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Whenever I see one of these overly punctilious threads about editing on
the Techwr-l list, I'm reminded of a story told by Thomas Jefferson.
Sitting in the committee that was drafting the American Declaration of
Independence, he began to be noticeably irritated by all the changes
that were being suggested by his work:
. "I was sitting," he observes, "by Dr. Franklin, who perceived that I
was not insensible to these mutilations. 'I have made it a rule,' said
he, 'whenever in my power, to avoid becoming the draftsman of papers to
be reviewed by a public body. I took my lesson from an incident, watch I
will relate to you. When I was a journeyman printer, one of my
companions, an apprentice hatter, having served out his time, was about
to open shop for himself. His first concern was to have a handsome
sign-board, with a proper inscription. He composed it in these words,
"John Thompson, Hatter, makes and sells Hats for ready Money," with a
figure of a hat subjoined. But he thought he would submit it to his
friends for their amendments. The first he showed it to, thought the
word "hatter " tautologous, because followed by the words makes hats,
which showed he was a hatter. It was struck out. The next observed, that
the word "makes " might as well be omitted, because his customers would
not care who made the hats; if good and to their mind, they would buy,
by whomsoever made. He struck it out. A third said he thought the words
"for ready money " were useless, as it was not the custom of the place
to sell on credit. Every one, who purchased, expected to pay. They were
parted with; and the inscription now stood, "John Thompson sells hats"
"'Sells' hats?" says his next friend; "why, nobody will expect you to
give them away. What then is the use of that word?" It was stricken out,
and "hats " followed, the rather, as there was one painted on the board.
So his inscription was reduced ultimately to "John Thompson," with the
figure of a hat subjoined."
When I was teaching first year composition at a university, I used this
story to point out that, while editing is valuable, there's also a
possibility of editing past the point of any meaningful advantage.
The same applies to threads of this kind. Instead of agonizing over
where to place the hyphen (which is the debate in over half these
posts), writers need to be aware that there is often not a single
grammatically correct answer. Then, they need to consider whether the
meaning will be affected seriously by their decision or not. In many of
these posts, they should answer "No," and move on to more important
Haiku error messages aside, technical documentation is rarely poetry,
where every word counts.
Bruce Byfield bbyfield -at- axionet -dot- com 604.421.7177
"So that the meek will inherit the earth
Because they haven't the strength to refuse it..."
-Leon Rosselson, "What It's All For"
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