RE: The 'user' in User Manual

Subject: RE: The 'user' in User Manual
From: "Combs, Richard" <richard -dot- combs -at- Polycom -dot- com>
To: "Lauren" <lt34 -at- csus -dot- edu>, "Techwr-l" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 5 Feb 2007 10:10:48 -0700

Lauren wrote:

> I'm still not a grammarian. "Neutral Stance" as I used it
> was a concept that I was trying to convey and not a
> grammatical rule. Neutrality is necessary in technical
> writing. Grammar is used in all documentation.
> Names of grammar rules are important when studying grammar,
> but I don't know the names of the rules myself. Was the
> concept vague? Are you objecting to the content of my
> message or the form? Is it really necessary to discuss form
> over content?

I wasn't objecting, I was attempting to clarify and enlighten. Sorry if
that offended you.

Your approach to tech writing strikes me as quite sensible, clear, and
direct. But your repeated insistence that, like Humpty Dumpty, you can
use a word any way you choose invites confusion and misunderstanding.
What you insist on calling "neutral" is in fact the 2nd person
imperative. Your "neutral" sentences have a subject, that subject is
implied, and it is "you."

This isn't a matter of grammatical terms vs. concepts. The only way to
discuss a concept is by referring to it with some term or word that's
the agreed-upon _name_ of that concept. The trouble with making up your
own names for concepts is that you either have to go to a lot of trouble
to explain what your unique name means (as you had to in this thread) or
be misunderstood.

If you tell a new writer, "Don't use 2nd person voice," you risk
confusing this writer and not getting the result you desire. If you tell
her, "Don't use 1st, 2nd, or 3rd person," and she knows that this makes
no sense (there is no 4th choice), you risk having her dismiss your
other quite sensible suggestions as well.

It's not that I'm a pedant who's memorized a bazillion arcane terms and
rules -- well, I am something of a pedant, I suppose. :-) But for this
discussion, for example, I had to do a couple of quick searches to make
sure I didn't confuse grammatical voice with grammatical mood (Wikipedia
can be your friend). You seem to value clarity and accuracy when writing
technical user manuals. I'm just proposing that clarity and accuracy are
also valuable when writing about writing.


Richard G. Combs
Senior Technical Writer
Polycom, Inc.
richardDOTcombs AT polycomDOTcom
rgcombs AT gmailDOTcom


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