I am not a dictionary

How many times in your professional career have you been asked to spell something, or asked if a word is hyphenated? How many times are you asked whether to use “that” or “which” in a sentence?

We are the grammar police, the word monkeys, and many of us revel in that role (if not the title). Typically we possess greater information about writing than anyone else in the company, and rightly so as it is the main focus of our job.

However I am trying to stop answering these questions directly, instead I’m trying to direct people towards an answer. The reasons are two-fold.

Firstly it’s always better if people learn things first hand, helping to break the dependency for the future. In other words it stops people relying on you to remember things for them. It stops you being asked the same question, over and over and over. That can be annoying.

Secondly, and this is a subtle point, it re-enforces the notion that ALL we do is write words, that all we consider is grammar and spelling, that all we bring to a development team are documents. I don’t know about you but that’s not the case for me, never has been and never will.

It’s easy to quickly hand out information when someone leans over your desk, but maybe we need to be a little more careful. As (typically) a minority group in a software development team we have to work hard to prove and maintain our value, so maybe we need to distance ourselves a little from such matters.

3 comments

  1. Good point. It always annoys me when we are told that we tech writers were hired “for our writing ability” – which seems to mean no more than our ability to spell and to make documents look pretty.

  2. I think we need to be careful though, it’s up to us to prove that we are worth more than that… hence my subtle point.

    But yes, sometimes I get the feeling we are a tick in the box for some companies.

  3. Hallo Gordon

    Yes, there’s much truth in what you say. It can be too easy for people to write us off as dictionaries. Much as one person in a family might become the walking diary 😉

    But here’s an interesting turn-around: Where I’m working now, we use a wiki for internal communication. Often, an interesting or tricky grammatical point is posted as a question or discussion point on the wiki. Especially as we have branches in Australia, UK and the States, and recently Poland too, there’s a lot of variety in our grammar and spelling.

    And guess what: Of all the points that come up for discussion, the grammatical and spelling ones have the most traffic! It turns out that many many people are really interested in the ins and outs of language. There are quite a few closet linguists who bring up really interesting and obscure aspects of what might seem a simple question. E.g. why do the Americans use “z” where the Ozzies use “s” in words like “organise”. Turns out that even that old chestnut not as simple as it seems. Google it 🙂

    So your tactic of showing people where to find their own answers sounds just right too.

    Seeya, Sarah

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