You or he/it?

Subject: You or he/it?
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: TECHWR-L <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 21 Jun 2006 09:48:00 -0400

Anonymous wondered: <<I'm in the midst of a (major) disagreement at my place of employment. Since beginning my career as a Technical Writer, I've had it pounded into me that we are to use the "you", eliminate "it/he/she", keep it informal and to the point, and use present tense WHENEVER possible. Make it simple and easy to follow.>>

You should be able to find any number of textbooks on technical writing, and any number of user manuals from Adobe, Microsoft, etc. to support your case.

<<We now have a new Japanese Project Leader who wishes me to create a completely new, FORMAL format, eliminating you, sprinkling it/he liberally, and generally, creating a document that (in my opinion only) would be very difficult to read through, especially for our Target Audience. (Administrative IT personnel)...>>

In user documentation, the most important criterion with respect to pronouns is that the actor must always be clear. "You" is rarely necessary in documentation if you use the imperative voice ("do x" instead of "you should do x" or "you're so screwed now that you've done X" <g>), so the project leader may actually have a good case to make here if you're overusing "you". Similarly, there's nothing wrong with "it" if you're using this correctly as a pronoun with a clear referrant.

"He" is generally accepted as a bad choice unless you're specifically referring to male subjects; the overwhelming modern trend in the West is towards gender-neutral writing, and given that your Japanese project leader may be new to this discourse community, it's worthwhile helping them to understand that by adopting a gender-specific style, they would be annoying many readers and embarrassing themself. Fear of public embarrassment is a powerful motivating force in all cultures, but particularly so in Chinese culture--and I'd guess Japanese culture too, but don't quote me on that.

Project leaders are often very sympathetic to the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach. Without being confrontational*, ask the project leader what problem they are trying to solve, ask them to produce evidence (not opinion or personal preference) that this really is a problem, and ask them to provide high-quality examples of the style they're asking you to try. Sometimes you can adopt some of their style choices (not all) and thereby reach a compromise in which both of you "win": they see that you've given in to some of their demands, and are more likely to accept some of your demands in return.

* "I'd like to work with you to find an approach that works for both of us, but most importantly for the reader. Let's define the design criteria here. We have the following situations we need to cover in the writing [e.g., defining the actor]. What do you dislike about the current approach? How would you fix it? How about the following solution instead?"

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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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RE: fwd: you or he/it: From: Dan Goldstein

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