Overuse of gerunds in headings?

Subject: Overuse of gerunds in headings?
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: TECHWR-L <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>, William Turner <wturner -at- force10networks -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 04 Apr 2006 20:53:02 -0400

William Turner reports: <<I have worked in several Pubs departments where the standard heading style was defined as requiring gerunds. That works fine for me when the subject is Installing, Configuring, Restoring...stuff like that.>>

Indeed, it works well in any situation where the heading introduces a section of text that describes an action. The problem is that not every section describes an action; a contextual overview, for example, describes the key principles you need to know before you perform any of those actions (e.g., a typography primer in a desktop publishing manual).

In cases like these, it pays to remember that a style guide is a _guide_, not a set of unbreakable laws. In fact, apart from the unfortunately named "Hart's Rules"*--the author's no relation to me so far as I'm aware--I'm not aware of any "style lawbooks" or "style rulebooks"; they're all "guides". The problem with rigid stylistic proclamations is the infamous hammer problem: if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and you won't have much luck using it with screws, bolts, glue, clamps, etc.

* More info.: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hart's_Rules

<<However, for an introductory chapter or section, am I breaking a well-established standard by calling it, for example, "Introduction to..." or "Overview of..."? I usually see, in similar situations, that the author uses "Understanding ..." in order to conform to gerund orthodoxy. For some unknown reason, that "Understanding ..." bugs me.>>

I have no problem with "understanding", but I agree with you that in some cases you're really trying to insert a screw or fasten a bolt by pounding it on the head with a hammer. The question to ask is always the following: What are we trying to accomplish with this heading? If the answer really is to describe an action, then by all means use a gerund.

On the other hand, if the answer it to describe a noun or provide context, a nominalization is often the best way to go. That's why, for example, the dominant model for articles in peer-reviewed journals follows the IMRDAL pattern: Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion, Acknowledgments, and Literature. Nary a gerund in the lot, and yet the model works so well that nobody has been tempted to replace it... and trust me, if you give a bunch of editors any opening to revise a publication or style guide, we'll take it. <g>

Bottom line: Use a style guide for guidance, not to replace your brain. Guides provide proven recipes that work well in many situations, but they don't cover all situations. When they don't, it's up to you to figure out what you're trying to accomplish and proceed accordingly.

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Geoff Hart ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca
(try geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com if you don't get a reply)
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Overuse of gerunds in headings: From: William Turner

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