Re: Wrong? Poor style? OK?

Subject: Re: Wrong? Poor style? OK?
From: Janice Gelb <Janice -dot- Gelb -at- Sun -dot- COM>
To: techwr-l mailinglist <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 25 Mar 2009 17:41:36 +1100

On 25/03/09 04:30 PM, David Hailey wrote:
> 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.
> [snip]

I will try to address some of your comments below.

* While some style varies according to different style guides
and organization conventions (for example, whether to use the
serial comma or how to format a footnote), other rules are
standard across most if not all grammar recommendations.

* I agree that you certainly can improve your writing by reading and
writing as much as you can. I do not agree that "knowledge of grammar
rules does nothing to improve writing." One learns a certain amount
of grammar from listening to people speak and absorbing that data
subconsciously. However, that doesn't substitute for a good foundation
in grammar education. People's spoken language varies according to
socioeconomic class, level of completed education, ethnic background,
and a myriad of other factors. Merely listening to this mixture will
not necessarily provide you with a solid foundation of grammar and
syntax that will be generally understood and accepted.

Also, spoken communication is generally more informal than written
communication, which requires a higher degree of rule adherence.
Because you can't know the entire audience that will be reading
your document, using a common set of rules ensures better
comprehension for all readers.

> 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.

The web definitely presented some new challenges to technical
communication, and I have been part of several efforts to address
those challenges, including a published style guide for technical
communicators. Describing step-by-step processes or writing
for online presentation doesn't necessarily mean that all previous
grammatical rules are automatically no longer relevant, though. I
can't think of any cases where either of those factors would affect
the necessity for subject-verb agreement, for example.

* You provide a quote from my response:

"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."

And then say, "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?"

I acknowledge my error in saying "splitting a preposition" when
I meant "splitting an infinitive." However, in this case, there
certainly is a generally accepted rule that one should not end
a sentence with a preposition whenever possible.

> 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.

I would be very interested in a list of the pure grammatical,
as opposed to style, errors that I made in my previous message.
(Chicago, MLA, and APA primarily provide style guidelines rather
than grammar rules.)

> 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.

I am willing to change with the times (if not "the grammars")
if established rules are shown to hinder clear, consistent, and
accurate communication. I am, however, not willing to throw
out rules that provide such communication without evidence
that they are no longer useful, as opposed to just being "old"
or evolving out of the other languages on which English was based.

* Finally, you say "All style guides do is describe rules we
already know." As someone who values clear, consistent, and
accurate communication, and someone who edits writers for a
living, all I can say is that I really wish this were true :->

-- Janice

Janice Gelb | The only connection Sun has with
janice -dot- gelb -at- sun -dot- com | this message is the return address

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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
RE: Wrong? Poor style? OK?: From: David Hailey

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