English is evolving.. what to do? [etc.] (Long reply)

Subject: English is evolving.. what to do? [etc.] (Long reply)
From: Kent Newton <KentN -at- METRIX-INC -dot- COM>
Date: Thu, 7 Mar 1996 13:03:00 PST

I apologize for continuing this post which is slightly off-topic for this
list, but I promise to tie topic to tech writing, really.

On Thursday, March 07, 1996 11:17 AM, Trey Jones wrote:
>Linguistic rules are, by definition, grammar rules.. they just aren't
>necessarily Grammar Rules (which are the ones you find in Strunk &
White, in
>the MLA handbook, in 7th grade English teacher's heads, etc).

First off, linguistic rules cover much more than grammar, such as
semiotics and phonology. But I will limit my discussion to morphology
(word forms) and syntax (sentence structure), since that seems to be what
Mr. Jones means when he uses the term linguistics.

>The main difference between descriptive grammar and prescriptive Grammar
> is the notion that one set of rules is necessarily "correct", or
>"better" than another.

Languages change. The rules of standard grammar (note: "standard," not
"prescriptive," "descriptive," "correct," "incorrect," "formal," or
"informal") accommodate this change by stipulating the situations in
which a particular usage is appropriate (note: "appropriate," not
"permissable," "prohibited," "correct," or "incorrect").

>So (in the minimum of words), to the descriptive
>linguist, any set of rules that is consistently followed by a
>communicating group of users *is* grammatical.

Yes, but successful in communicating with whom? With other speakers of
their particular group, of course. The rules of standard usage help us
communicate with speakers outside our small group, that is, with the
broadest range of recipients possible. When a new usage pops up, not
everyone automatically embraces it (or even understands it). By sticking
with the standard usage, we reach them as well as those who _do_ relish
the new usage.

Not to belittle it, to denigrate its speakers, to offend any members of
this list, or to sound politically incorrect, but let's look at Black
English as an example. Black English is a rich, valid english dialect
with a long history. It is in no way a new usage. It meets Mr. Jones's
criteria for being grammatical in that its speakers successfully
communicate with each, is a valid form of English, and is exhaustively
studied and documented by linguists. But, if we were to write our
manuals in Black English, we would, at best, make our manuals more
difficult to understand for readers who didn't speak Black English, thus
limiting the usefullness of our manuals. That is contrary to our goal as
technical writers.

Therefore, while the language does change, our goal, as technical
writers, is to reach the widest possible audience . By jumping on the
newest usage (or any non-standard usage), we limit our effectiveness as
writers. That is not say that by excluding the usage we "degrade" it,
consider it "imperfect," or hamper its development. It simply means that
we want our work to be understand by as many readers as possible, which
is, after all, our goal. (See I promised to tie this in with the list's

As the usage gains acceptance, and as the rules of standard grammar
expand to accommodate it, we can confidently include it in our work
without fear of confusing our readers. Until then, be aware that using
anything other than standard usage may limit the effectiveness of your
Kent Newton
Senior Technical Writer
Metrix, Inc.
kentn -at- metrix-inc -dot- com

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