On pedantry

I start this blog post with an admission and an apology.

Admission: I am a manager, I don’t spend a lot (any) of my time writing technical content these days.

Apology: One of my weakest areas is in the intricacies and ‘correctness’ of grammar. *

That said, there is one thing that continues to frustrate me about the technical communications profession, the constant ‘deep dive’ into every single aspect of one sentence, one clause. Dear grammar pedants, please stop!

Don’t get me wrong, I know that good written information is a keystone of our profession and I’m all for discussions to make sure things are being approached correctly and debated thoroughly, where appropriate.

Please note the last two words of the last sentence, “where appropriate”.

Maybe it’s just me, but as each of us write for a specific audience, likely to a specific style guide, such discussions become academic almost from the get go. What really irks is when discussions on other aspects of our profession are diverted towards this area. For example, “Content Strategy is important! … Yes, but ultimately the paragraph that someone reads once they have found it needs to be written in the active voice and never ever punctuate that bulleted list with commas… ”

And so on.

I’ve seen it so many times I’ve started using it as a guide. When any online discussion that isn’t explicitly about grammar and punctuation, whether forum or mailing list, reaches the point that someone reaches for the grammar gun, I stop reading, I disengage.

A few years ago, when the UA conference reached Edinburgh in 2008, one of the sessions was by Professor Geoffrey K. Pullum, a noted linguist. It was the closing session and I approached it with some dread, a presentation on language would surely be all about the use of transitive verbs and the perils of infinitives which are split. How wrong I was, leaving the room at the end with a simple, repeated message.

Write as you speak. Write as if you were explaining something to someone sitting next to you, put aside the rules of grammar if needs be!

I blame my current stance, my dislike of long academic discussions on someone who, I’m sure, has initiated and partaken of many such discussions himself.

Forgive me if I’ve offend anyone, I’m not saying that correct grammar is a bad thing, far from it, I just think that in the current day and age we, as a profession, need to raise our view and focus on bigger things. The language will take care of itself, one way or another, let it go!

We should be looking to influence, to sell, to push ourselves to the forefront of our companies as the experts we are in that valuable (and its stock continues to rise) commodity, information.


* Yes, there are deliberate mistakes in this post. Feel free to point them out in the comments.

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Long time blogger, Father of Jack, geek of many things, random photographer and writer of nonsense.

Doing my best to find a balance.

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Thanks Colum… and it’s Gordon.. 😉

Doh! Sorry. If it is any consolation my name has been misspelt so many ways.

I’m glad you’re “not saying that correct grammar is a bad thing” because as writers we are expected to have more than a passing knowledge of grammar. In fact, we typically don’t write as we speak for one big reason: we want our meaning to be clear.

In a conversation, it’s easy to misunderstand another. I do that with my wife all the time. I even misunderstand people I work with so I have to ask questions to make sure I understand what someone is trying to tell me. It ain’t always easy.

I’m not a grammarian as such but grammar has a value and that value is helping to make what we write clear. I know plenty of folks who believe that writing is easy, something that anyone can do. If that were the case, I don’t think they’d be much need for professional writers.

I don’t believe for a minute that the language will take care of itself one way or another. There are too many folks with no idea about how to write a sentence that has only one meaning.

I think information that is imprecise, vague, and open to interpretation has no value at all. If that’s what we choose to deal in, then we’ll be doing a disservice to the companies we work for.


I completely agree with what you’ve said, and whilst I may be quoting some ‘write conversationally’ advice that is not at the removal of good grammar and writing skills.

I believe you can write in a certain tone, whilst using the rules of grammar to provide unambiguous and concise information.

My issue is that not every single issue in technical communications SHOULD devolve down to this level but there is a tendency of some in our profession to head to that area, I get it, it’s where they are most comfortable and talk of taxonomies, content strategy, talking to others areas of the company aren’t always on the agenda for some technical writing teams (and nor should they be).

My simple point is that I think we should all be raising our heads, upping our game and grabbing more of the ‘information world’ as that is where we are experts. Good writing skills, founded in good grammar, are (in my view) a given these days, so I tend to veer away from such discussions.

Hope that clarifies what I was trying to say.

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