Re: Giving objects emotions and other human characteristics

Subject: Re: Giving objects emotions and other human characteristics
From: David Hailey <FAHAILEY -at- WPO -dot- HASS -dot- USU -dot- EDU>
Date: Wed, 17 Jul 1996 10:50:02 -0600

Hi all,
SNIP>>The only other technical writer at my office has
joined sides with the editor who bans apostrophes. He says
that contractions are a sign of "sloppy" writing. He insists
inanimate objects can't use an apostrophe to show possessive
because objects can't possess and for clarity and
consistency, I shouldn't use possessive forms with people's
names either.

Answer
One could possibly argue that to give an inanimate object
the power to poses is an example of pathetic fallacy (giving
human emotion to non-humans--dogs, cars, houses, etc.), but
I would call that silly. Of course objects can poses; any
time you can say, "the wing of the airplane" you can say,
"the airplane's wing."

There are sometimes restrictions as to what objects can do
(different from what they can poses). Some people argue
that corporations cannot talk--only their spokes people can.
I am not one of them. . . but then I will gladly split an
infinitive, end a sentence with "in," and invent new words
just for th'funovit.

As to apostrophes, some anal English teacher taught somebody
that good writers don't use apostrophes and the somebody
believed the teacher. What the teacher didn't know (or
teach) was this rule is specific to scholarly rhetoric that
goes back to the 16th Century. Only humanities scholars
write that way today, and only they follow that rule today.
If you want to sound like a 16th century scholar, avoid
apostrophes and use the archaic diction of the OED. Of
course it helps to be archaic if you decide that the "rules"
of English are prescriptive rather than descriptive and are
rigid rather than flexible.

In fact, the language is in a constant state of change. We
can fight it, or we can watch it and enjoy the show. "White
paper" makes a perfect example. Originally, " white papers"
were specifically "government position papers." But go to
any engineering program that writes lots of grant proposals,
and you will find that "government" has dropped away. Now
"white paper" is in common use as a "position paper." This
is, in fact, one of the reasons I never let my students use
dictionary definitions--they are typically about fifty years
out of date. Even when they contain more recent information
(especially technical information), they are often written
by people who don't know what they are talking about [sic].
How can we depend on an information source that is wrong or
incomplete as often as it is right?

So what am I trying to say? What I'm always trying to say:
Find out what the readers need and want and give it to them
as best we can. They provide our rules--not the style
guides.

But, as always, cogito ergo falsus sum.

David Hailey (also known as Dr. Doom)
Assistant Professor
Professional Writing/Hypermedia
Utah State University

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