March 29, 2007

Joe, this is for you

I just got back from Long Beach, where I did a couple of presentations at the WritersUA conference, a national gathering of technical writers who work on documentation and user-help materials. And the last question I was asked at the final session of the conference came from a woman who simply asked me if I could make a list of some of the anti-prescriptivist warnings I had mentioned in my two talks, and put it on Language Log addressed to her boss, a man named Joe. And I don't see why not. It will perhaps be of some use to lots of people (slip a copy on your boss's desk during the lunch hour), but Joe, this is primarily for you.

1.  Which at the beginning of a restrictive relative clause has never at any time in history been a grammatical error in Standard English, Joe, and company time spent chasing down whiches might as well be devoted to hunting witches. Nobody could believe that phrases like the glimpse which I got are mistakes if they either read widely in English literature (the phrase I just quoted is in the second sentence of Bram Stoker's great novel Dracula) or knew the grammar literature (Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage tells the tale starting on page 727, and you really should take a look at it).

2.  The difference between the socket it was removed from and the socket from which it was removed is a slight difference in style: the first sounds somewhat more informal, ordinary, and relaxed, and the second sounds a bit more pompous and distant. Both are fully correct, and both are clear. The former might be the best choice in documentation intended for average users. Never waste energy getting expert writers to avoid prepositions at ends of phrases; it has been normal in English since its earliest history, and has never been grammatically wrong.

3.  The different forms of the pronoun they have been used with singular antecedents throughout the history of English. The established usage is to use it when the antecedent is so indefinite that any choice of gender would be unmotivated: any employee who wants their office repainted, or a customer who finds that their shipment was incomplete. Most writers use this (it is particuarly common in Jane Austen, for example), and almost everyone does in speech. It is not a mistake and never has been. Singular they is an excellent choice in many contexts when choice of a gendered singular pronoun would imply falsely that one sex or the other is being excluded. To say Every writer has his own style implies that all writers are male. If your company is open to hiring women as writers, then Every writer has their own style is preferable. (Older grammars that say he can be used to include females are just factually wrong: notice that the phrase if either your father or your mother breaks his hip is incoherent!)

4.  It has never been ungrammatical to place an adverb (or other such modifier) between to and the verb in an infinitival clause: a phrase like to really understand this technique is fully grammatical. The people who think the "split infinitive" is a mistake are ignorant of what grammar books actually say: ALL English grammars and usage books, even very conservative ones, agree that modifiers are grammatically permitted between to and the verb, and that often this is the best choice among the alternative word orders. For example, We have done this to better reflect engineering practice is grammatically perfect, and shifting better would make it clearly worse (We have done this better sounds as if we're talking about doing it better than someone else; better engineering practice suggests two classes of engineering, the better kind and a worse kind). Expert writers should be left to select a word order appropriate for the meaning they have to express. Bullying them about preverbal modifier placements not only suggests ignorance of grammar and linguistic history, it is actually counter-productive.

I have a series of other even sillier cases I could comment on in similar terms, Joe. But at some point we need to decide when these things have been said enough. Many posts on Language Log have discussed these things (see this page for a list of all my posts, and also look around for discussions of relevant topics by other writers, particularly Mark Liberman and Arnold Zwicky); quite a few of the posts by Mark and me are gathered together in print in this book; and an authoritative account of all the relevant facts is available (very cheap) in a superb reference work published by Merriam-Webster that should be on the desk of every writer — and every manager who oversees writers.

The bottom line is that you should let your expert writers write, and choose from the full array of presentations that English grammar allows, rather than chasing around trying to eradicate putative errors that actually not errors at all, and never have been. Don't waste time playing Grammar Gotcha against your own highly competent technical writing staff. You know what they say about teaching a pig to sing: there are two arguments against it, because it wastes your time and it annoys the pig. Only in this case you're not teaching anyone anything. You're doing something more like the opposite of teaching — a sort of un-teaching that involves trying to foist rules that are actually mythical on people who basically know how to write perfectly well in the first place.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at March 29, 2007 02:46 PM