How Patent Can Patents Be

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Paper draft on metaphors in patents

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    How patent can patents be? Exploring the impact of figurative language

    on the engineering patents genre

    Carmen Sancho Guinda and Ismael Arinas Pelln

    Universidad Politcnica de Madrid

    ABSTRACT

    This paper examines the import of figurative language (specifically of conceptual and

    grammatical metaphors) in the discourse of engineering patents, a genre hardly

    researched for stylistic and pedagogical purposes and traditionally regarded as highly

    impersonal. To that end, a corpus of over 300 US electro-mechanical patents has been

    analysed with the aid of a concordancing tool and applying a threefold convergent

    framework that gathers the metafunctions of Systemic Functional Lingustics (Halliday

    1978, 1985), the Applied Linguistic Approach to Metaphor (Low 2008) and the

    Metadiscursive Approach (Hyland 2000, 2005). Findings reveal a complex network of

    metaphorical schemata, most non-deliberate, which constitute a tripartite choice

    dependent on the legal culture, the discipline and, to a lesser extent, on the authorial

    voice. It also binds patent writers into a community of practice (Wenger 1998) sharing

    a phraseological repertoire basically acquired by imitation and whose creative and

    confident use requires explicit instruction.

    Keywords: Patents, Figurative language, Community of practice, Metadiscourse

    Systemic-functional metafunctions

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    1. Introduction and method: narrowing the focus of the Applied Metaphor Approach

    Over the last two decades, a series of influential studies on the discursive application of

    metaphor in the academic and political fields and in economics journalese (e.g. Cameron and

    Low 1999, Cameron 2003, Charteris-Black 2004, Zanotto, Cameron and Cavalcanti 2008, White

    2004) have paved the way for the current research into the pragmatic impact of tropes in

    other specific professional discourses and even genres. The latest monographic issue of

    Ibrica (Spring 2009), the journal of the European Association of Languages for Specific

    Purposes, is a clear exponent of this shift of interest from the previous research on metaphor

    and metonymy at a sentential level and within the exclusive domain of literature, to these

    recent trends. Yet much remains to be investigated as to the functions performed by tropes in

    the communication of specialized discourse communities, and even more so in those whose

    discourses have been traditionally labelled as faceless. This paper attempts to bridge that gap

    by exploring the discourse of engineering patents from a cognitive, metadiscursive and

    systemic-functional perspective, and intends to serve a double purpose: didactic and

    disciplinary. On the one hand, it tries to facilitate the comprehension and production of a

    professional genre hardly accessed in the ESP classroom. On the other, to enrich the existing

    descriptions of the genre through a blended framework virtually untapped in this type of

    documents.

    Our methodology comprises the scrutiny of a corpus of 333 US patents1 for

    electromechanical devices granted from 1998 to 2009 (the most common inventions among

    our technical colleagues at our polytechnic university) with the aid of the concordancing

    program AntConc 3.2.1w (Anthony 2007)2 and the application of a threefold theoretical

    framework in which Systemic Functional Linguistics (Halliday 1978, 1985), henceforth SFL, the

    Applied Linguistic Approach to Metaphor (Low 2008) and the Metadiscursive Approach

    (Hyland 2000, 2005) converge. To avoid unnecessary taxonomical complexities we simplified

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    the SFL framework to its three semantic metafunctions (i.e. ideational, interpersonal, textual)3,

    under which the metaphorical and metonymic occurrences and their pragmatic functions may

    be classified and discussed. Likewise, following Lows deconstruction of metaphors in book

    reviews, the Applied Metaphor Approach will draw on the traditional metaphorical schemata

    proposed by Lakoff and Johnsons Conceptual Theory of Metaphor (1980). Finally, we will pay

    special attention to the interplay between the metadiscursive functions of boosting

    (foregrounding) and hedging (mitigation) as the internal strategic workings underlying the text.

    2. A systemic overview of the genre

    Lexicographic sources broadly define patent as an official licence or right from the

    government granting a person or business the right to make or sell a particular article for a

    certain period, and by extension the term may refer to the invention so protected (Chambers

    Giant Dictionary and Thesaurus 2007: 556). However, from a linguistics standpoint and

    attending to our convergent framework, patents seem to mean much more. To begin with, the

    ideational content of any patent document must fulfil three validity criteria: utility, feasibility

    and novelty in combination with non-obviousness (in Europe called inventive step). Simply put,

    inventors must realistically solve problems and plug lacks left by previous patents (the prior

    art) in the same technical field and present a new product whose purpose and applications

    should not be inferred from previous patent inventions or their combined elements, all this

    claim as much exclusivity as possible without trespassing somebody elses turf. In essence,

    these three ruling principles coincide with those observed by Hyland (2000: 176) in research

    articles: relevance, credibility and novelty. In our case, an invention is relevant when useful,

    and the claiming of its property tacitly entails technical feasibility, which is but a sort of

    credibility. The notion of maximum property needs clarification though: Whom does it really

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    affect or condition? Certainly it is no validity criterion for patent examiners, judges or lawyers

    when dealing with the foreseeable legal effects of a patent application and litigation might be

    involved, precisely because the ownership claimed seems excessive. Conversely, it is a validity

    criterion for inventors and investors, who aspire to the amplest property and with it to the

    most substantial profits.

    As to the information conveyed by the text in accordance with these validity criteria,

    the online brochure of the WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organisation)4 distinguishes

    three main informative strands: technical (provided by the description and drawings), legal

    (contained in the claims) and business-relevant (bibliographical data such as the title of the

    invention, patent date, names of the inventors and patent examiners, attorneys or agents, and

    references to former similar patents and other technical documents). The structure of these

    sections or headings (bibliographical data, description and drawingsthese latter in a

    separate section), are strictly dictated by the codes and regulations of each country. In the

    USA, for example, patent applications must abide by the Consolidated Patent Rules, Title 37

    of the US Code of Federal Regulations (CPR37 for short) and Title 35 of the United States Code

    (USC35). The patent applicants use as a reference for their application the Manual of Patent

    Examining Procedures, abbreviated as MPEP.5

    In the light of Genre Analysis (Swales 1990, Bhatia 1993, Bazerman 1999), the textual

    component of every patent involves a number of moves or rhetorical shifts that may span

    across several sections or headings in the text. Arinas (2009) distinguished five basic moves

    that could be entitled property scope, field and application, gaps in the prior art, physical and

    functional description and cautionary statements. Their functions and sections most likely to

    embrace them are shown in the table below.

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    MOVES FUNCTIONS SECTIONS

    Property scope Delimit the invention, setting of boundaries

    Claims

    Field and application Indication of finality and context of the invention

    Brief summary of the invention

    Gaps in prior art

    Antecedents (previous related inventions) and their evaluation

    Background of the invention or prior art

    Physical and functional description

    Display of components and explanation of how they work

    Detailed description (may include drawings/graphics)

    Cautionary statements

    Optional alternatives and specifications about the versatility of format and applications

    Table 1: Rhetorical moves in the patent document and sections usually associated

    Lastly, the interpersonal meaning transmitted by patents is subjected to a subtle

    interplay of two strategic workings: hedging and boosting, which operate at a metadiscursive

    level (Hyland 2000, 2005). While hedges emphasize subjectivity, are open to negotiation and

    alternative viewpoints and withhold commitment to propositions, boosters highlight certainty,

    do not leave room for other opinions and mark involvement and solidarity with the addressee.

    In patents hedging is fundamentally oriented towards imprecision and boosting towards a

    promotional evaluations and an apparent solidarity with the reader which is actually intended

    to avoid litigation. Let us think, for instance, of the vague language commonly employed in the

    denomination of well-known patented objects, such as vacuum cleaners (e.g. cyclonic

    separating apparatus, dust collection unit, mulcher, etc.) or in the interactional formulas On