RE: Grammar

Subject: RE: Grammar
From: "Pinkham, Jim" <Jim -dot- Pinkham -at- voith -dot- com>
To: "David Hailey" <david -dot- hailey -at- usu -dot- edu>, <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 25 Mar 2009 11:13:10 -0500

It seems to me, David, that you use "grammar" here in a way that could
be construed as interchangeable with "style," and I'm not sure that
blurring that distinction is altogether helpful. I'm inclined to think
of grammar as more normative, and style as more preference.

Also, while conceding that grammar evolves, and necessarily must because
language evolves -- and further conceding that this development of the
language is accelerating ever more swiftly -- I'm not quite willing to
accept the thesis that grammar is purely descriptive rather than
proscriptive. I'd submit that grammar rules facilitate our common
understanding as we communicate. If grammar merely describes, rather
than guides, just how much utility does it really have?

Just my two cents. Back to lurkdom.

Jim

-----Original Message-----
From: techwr-l-bounces+jim -dot- pinkham=voith -dot- com -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com
[mailto:techwr-l-bounces+jim -dot- pinkham=voith -dot- com -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com] On
Behalf Of David Hailey
Sent: Wednesday, March 25, 2009 9:32 AM
To: techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com
Subject: RE: Grammar

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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Follow-Ups:

References:
Re: Wrong? Poor style? OK?: From: Michael West
RE: Grammar: From: David Hailey

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