Watch Those Writing Pet Peeves

Our writing pet peeves – could they damage our reputation?

  1. Get a group of writers and editors together chatting – any sort will do.
  2. Throw in a few hot grammar controversies: the use of “he/she” vs “they”, or the Oxford comma.
  3. Stand back and watch the fun – they’ll argue for as long as there is coffee and cake, and probably longer.

The weird thing is, they’ll bicker enthusiastically as if their answer really is the right one. And it hardly ever is – because we all know that different style guides do recommend different standards and solutions. Why don’t we simply recognise that differences exist, and that it doesn’t actually matter all that much?

The phrase “pet peeves” says it all, for me. No two people ever seem to have a completely intersecting set of gaffes they hate – or if they do, they disagree over the “correct” answer.

Now, I am all for accuracy and care. I’m all for style guides and consistency. I agree it is good to care about grammar and style, and make deliberate, informed choices when developing your in-house style. We should indeed aspire to apply that style perfectly – while remembering that in many scenarios, it is not worth achieving (too expensive; too slow).

In my view, there is nothing to be gained for technical communicators to be identifiable as the group of pedants who care more about commas than meeting consumers’ needs and making sure the organisation gets full value from its knowledge assets.

Shoot me down in flames if you will, but I urge technical communicators to smile fondly at others’ pet peeves, and move swiftly on to focus on the important ways our profession can help our customers: intelligent content reuse; on-time delivery of the right information to the right person in the right format. These are areas in which we add huge value every day, and it is how we can differentiate ourselves as valued content strategists and developers – not copywriters.

What do you think?

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2 thoughts on “Watch Those Writing Pet Peeves

  1. Cindy Staudt says:

    I certainly have my pet peeves, and there’s a level of correctness below which I’m not really willing to go.

    But where grammar and style are concerned in a TC context, I think it comes down to a matter of clarity. I encourage students to ‘know their stuff’ where grammar is concerned, not to be pedants or lord it over the plebs, but because mistakes can affect clarity. Even a single comma can impact how a sentence is read and what meaning it imparts.

    So I don’t get too fussed about less vs. fewer, as I know a lot of people do; I still am pretty firm about which vs. that (though NZers are more fluid with their use); and I couldn’t care less about starting sentences with conjunctions (and in fact, I’d say I advocate it). But above all else, we need to be clear, and good grammar is like a little broom that sweeps away tidbits of ambiguity to create a clear path for meaning to travel as seamlessly as possible between sender and receiver.

    • Cindy – I’m truly not arguing against good grammar and clarity. This is fundamental to what we do every day. However, I’m thinking of our professional value and reputation. I feel that we have more expertise to offer, and more challenging conversations to have with each other, than whether the Oxford comma is “correct” or not.

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