Two posts ago we explored the parallel structure employed by either/or and neither/nor constructions. In the last post we discussed the use of respective and respectively, including how effective writing often avoids these two words. In this post we’ll examine the use of two related but different words: activate and actuate.
Both activate and actuate mean to make active or cause to operate. But each word has a different secondary meaning. Activate also means to convert into a reactive form. Actuate also means to motivate to act in a particular way.
Some technical writing gurus believe that writers should use actuate only with mechanical processes. If that is the convention of your audience, then follow the convention. Where no convention exists, however, I believe a more effective approach entails examining the context of the intended message in light of the secondary meanings of activate and actuate.
For instance, consider the example sentences in the cropped graphic above. The first describes a mechanical process. Clearly the gears cause the drop mechanism to operate. But rewriting the sentence with the secondary meanings of activate and actuate reveals why actuate is the more effective word.
The gears motivate the drop mechanism to act in a particular way. [actuate]
Now let’s consider the second example sentence. This sentence does not describe a mechanical process and so according to some technical writing gurus should use activate and not actuate.
The acid solution motivates the circuit to act in a particular way. [actuate]
We could apply the same test to the legal process entailed in the third example sentence.
The client motivates the contract provision to act in a particular way. [actuate]
When choosing between words with very similar but slightly different meanings, I find it helpful to rewrite the sentence using the differing secondary meanings of each word. This exercise usually reveals the truth: Either one word will seem more appropriate than the other, or each word will seem just as appropriate.
So activate and actuate with secondary meanings. More precision in language leads to more effective technical writing, and that leads to a more effective presentation not only of your message but also of you and your brands to your audience.