Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Grammar Stickler

When it comes to written technical communication, after 25 years' work as a technical editor, I'm a stickler for punctuation, usage, grammar, expression of units of measure, logical organization.

Not so strict am I on spoken communication; in fact, the regionalisms which make other editors cringe I find delightful and amusing. A favorite East Texas quirk is the use of the present, instead of past, tense. (He run a V-8 Ford. They come south from Tennessee in 1930.)

And I never adhere to the stilted-sounding, "He is taller than I [am]." I've even been known to use a preposition to end a sentence with in colloquial spoken English.

Grammar Girl, what do you think of all this?

But, logically, English really needs a second-person plural pronoun to correlate with vous in French, and Ustedes in Spanish. Okay, OED, Texas has solved the problem. I'm talking about y'all. So much more elegant than the Brooklyn you guys, or the misguided youse guys, so much more efficient that you people. What do Midwesterners use? I'd like to know, ubetcha.

Another word to add to the lexicon: ain't. We say I am not. For the contraction, we say I'm not, not I amn't. And inverted for the interrogative, it becomes Aren't I?

Solution: I propose ain't as the contraction for am not. The machine stenography language used by court reporters has a code for ain't. Ain't it logical that written English should follow suit?

A couple of very common errors. In my experience, the most commonly misspelled word is accommodation. Notice that the root is the same as that of commode.

Imply/infer: Infer is not a fancy way of saying imply. The speaker implies; the listener infers.

Compose/comprise: A whole comprises (not is comprised of) its parts. Parts compose the whole.

Fewer/less: If an amount is quantifiable, a smaller amount is denoted as fewer, not less. For instance. "He has enjoyed fewer than 25 lattes in this Starbucks." If the amount is more bulk-y in nature, less is fine: There's less whip on this specialty drink today than last week."

Continual/continuous: Continual has more of a recurring connotation, while continuous means uninterrupted.

Decimate literally means to reduce by one-tenth, not to obliterate, but "its English meaning has been intended to include the destruction of any large proportion of a group." [Webster's II New College Dictionary]

Segueing into spelling out of numbers. In ordinary text, according to the venerable Chicago Manual of Style, numbers one through ninety-nine are spelled out, as well as any number followed by "hundred, thousand, million, etc."

On the other hand, in technical text, depending on the style of the journal, usually numbers 10 and below are spelled out when not denoting units of measure. Units of measure are always spelled out. Beginning a sentence with a number above 10? Recast the sentence to avoid the problem entirely in technical writing.

Engineers and physicists know this one. If a unit of measure is less than one, a zero precedes the decimal point (0.3 kilometers), but not if the unit is never expressed as other than a fraction, such as some statistical terms. The reason for the zero: to take the place of an integer (and maybe to assure readers that the integer was not unintentionally omitted.)

Hyphen, en-dash, em-dash: A hyphen, simply puts, makes one word out of two (high-flying acrobat). An en-dash (alt+numpad 0150)usually expresses an time interval (serving as president from 2000–2005). An em-dash (alt+numpad 0151), which has no spaces before or after, usually serves to set off a parenthetical: His Colonial-era farmhouse—built as a munitions depot—was in need of repair. It can also introduce a bulleted list, serving a similiar function to that of a colon.

Years of experience and months of pregnancy or anything that is a measure of something is expressed as a possessive: eight months' pregnant; 15 years' experience. (Note that these are plural possessives.)

Any editors out there have other observations to share? I would love to compile and include in a future entry.

Next time, some word processing tips.


Kim said...

I doubt these are written down anywhere but they have long been a thorn in my side.

The title of the table of contents is Contents...not Table of Contents. The title of the list of figures is Figures...not List of Figures.

Do NOT use full justification - it is NOT easy to read. I can't think of a time when I would use it.

I hate indented first lines, they look wonky, but that is just me :)

Waitress from Mensa said...


I'm 100% with you on full justification AND indented first lines.

In a long career of technical editing, I've yet to meet an engineer who can be convinced to use left justification, even when I point out the unesthetic rivers running through their text and the funky horizontal line spacing.

Yes, we have the same take on the indented first paragraph lines, but I'm not sure why either. Maybe they apper too typewriter-ish and old-fashioned?

You are right about table of contents and lists of figures and tables; however, the thesis office at my university insists on "Table of Contents" and "List of Figures." Another editor I know rails against listing the table of contents and its page number within the TofC.