress is not taking too kindly to all my formatting, but I thought you might like to read it for the content. (It was my final paper and I got a perfect score, so yay!)


Reports can be divided into formal and informal reports. The language used in these reports can likewise be divided into formal and informal language. This paper attempts to clarify that while informal language is usually used in informal reports, and formal language is usually used in formal reports, formality in language does not define the formality of the report. Language tone and report style can be considered separately, and on rare occasion, even mismatched.  Formality and informality in language are defined, as are formality and informality in reporting. Reasons are given as to why formality usually corresponds to report type. Finally, suggestions are given for occasions when formal language might be considered in an informal report, and informal language in a formal report.

Keywords: formal report, informal report

Formality in Language and Reports

A large portion of technical and professional writing is given over to the writing of reports. Although there are many kinds of reports, each with its own purpose and context, all can generally be divided up into formal and informal reports. Which of these two genres is at play depends largely on the structure of the report, but also on the language. There is not only a concept of formal and informal reporting in business, but also of formal and informal tone. While each is tone is normally assumed to be paired with its counterpart, structure and language are two different issues that can be examined independently.

Formality in Language

      Tone of language has to do with what words and grammar structures are selected for the report. These words are selected, either consciously or unconsciously, to make the report seem polished and professional, or simple and direct.

Informal tone can range from familiar to mildly casual. While the concept of “informal tone” encompasses slang, street talk, and even politically incorrect terms, in the field of business it is usually more a matter of minor word choices. Informal tone favors active verbs, rather than passive. For example, “Ms. Kiehl found the report on the coffee table” would be used, rather than “the report was found on the coffee table by Ms. Kiehl.” Informal tone welcomes the use of personal pronouns, like I and you. “I found the report on your desk” is acceptable when informal tone is being used.

Formal language, on the other hand, has a more limited spectrum. While some professional jargon may be included, depending on the audience, there is no room for slang and conversational voice. Here, the passive voice is favored, and personal pronouns are to be avoided. “I found the report on your desk” would have to be converted to, “The report was found by (author) on the desk of (recipient).”

Formality in Reports

      Formal and informal tone is one of the variables that make up formal and informal reports. A person who never reads or writes reports might assume that it is the only variable, but this is very far from the truth. Most of what defines the formality of a report has to do with the structure.

An informal report is structured very simply, often as a memo. It usually has an introduction, but that is its only feature outside the body of the report (with the possible exception of appendices, which may be included when necessary). They are usually intended for an audience within the organization, although anyone who has seen news reports of scandalous leaked memos or emails knows that they can reach beyond their intended circle.

A formal report contains what is called by the Handbook of Technical Writing (Alred, Brusaw, Oliu) “front matter, body, and back matter,” each of which contains some of several features (p. 195). “Front matter” may include title page, abstract, table of contents, list of figures, list of tables, foreword, preface, and list of abbreviations and signals. The body may include the executive summary, introduction, text and headings, conclusions, recommendations, explanatory notes, and references/works cited. The “back matter” may contain appendices, bibliography, glossary, and index (p. 196). Note the inclusion of “introduction” and “conclusions” in the body section, and not even at the beginning and end (respectively) of the body section. This goes against the expectation of those whose writing education stopped at the five-paragraph essay.

Why Formality in Language should correspond with Formality in Report Style

     Having shown that formality in tone and format are two different things, are they always mutually inclusive? Should they be? Does an informal report need to be written with informal language? Does formal language belong in a formal report exclusively? What happens when they are mismatched?

An informal report can easily contain formal language. However, informal reports are generally read quickly, rather than studied in-depth like a formal report would be. Using formal language can slow down the comprehension process, especially when it is not expected. An executive expecting to be able to glance over a memo and understand the situation might be annoyed at having to decipher unnecessarily formal language. Formal writing can add a layer of complexity that is usually unnecessary at the memo level, which can cause readers to expend extra time and concentration on the report, or give up on reading it at all.

Likewise, informal language can be inserted into a formal report, but not without consequences. Informal language can cause the report to be taken less seriously. It can lend an air of unprofessionalism to the project, which can affect the amount of support or priority it gets from your colleagues. As formal reports are often available outside the company at which they were written, this unprofessional aura can reflect poorly on your company. Additionally, a style that lands very far on the informal end of the tonal spectrum can often contain careless language that might offend some, which can lead to grave problems both in and outside of the company.

Possible Exceptions

      The reasons why formality and informality remain segregated are understandable. But are there ever times when they should mix? Are there times when formal language can be used in an informal report, and vice versa?

A formal tone in an informal paper is often an inconvenience. However, there are times when it might be helpful. If the writer is especially trying to seem more competent, educated, or even just a better writer (for example, when vying for a position on a writing project), adding a more formal color to the language can help characterize the writer in these ways. An informal report on a serious matter might benefit from formal language to remind the audience of the gravity of the issue. It must be stated that readability be considered first, however, and decisions to change the tone of the report should not interfere with this priority.

An informal tone is usually not polished enough for a formal report. Yet it should be considered that informal language causes the reader to feel more empathy and trust towards the writer. It is easier for the reader to see someone who writes as they talk as a human being. Formality can lead to trust because of its precision, but informality lead to trust because of its humanity. Informal language is also easier for most people to read, ensuring that the paper is properly understood; indeed, that it is read at all. Audience is the greatest consideration in the prospect of deformalizing the language of a formal report. The writer must consider not only the primary audience, but also everyone who will come into contact with the paper. What might be acceptable to the primary recipient might be taken out of context by other readers, casting a bad impression of the writer, the project, or the company as a whole.


      Formality in language is usually matched to formality in report style for many reasons, including audience, context, and purpose. Nonetheless, it should be understood by writers that formality and language and formality in reporting are separate issues, and can be considered separately, although normally used together. Although these styles can be mixed, the decision to do so must be made under careful consideration.

List of Sources

Alred, Gerald J., Brusaw, Charles T., & Oliu, Walter E. (2009).  Handbook of Technical Writing (9th ed.).  New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.

Formal versus informal language. Language of Report Writing.  (2005.) Retrieved December 10, 2011, from

Shook, R.  Types of Reports [Class handout, ENGL 6470, R. Shook, Utah State University, 2011].

One of the classes I’m taking is Reading Theory and Document Design, and the first book I’ve finished reading for that class is Shaping Information: The Rhetoric of Visual Conventions by Charles Kostelnick and Michael Hassett.

The title can be taken quite literally: the book really is about conventions in visual communication. Traditions, habits, our “default settings,” and how they change, evolve, get stuck, and get unstuck.

Despite its black and white status–an odd choice for a book about design, especially one that costs $50–this is a beautiful book, with fascinating diagrams from throughout the ages splashed on nearly every page. If I took nothing else away from this book, it sparked my enthrallment with information design as a creative visual art. There are representations of information in here that are so far from anything I’d imagined, it’s like finding out for the first time that there are other religions, or other languages, in the world.

If you see my Mind Map about this book that I shared in a previous post, you’ll get an idea of the way Kostelnick and Hassett categorize these conventions: by discourse community, by currency, and by longevity, to name a few. One idea that was enlightening to me was the idea of “currency” as it applies to a convention–that is, how widespread it is. Some symbols are understood across cultures, such as a triangle for a warning sign (38). Others, such as company logos, might only be recognized by a few. (Then again if the logo in question is Coca-Cola or McDonald’s, I’d bet those have the highest currency of all.)

One important theme of this book is how much flexibility we have when working with design conventions. When do we have to toe the line? When can we rock the boat? What are the consequences of flouting tradition, and how can the world change if we don’t? These are all topics that deserve much discussion among the technical writing and information design community, and Kostelnick and Hassett do a fabulous job of getting the ball rolling, with solid examples and relatable hypotheticals. Although, as a small complaint, some of their categories needed fresh examples by the later chapters in the book. If I heard about the extinction of handwriting cultures or the reemergence of oversized initial letters one more time, I was going to scream.

I enjoyed this book for its thorough examination of visual conventions, its discussion of their place in rhetorical communication, and its pretty pictures. I will never look at an exploded diagram the same way again.

Probably my favorite aspect of technical writing is less on the writing side, and more on the information design side. I love creative visuals. You know, infographics and charts and stuff. Unfortunately, I’m not a designer (yet?), so it’s not something I’ve gotten to play around with much first-hand. Until I found out about the Information is Beautiful Awards. They’ve started running a monthly contest where they share some data, and ask people to turn them into a creative visualization. There are three divisions: interactive (for people who can do flash and stuff), static designs, and the “napkin challenge.” The napkin challenge is for people like me, who have creative ideas, but lack the design skills (and/or expensive software) to execute them. You can just sketch a prototype of your idea, write a little about how it works, and send it in. The idea is that it’s so simple and informal you can even draw it on a bar napkin.

I only found out about this contest about a week before the deadline, so I wasn’t sure if I’d have time to make something. But I was so enchanted with the idea that I couldn’t help reflecting on it until I had an idea that I liked, and then it was just a matter of setting aside an afternoon to put it into action.

You had to title your work, and I couldn’t think of anything good, so I awkwardly present to you “The Stars over Hollywood”!

WordPress is making the image come out kinda weird and squished, so if you want to see the full thing, it’s here.

So this is a sketch for an interactive design. The bigger the star, the more money it grossed worldwide. The “twinklier” it is (here demonstrated by lines emitting from the star, but in the interactive graphic the “twinkliness” should be animated), the more profitable it was, as related to percentage of budget. (If you have trouble reading the word “Profitability,” it’s because I accidentally wrote “Profability” and didn’t notice until it was hard to erase. I’m just not used to using pencil and paper!) The point is to be able to compare and contrast big “stars” that may not have been as profitable, with smaller ones that might have had a bigger return on investment, like that one tiny one with so many lines it looks like a dandelion puff–I forget what it was, but it made over 6000% profit.

This isn’t just an imagined sketch–I actually plotted these out. Deciding how to convert the numbers into circle sizes and shine-lines was the hardest part. I can’t remember exactly how many millimeters diameter I used for how many billions in revenue. I think with the lines, I gave 4 lines to anything that was 100% profitable, and an extra line for every 100% beyond that (eg, a 300% profitable movie got 6 lines), leaving the unprofitable films with no lines, as sort of “black holes.” There were even a few sloppy attempts at using a compass. The data set was for 5 years worth of films, so I only used the latest year (2011) and only plotted the first 60 alphabetic films, just as an example. In reality, you’d be able to choose the year, and narrow the field down to certain dramas. Oh, and I specified that when the user selects another year, the new image should slide in rotationally, as in a planisphere. You know, like those little cardboard charts you used to get when you were little with your copy of Odyssey Magazine? No?

They announce the “short list” February 20th. I hope I win, ’cause I’m unemployed, and first prize is $1000, and that would eradicate my credit card debt. But even if I don’t, I think this is really good practice for me as an information designer. And if I get short listed, maybe I’ll be noticed by a company who would hire me. If all goes well, I hope to enter their contest every month. Maybe I’ll even be able to enter the design and interactive categories in the future!