Re: Display or appear (Was: Can "either" be used ... )

Subject: Re: Display or appear (Was: Can "either" be used ... )
From: Bruce Byfield <bbyfield -at- axionet -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Fri, 05 Oct 2001 09:50:07 -0700

Mark L. Levinson wrote:

If Shakespeare's readers and audiences were overwhelmed by the
beauty of his language, good for Shakespeare. If readers of
technical writing notice the language at all, not so good.
Our purpose as technical writers is not to attract attention to our writing, and any non-standard grammar or innovative
terminology attracts attention to the writing.

My point - since you seemed to have missed it - is not about Shakespeare's beautiful language. In parenthesis, an elegant turn of phrase is one of the easiest parts of writing. Many people can turn the trick by the time they're fourteen, and it isn't enough to make anyone a great writer. Organization, for instance, is much more important, whether it's plotting in a playwright's case, or arranging sections in a tech-writer's.

My point is that the worry devoted to grammar does very little to improve writing, no matter how that improvement is defined. In the case of tech-writing, I'd define effective work as complete, concise, precise, and clear - and suggest that a writer should be more concerned with reaching these goals than with nitpicking details of usage that the average member of the audience won't notice anyway. Not that grammar is completely unimportant, but it is secondary compared to these goals; for example, it can help clarity, but isn't enough by itself to achieve clarity.

Yet, strangely, while almost everyone can remember at least the odd grammatical term or rule, we hardly even have a vocabulary, much less guidelines for these other goals. Most people emerge from high school haunted by grammar, yet barely able to assemble even a paragraph. And, while people post regularly asking about grammar, questions about organizing material are much rarer. This, I suggest, is a misplaced priority.

You can write a grammatical sentence without saying anything useful. Conversely, you can write a sentence with several errors in it, and still manage to communicate.

I agree that technical writing shouldn't call attention to itself. But that brings up an interesting point: many examples of so-called proper grammar, such as the phrasing to move a preposition from the end of a sentence, call attention to themselves by being awkward and stilted. Therefore, by the criterion of being unobtrusive, they should be avoided. However, by the criterion of grammatical correctness, they should be used.

And please note that it's not a case of innovating if you end a sentence in a preposition, either. This form has been widespread in English for as long as we have records. In fact, it is probably more natural-sounding to many people than the allegedly correct usage.

So, which would you use?

Bruce Byfield 604.421.7177 bbyfield -at- axionet -dot- com

"I work for the pleasure of stopping,
I stop for the pleasure of beer."
-The Mollys, "The Lang Town"


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