Re: Things not to put after a full stop

Subject: Re: Things not to put after a full stop
From: Sean Hower <hokumhome -at- freehomepage -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 23 Jul 2002 09:09:08 -0700 (PDT)

Bruce Byfield wrote:
Any of the words you mention can be used to start a sentence. Many
teachers tell you that they can't, because they don't want you to write
sentence fragments, and these words lend themselves to writing in
sentence fragments. However, you can use most of these words at the
start of a sentence that is correct by the strictest grammatical rules.

Spot on. The first thing I learned in linguistics was that all of these rules school teaches you aren't necessarily rules of how language is actually spoken. The grammar that school teachers have hammered onto us is a human construct, a set of rules that are supposed to describe how English (or any language for that matter) works. The problem is, as with any human endevour, those rules are flawed and so they do not adequately describe how people speak. People are completely fluent in their native language LONG before anyone ever goes to school and begins learning those rules. And even at an early age, a parent's efforts to enforce those rules are for naught if the people who surround the child do not use them in their speach. Kids learn language at their own pace, in their own way, regardless of any efforts a parent puts into making them conform to school grammar.

So, how do we know when something is ungrammatical, because when someone says something that's wrong, it's pretty painfully obvious. Well, our brains are hardwired for language. The going theory is that language is a group of settings, switches if you will, that get turned on and off depending on a person's native/first language. When someone says something that violates how those switches are set up, we notice it. "I the dog saw" is clearly ungrammatical because English is an SVO language. It is perfectly grammatical as a transliteration from a Japanese sentence "Watashi ha inu wo mimashita." because Japanese is a SOV.

Dick mentioned native speakers specifically, because in linguistic research, you have to use native speakers. There are several good reasons for this. First, the native speaker was more than likely raised in the culture that speaks the language in question. This gives the native speaker a history and solid background for language use and innovation. Second, the native speaker will know many subtle uses of langauge that the non-native speaker will not. Third, nobody can learn a second/foreign language to total native-language-speaker proficiency. They can be come fluent, can get really really close, but they will never be as good as a native speaker. So, in linguistics at least, it's best to talk about native speakers.

That said, a non-native speaker of a language can, and my own personal experience shows that they do, notice ill-formed utterances. When you learn a second language, you go through the same process as learning your native lanuage. Your brain has to encode for the language and start throwing those switches. Once those switches are set, the second language speaker will feel the same reaction towards an ill-formed utterance in the second language as they do with their native language. It's a nice ego boost once you get to that point too. :-)

That said, you have to remember that you should conform to any _WRITING_ conventions that are in standard use by the audience for whom you write _without_ sacrificng clarity. The classic example of the neccessity to break the school-based grammar rules for clarity is "To boldy go where no man has gone before" To make this grammatical, you'd have to come up with something like "To go boldy where before no man has gone" or something like that. Anyway, the grammatical revision is...well...grotesque. So we're left with having to use the first sentence. That's fine, because technical writing, and writing in general, isn't about showing off how well you can conform to arcane, outdated and ill-conceived (see Bruce's article on prescriptive/descriptive grammar) rules. It's about communication and consistency. And if that means breaking those school rules....SO BE IT!!! <evilLaugh /> If that means useing those school rules...SO BE IT!!! <notSoEvilLaugh /> If that means hiring chimps to pound on a typewriter and hope they write a user guide....well, that's plain silly, so you should think before you try it.

Sean Hower - tech writer

"Whatever you do, do NOT let your editorial decisions be made by the squiggly spell-checking lines in Word!" ~Keith Cronin, Techwr-l irritant ;-)

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