Break out of the grammar trap:
Distinguish between essential and nonessential rules of grammar, punctuation, and usage
How much attention should technical communicators pay to formal rules of grammar, punctuation, and usage?
Does incorrect grammar, punctuation, or usage detract from the value and usability of your group’s publications? Does your audience care, or even notice, if formal rules are broken?
Why have rules?
Grammar is the arrangement, relationships, and functions of words and the ways they are put together to form phrases, clauses or sentences.
Punctuation marks are signals that help readers to understand the ideas in a passage and read more quickly and efficiently.
Rules of grammar, punctuation, and usage can be essential or nonessential—or even fake! Writers and editors need to pay attention to the essential issues, but can spend less time on nonessential issues—particularly in the face of tight deadlines—and they can safely ignore the fake issues.
Essential rules are those that are necessary for clear, unambiguous communication.
Nonessential rules are those that are not required for clarity and unambiguity.
Fake rules may actually be matters of word choice, style, or conventional usage, not rules of grammar; they may be things many of us were taught were wrong, but which are in fact acceptable variations.
Some rules, such as those about dangling participles and not ending sentences with prepositions, are nonessential because readers can figure out the meaning; but they are still important rules to follow in those cases where following the rule would make the writing easier to understand. For example, split infinitives are acceptable in English ("to boldly go"), but if you replace the adverb (boldly) with a long adverbial phrase, the meaning becomes more difficult to decipher.
I’m sure all technical communicators would like to produce perfect documents, but we rarely have the leisure to do so. Business realities too often require compromises from writers and editors, so we place accuracy and usability ahead of minor issues of grammar and punctuation—as I think we should.
Of course, a minor issue to me may be a major issue to you; some audiences may have an unusually high percentage of people who won't trust your facts if they think you're misusing the language; and some of your technical reviewers will focus on the grammar instead of the facts. All of these scenarios provide good reasons to pay attention to grammar rules, or at least not abuse them too blatantly or frequently.
Examples of essential grammar and punctuation rules
Essential rules are those that are necessary for clear, unambiguous communication. Some examples:
- Use of commas, when errors can cause ambiguity or misunderstanding. For
example, these pairs of sentences convey quite different messages:
Injured and abandoned by their travelling companions, they managed to stagger to a ranger station.
Injured, and abandoned by their travelling companions, they managed to stagger to a ranger station.
Tomorrow will be overcast and rainy at times.
Tomorrow will be overcast, and rainy at times.
- Use of apostrophes in possessives and contractions, but not plurals.
Incorrect placement of apostrophes changes meaning (often causing confusion
or ambiguity) or is completely wrong. Some examples:
Change meaning: it's (contraction of "it is" or "it has") or its (possessive of "it");
who's (contraction of "who is") or whose (possessive of "who");
the manager’s decision (one manager made the decision) or the managers’ decision (more than one manager made the decision)
Just plain wrong: mens', childrens', its' (all intended to be possessives); video's, photo's (when intended to be plural, not possessive)
- Subject-verb agreement (but see notes on "data" and "they," below). When
the subject and verb are separated by many other words, this agreement may
be difficult to sort out. Often the best solution is to rewrite the sentence:
If you can't easily decide whether a verb should be singular or plural,
chances are your readers will get lost in the sentence anyway.
- Avoiding dangling modifiers, unclear antecedents, and other constructions
that can create ambiguity, even when most readers will eventually figure
out what's meant. Some examples:
Dangling modifier: can occur at the beginning or end of the sentence.
After reading the original study, the newspaper article is unconvincing. (or)
The newspaper article is unconvincing after reading the original study.
(The article—the subject of the main clause—did not read the original study.)
Squinting modifier: can relate to a word that comes either before it or after it.
Players who seek their coach's advice often can improve their game.
(What happens often—seeking of advice or improvement?)
Examples of nonessential grammar and punctuation rules
Nonessential rules are those that are not required for clarity and unambiguity. Some examples:
- The distinction between "different from," "different than," and "different
to." "Different from" is traditionally used when the comparison is between
two persons or things: My writing style is different from yours. "Different
than" is more acceptably used where the object of comparison is expressed
by a full clause: This town is different than it was 20 years ago. The construction
"different to" is chiefly British; in the USA "to" gets little use and is
often considered incorrect even though it is an acceptable variation.
- Use of the subjunctive ("if he were to do something"), the pronoun "whom"
as the objective form of "who," and several other somewhat old-fashioned
(though correct) forms of English.
- Many (but not all) rules about the use of commas, given that many punctuation
"rules" are different in US English and UK English. For example:
Comma after introductory word or (short) phrase or clause:
Having chosen nursing as a career, Susan enrolled in many science courses.
Having chosen nursing as a career Susan enrolled in many science courses.
When he was in high school, he was known only as an athlete.
When he was in high school he was known only as an athlete.
My rule of thumb is: If I stumble after an introductory word, phrase, or clause and have to re-read to make sure I understood the sentence, then a comma is probably required (or the sentence needs rewriting), but if I don't stumble, then the comma is probably optional, even if traditional usage says it is required.
- The distinction between "which" and "that" in some clauses. Although
technically there is a significant difference, in most (but not all) cases
readers will not misinterpret the meaning of the sentence, and conventional
usage varies between US English and UK English: UK English uses "which"
in most situations.
- Some apostrophe use. For example, does the use of "user's guide," "users' guide," or even "users guide" or "user guide" lead to any confusion or ambiguity? I think not. (But do pick one variation and use it consistently.) Yes, there's a difference: "user's guide" means a manual for one user, whereas "users' guide" means a manual for multiple users. This is a clear grammatical distinction, but to the reader, it's irrelevant: in both cases, the title clearly communicates that the manual is intended to help them use the product. ("Users guide" is technically incorrect but perfectly clear, and "user guide" is common usage.)
Examples of usage and fake rules
Style and usage issues may be written into a style guide as "the way we do things here," to improve consistency in a company's publications, but editors and writers need to recognize them as choices, not rules of English grammar.
Another good reason to include some usage rules in your style guide is to clarify what's negotiable in your company and what's not negotiable.
- Punctuation order, for example whether commas and periods (full stops) go inside or outside a quotation mark. Conventions vary between US English and UK English.
- Many punctuation and capitalization rules for vertical lists. Several styles are in common use; pick one style and use it consistently.
- Whether "data" is a singular or plural noun. Usage varies; in computing, "data" is typically collective and singular; in mathematics, "data" is usually the plural of "datum." Choose the conventional usage for your audience.
- Many rules about the use of hyphens. Over-use of hyphens looks silly, and in some cases the use or misuse of a hyphen can lead to ambiguity, but in many cases hyphen use is a matter of style or convention, not grammar—and even when it is a matter of grammar, it may not matter. For example, the hyphen in "non-student" is technically incorrect, but emphasizes the idea of someone who is not a student, so it might be preferable to "nonstudent" in some circumstances.
- The rules against using split infinitives or ending a sentence in a preposition. You may have been taught these rules in school, but they are based on some decisions made by a few people a century or two ago and are irrelevant to modern communication.
- The rule against using "they/them/their" as a singular indefinite pronoun. In fact, the singular "they" has a long history as being acceptable in English.
Copyediting is important, but it is only part of an editor's job.
Distinguish between grammar, punctuation, and usage rules that are essential for clear, unambiguous communication, and those that are not essential or even irrelevant.
Recognize that many things we were taught to consider as "rules" are actually style choices or conventions of usage, and that deviations are not necessarily "wrong" but rather "not the way we do it here."
To improve consistency in a company's publications, put some grammar and punctuation style choices into the style guide.
[Note: An earlier version of this article is archived here: http://www.jeanweber.com/about/grammar2-old.htm.]