RE: Grammar

Subject: RE: Grammar
From: David Hailey <david -dot- hailey -at- usu -dot- edu>
To: "techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 25 Mar 2009 08:31:57 -0600

I piled on Janice a bit harder than I would have liked. She asked me if I would point out any grammar errors she might have made. Rather than point to any specifics in her posting, I would rather point to the grammar mistakes we all make every day.

1. Back in the ninth grade we were taught "grammar." In reality that is not grammar; it is a study of mechanical processes and a truly insignificant part of what grammarians study. Even undergraduate writing classes barely touch on the larger issue that is grammar. Let me try to explain.

2. What are we doing here? What is the genre of this posting? Some might suggest "email," but that would be wrong. Email is not a genre. Genre theorists argue that genres are defined by their exigency or purpose, their specific audience, the specific demands on the author, and the structure of the document (both physically and conceptually). Proposal would be a genre, or love letter, or letter of recommendation, or progress report. These all have clear exigency and purpose, identifiable audiences, and identifiable demands on the author. Moreover, they have definable structures.

Why is that important? You cannot evaluate the quality of writing without knowing the genre. You do not use the same evaluative filters on a scholarly manuscript that you use on a NSF proposal. They have completely different grammars and completely different style guides describing those grammars.

3. So what is this genre? I suggest it is a posting in a technical writing forum. Or more specifically, it is a posting in a TECHWR-L forum. And what is our style guide? I suggest there is none. That is why postings are often bordering on incomprehensible. You look at a page that involves someone quoting someone quoting someone else and it can be extremely difficult to figure out who is actually doing the posting. Some of us post above the message we are discussing. Some of us post below the message we are discussing, and some of us mix the other messages in with ours. Where is the rule covering that? We have no grammars specific to this forum so we bring grammars from other places or invent them. Some use formal signature blocks, others do not. Some use salutations; others do not. We are all still establishing a set of grammars for our genre.

4. This is the point I have made again and again in this forum: Grammar is in a constant state of evolution, and with the advent of digital media it is evolving at a rate never seen before in history. A few centuries ago grammarians argued that punctuation should be used like music notation: quarter pause for the comma, half pause for the colon and semicolon, and full stop for the period. In England the period is still called a full stop, and a few people still subscribe to the musical notation model. One day there will be grammars that describe what we finally settle on in our various forum. But the grammars will describe what we settle on, not prescribe what we should settle on. Grammar users vote with their feet. The split infinitive rule is silly, and will be completely gone in another generation because everybody will simply ignore it.

5. I believe as professional writers we need to realize that grammar is not a bunch of rules we learned in high school (and later in composition classes in college), but something that is much larger and much more complicated. To deal with the evolution of grammar we need to think as we work, and not subscribe to rules we learned in HS. And we need to be flexible -- able to cope with all of the new genres we will see in our digital world.

6. As to all of the errors we are making? There is no way of telling what is and what is not an error because we have no grammar specific to our genre. If I apply MLA, I will get completely different errors (e.g., our sloppy citations). If I apply APA, I get another set of errors. I have a colleague who has quit using caps in his email -- why, I have never fathomed. The grammars we use are and must be dynamic.

David E. Hailey, Jr., Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Professional and Technical Communication
Utah State University

david -dot- hailey -at- usu -dot- edu
1 435 797 2741


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