Dealing with ‘Properties of Materials’

February 12, 2015

A few months ago ‘S’ asked about the heading ‘Properties of Materials’ and wondered if it should be ‘Material Properties’ or ‘Materials Properties’ instead. Her colleague had said both alternatives were incorrect (I agree), and should be either ‘Material Properties’ OR ‘Material’s Properties’ (if only one material; ‘Materials’ Properties’ if more than one). She also wondered about a related table caption: ‘Carbon Steel and Cladding Material Properties’.

My response

In my opinion, these heading variations sound awkward, so the original ‘Properties of Materials’ is likely the best (I couldn’t find any dictionary or style guide advice to support this opinion, just my gut feeling about the original phrase’s ‘understandability’). Usually, I’d avoid ‘XXX of YYY’ and change it to ‘YYY’s XXX’, but for S’s example I would keep the ‘XXX of YYY’ construction as it’s much clearer to the reader.

Another possibility is to avoid ‘Materials’ altogether and just use ‘Properties’, or be specific as to the type of properties (see the mini table of contents on this Wikipedia page for examples: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_materials_properties), or use a synonym (however, don’t change it to ‘Materials’ Characteristics’ otherwise you’ll have a whole slew of sibilants your reader has to deal with).

As far as the table caption goes, consider deleting ‘Material’ from it; ‘Material’ is already implied based on the heading and the preceding text.

Bottom line: Ultimately you are writing for whomever is reading the document, so your aim is to keep your words as plain, simple, and—most importantly—as unambiguous as possible. Don’t force the reader into a situation where they have to stop reading to figure out the meaning.

(By the way, a Google search gave me 17 million hits for ‘Properties of Materials’ and only 300,000 for ‘Material Properties’, in case that matters.)

[Link last checked February 2015]

One comment

  1. When I studied Civil Engineering in the late 1960s, ‘Properties of Materials’ was a subject we studied. If I remember correctly it is also the title of a well-known textbook on the subject. I guess it’s become an item of engineering jargon as it is the well-accepted title of a branch of learning that crosses all engineering disciplines. So that wraps it up for us engineers – now what can we do for all ‘normal’ people…?!!!

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