Someone Else’s Pet Peeve

A while back in Facebook I invited my readers to share a pet peeve about language usage. One reader (Hi Walter!) suggested that maybe know-it-all tech writers count as pet peeves. I know he was kidding because he’s a tech writer, but he has a point. Correcting someone’s language unasked tends to be irritating.

Almost everyone in the US speaks English, and most of us consider ourselves to be pretty good at it. We’re native speakers, right? Doesn’t being a native speaker make us automatically correct whenever we speak?

True, native speakers may coin new words whenever they like, but speaking tends to be more casual than writing, especially than technical (expository) writing. Sometimes we play fast and loose with the rules when we speak. That sort of informality isn’t a good idea in writing, though, especially when you explain something. Confucius said it well:

If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant. If what is said is not what is meant, then what ought to be done remains undone.

So what’s the problem? The problem is correcting someone’s language unasked. I think the habit of volunteering unasked-for advice in any field irritates people, not just unasked language advice.

I said this before, but I’ll say it again:

I resolve not to correct anyone’s language unless they ask.

You can kid me about it, though.

Why Adjectives are Important

People think that being terse makes good technical writing, especially in instructions, and even demanded in Army documentation.

  • Concise is good. Conciseness is leaving out unnecessary words.
  • Terse is bad. Terseness is when you leave out necessary words but the reader is supposed to be able to figure it out anyway.

You see terseness when the instructions leave out “the.” For example a recipe might say, “Pour flour into bowl.” In the context, both the flour and the been have been mentioned, so the reader is expected to understand what the instruction means.

This doesn’t always work, and besides, it’s not smooth to read. Hence this Diamond Lil:

Now in this comic, the missing word isn’t “the,” but you get the idea.

The rule: don’t assume your reader knows what you’re writing about.

Yet Another Pet Peeve

Today’s pet peeve is misuse of “literally.”

When you use “literally,” you’re supposed to mean something like “actual,” “real,” or “in truth.” You’re not supposed to mean “nearly,” figuratively,” or “sort of.” So Jeremy plays a trick on us here by managing to use “literally” literally, not figuratively, Sara’s first opinion notwithstanding.

Zits - 01/21/2018

The rule: “literally” doesn’t mean “figuratively” or “almost.”

By the way, you should literally write those thank-you notes.

Wrong then Right

I took this from an interview with two comic strip writers (artists?) whom I enjoy and respect, Hilary Price and Rina Piccolo.

Rina is speaking:

Anyway, the stories are centered around the theme of apartments. Or at least most of the stories are centered on apartments and apartment living. Some are based on real stuff from real life, and some are fiction.

Correct is “centered on.” The center is a point, so it can’t be around something.

I included that third sentence to point out a good technique: Don’t repeat yourself if you can help it. Maybe that’s why she used the two versions of “centered.”

Indicative or Subjunctive?

At the risk of being repetitious, here’s another example of the difference between the indicative and the subjunctive.

Here’s the rule: The subjunctive is contrary to reality. Not true; hypothetical, if you will. With the indicative, you are presumably describing reality, in other words, the truth.

Dustin - 01/20/2018

Dustin’s friend is not good with words, so the subjunctive, “were better” is correct. Too bad he didn’t get the girl.

Headlines are NOT Expository Writing!

The  point of a headline is to get someone to read what follows, so the more sensational, the better. I could take about any headline nowadays: newspaper, magazine article, or on-line item for an example. Expository writing has the goal of explaining as plainly and accurately as possible. So here’s an example of a headline appropriate for the day:

Mallard Fillmore - 02/11/2018

I leave it as an exercise for the reader to re-write a headline as a piece of good old plain exposition. Post some in the comments.

Phrase out of Place

As a rule, you should put similar parts of a sentence together. For example, if a sentence has two subjects, put them together.

Tom and Dave played tag.
S               S        V       DO

What happens when you don’t put them together? You get confusion!

Tom played tag and Dave
S        V     DO           ?

Huh? Is “Dave” some new kind of game that Tom played? After all, it’s right next to the direct object.

That example is trivial, perhaps, so here’s an example from real life:

Access in divisional and functional areas is too broad in some systems, increasing security risks for potential misappropriation, due to IT [the Information Technology department] owning systems instead of the business areas.

Look at the part after “due to.” “IT” is the subject, “owning” is the verb, and “systems” is the direct object. What is “business areas”? I don’t think IT would be owning business areas, so let’s rewrite the sentence so you can tell that “business areas” is another subject:

Access in divisional and functional areas is too broad in some systems, increasing security risks for potential misappropriation, due to IT instead of the business areas owning systems.

That makes more sense! Go thou and do likewise.

Some Thoughts About the Singular They

I touched on the singular they in the past, and I recommend you follow the link if you don’t know what the singular they is. Today I ran into a usage of it that jumped out at me a little, so I thought I’d share.

First, look at the conversation in the third panel of Scott Meyer’s Basic Instructions:

Since we’re talking about spouses here, the issue of “his” or “hers” being the right word is a little stronger than it would be in a lot of other contexts. On one hand, in this context he’s talking about his wife. And on the other hand, he wants to make his statement tactfully general. And on the third hand, Scott is somewhat constrained for space, so “their” fits better than “his or her.”

Now look at panel three’s heading. Same problems. Scott doesn’t have much room, and he doesn’t know whether your spouse is male of female. So even though the topic is spouses, which is reasonably gender related, which would make “his or her” appropriate, he chose “their.”

Writing can get tricky sometimes, eh?

How Not to do Tech Writing

I dare say this Boomerangs comic speaks for itself…

Do I need to belabor the point? Tech writing should be so plain and clear that you don’t notice the writing! Send for that five critical techniques for good writing document I mention in the column on the right if you don’t believe me, or if you want some good advice.

Someone Gets Enormity Correct

I suppose this is another one of my pet peeves. Enormity means “extremely bad,” not “extremely large.” ‘Nuff said.This is most of one panel from a longish narrative about a visit to a post-apocalyptic—well, here’s the link. Not my kind of adventure, but at least he got “enormity” right.