Is grammar important?

Subject: Is grammar important?
From: "M. David Orr" <whitears -at- ORRNET -dot- COM>
Date: Fri, 22 May 1998 10:38:56 -0500

Here's a reply to several posts on the "Is grammar important?" thread:

>But what do you mean by grammar? I understood your message because you
>constructed your sentences (grammatical construction) in a way that I could
>understand, not because of any "graphical mental models, organization,
>audience-targeting of mini-manuals, job task analysis, appropriate screen
>graphics, and good indexing".

>If you use language, grammar is of vital importance.

>I'm currently helping to develop process writing skills in a large IT&T
>organization. Grammar is a key topic in the Effective Writing module, but I
>focus on syntax not split infinitives.

>Mark Dando
>danmcc -at- ozemail -dot- com -dot- au


Of course grammar is important. I'm a Southerner and right-brained to boot,
so I tend to overstate things to make a point. If we use language at all, we
have to use grammar.

I was assuming a certain basic grasp of grammar as a given and was really
thinking more about the amount of effort expended by editors and writers in
weeding out every nit of incorrect grammar like the split infinitive you
mentioned. It's easy to add an hour or more per page to a project if grammar
and formatting has to be absolutely perfect. For retail or highly political
documents, this time might be worth it; but for internal corporate documents
about systems that are going to change in six months anyway, I question
getting too particular. many clients aren't willing to pay for such

I was also questioning the focus on grammar, when other factors clearly are
more important in usability testing.

What we do at our business is establish style and grammatical conventions up
front and automate formatting with autotext and keyboard macros so that
writers write the stuff correctly the first time. We certainly read
documents for grammar and do spell checks, but we don't do a lot of
wordsmithing to be sure the text is pristine (couldn't be written better).
Nevertheless, we insist the writing be clear, crystal clear.

>Gee, I guess all the grammar I need to know I could learn from those
>frozen caveman lawyer bits on Saturday Night Live...

>..."me frighten big silver bird in sky"...

I love this one from Ben Anderson. It's funny, but it also illustrates a
point: the sentence is completely understandable, even with bad grammar. For
technical writing it's probably more important to worry whether Ben has
given complete information. How did "me" frighten big bird?(input) With gun?
What big bird do then? (output) What kind bird was big silver? (specificity)
Where picture big bird? (graphics)
M. David Orr
Orr & Associates/Usability Management
7366 N. Lincoln Avenue Suite 101
Lincolnwood, IL 60646 USA
Phone: 847-677-1920
mailto: whitears -at- orrnet -dot- com

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