RE: Wrong? Poor style? OK?

Subject: RE: Wrong? Poor style? OK?
From: David Hailey <david -dot- hailey -at- usu -dot- edu>
To: Janice Gelb <Janice -dot- Gelb -at- Sun -dot- COM>, techwr-l mailinglist <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 24 Mar 2009 23:30:25 -0600

Hi Janice,

*Perhaps this is what you mean by being flexible, but most people who use phrasing like "old opinions
or prescriptions" are arguing for their demise, not their usage.*

Actually, few people love grammar more than me. But that is because I know what grammar is, and properly understood it is a description of usage, not a set of rules -- descriptive not prescriptive.

*" certainly agree that you should think about what you're doing. I'm afraid I disagree that "being fexable is much more useful than following old pinions or prescriptions" because I often hear his argument being used as license to ignore grammar rules that are promulgated for a reason.*

Grammar rules are promulgated from a variety of sources: Chicago Manual of Style, Modern Language Association Style Guide, APA, Turabian Style Guide, MLA Guide for Research Papers, etc. I have and refer to them often. They agree on some things, disagree on many others. Which one do you use? Is it the source of truth? How would you know? In the end, I am not opposed to using style guides. You need them to write to different audiences in the styles they expect -- different styles for different audiences. But you need to know that style guides are conventions designed for different communities, not rules passed down by some God of Grammar.

*Most of the time, moving the preposition makes the sentence stronger. Similar arguments hold for not splitting prepositions and not using passive voice --*

I have never heard of splitting prepositions, though I have heard of splitting infinitives and I have heard of stranding prepositions. Splitting infinitives was a problem because the originators of grammar thought English was a Latin language, and in Latin it is impossible to split an infinitive, so they assumed that applied to English. But English evolved from Anglo Saxon (old English and old German). I see stranded prepositions in technical communication often, because technical writers typically don't know what one is and so don't know when they are stranding one.

*Perhaps those rules shouldn't be followed 100% of the time but most of the time they will improve one's writing and the people who promote their usage are not just being
old-fashioned and rigid.*

You improve your writing by reading and writing as much as you can. Test after test through the decades has demonstrated that knowledge of grammar rules does nothing to improve writing. Did somebody have to teach you grammar so you could learn to talk? We learn the rules of grammar as children. All style guides do is describe rules we already know.

*For example, should you absolutely, positively, ever ever end a phrase with a preposition? No, sometimes moving the preposition makes the phrase more awkward. However, I don't think that this means that one should then just cheerfully say "Oh, that's an old rule from when everyone spoke Latin so don't worry about it."*

No, actually that is the split-infinitive rule. Again, I have never heard of splitting a preposition. Does this come from a style guide that you can name?

Communication is about making yourself understood, not following rules. With the advent of WWW all kinds of new approaches to communication have risen. There were in no style guides, anywhere, that covered these new problems. We had to create new ones to work within these new environments -- I know, I was there, I have been in this environment since 1990, long before there was a WWW. Online help, with step-by-step processes presented yet another set of new grammatical problems.
You are welcome to embrace the 16th century (when people thought English was Latin) if you wish; don't split infinitives, don't end sentences with prepositions, insist on not using passive sentences, be as inflexible as you wish. As for me, I will evolve with the changing grammars of our language and the demands of the evolving media we face.

Finally, do you have any idea how many grammatical errors there were in your letter? If you are so fond of the rules, why don't you use them? I'll tell you why . . . it is physically impossible to know all of everybody's grammatical rules. You couldn't follow all of the rules no matter how hard you tried. Suppose you follow all of the rules of Chicago . . . you will be breaking rules in MLA and APA.

In the end, I do not say you should be flexible because I think you should go around breaking all of the rules of grammar; I think you should be flexible because the rules are evolving as the language evolves. Without flexibility, you are unable to change with the grammars. More importantly, you are unable to change with the demands of your many different audiences.

David Hailey, Jr., PhD
Associate Professor
Technical Communication
Utah State University
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Follow-Ups:

References:
Re: Wrong? Poor style? OK?: From: Nancy Allison
RE: Wrong? Poor style? OK?: From: Combs, Richard
RE: Wrong? Poor style? OK?: From: David Hailey
Re: Wrong? Poor style? OK?: From: Janice Gelb
RE: Wrong? Poor style? OK?: From: David Hailey
Re: Wrong? Poor style? OK?: From: Janice Gelb

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