Escape from the Grammar Trap

Too many editors focus on the details and don’t pay enough attention to the bigger picture. Editors can–and should–add even more value through substantive, technical, and usability editing. Copyediting is important, but the details are only part of what an editor can and should be reviewing. After all, a document can be correctly spelled and punctuated, grammatically correct, use only approved terminology, and follow the style guide perfectly–and still not serve the audience’s needs.

This article covers some reasons why editors focus on details and not the bigger picture; describes how much attention technical communicators should pay to formal rules of grammar, punctuation, and usage; and describes how we can distinguish between essential and nonessential rules of grammar, punctuation, and usage.

Why Do Editors Have Such a Narrow Focus?

Some reasons for an editorial focus on details have to do with editors themselves; other reasons arise from the perceptions and priorities of managers and writers.

Many editors are in one of these groups:

  • They know how to contribute substantively, but they don’t have time–or aren’t allowed–to do so.
  • They are more comfortable enforcing rules than making critical suggestions and then dealing with writers and others who may not appreciate those suggestions.
  • They don’t believe they can contribute substantively because they haven’t been trained in substantive editing or they aren’t sufficiently familiar with the subject matter they are editing.
  • They lack the skills to do a good job of copyediting, so they never get the chance to go beyond that stage, even though they might be very good at other types of editing (the skills required are quite different).

Many managers, writers, and other clients believe one or more of the following statements:

  • Editors are obsessed with nitpicky details; that’s what editing is all about.
  • An editor’s job is not to substantially revise a writer’s work or comment on the technical content or usability of that work.
  • Substantive, technical, and usability editing take too long and cost too much.
  • Editing is done after the manuscript is written, leaving insufficient time to change anything major that an editor might find.

Distinguish Between Essential, Nonessential, and Fake Rules

How much attention should technical communicators pay to formal rules of grammar, punctuation, and usage? Does incorrect grammar, punctuation, or usage detract from the value and usability of your group’s publications? Does your audience care, or even notice, if formal rules are broken?

To answer these questions, we need to examine grammar, punctuation, and usage:

  • Grammar is the arrangement, relationships, and functions of words and the ways they are put together to form phrases, clauses, or sentences.
  • Punctuation marks are signals that help readers to understand the ideas in a passage and to read more quickly and efficiently.
  • Usage is the way in which words and phrases are actually used, spoken, or written in a language community.

Rules of grammar, punctuation, and usage can be essential or nonessential–or even fake!

Essential rules are those that are necessary for clear, unambiguous communication.

Nonessential rules are those that are not required for clarity and unambiguity.

Fake rules may actually be matters of word choice, style, or conventional usage, not rules of grammar; or they may be things many of us were taught were wrong, but which are in fact acceptable variations in usage.

Writers and editors need to pay attention to the essential rules, but can spend less time on nonessential rules–particularly in the face of tight deadlines–and they can ignore the fake rules.

Some rules, such as those about dangling participles and not ending sentences with prepositions, are nonessential because readers can figure out the meaning; but they are still important rules to follow in those cases where following the rule would make the writing easier to understand. For example, split infinitives are acceptable in English (“to boldly go”), but if you replace the adverb (boldly) with a long adverbial phrase, the meaning becomes more difficult to decipher.

I’m sure all technical communicators would like to produce perfect documents, but we rarely have the leisure to do so. Business realities too often require compromises from writers and editors, so we place accuracy and usability ahead of minor issues of grammar and punctuation–as I think we should.

Of course, what’s a minor issue to me may be a major issue to you; some audiences may have an unusually high percentage of people who won’t trust your facts if they think you’re misusing the language; and some of your technical reviewers will focus on the grammar instead of the facts. All of these scenarios provide good reasons to pay attention to grammar rules, or at least not abuse them too blatantly or frequently.

Examples of Essential Grammar and Punctuation Rules

Essential rules are those that are necessary for clear, unambiguous communication. Some examples:

Use of commas, when errors can cause ambiguity or misunderstanding. For example, these pairs of sentences convey quite different messages:

  • Injured and abandoned by their travelling companions, they managed to stagger to a ranger station.
  • Injured, and abandoned by their travelling companions, they managed to stagger to a ranger station.
  • Tomorrow will be overcast and rainy at times.
  • Tomorrow will be overcast, and rainy at times.

Use of apostrophes in possessives and contractions, but not plurals. Incorrect placement of apostrophes changes meaning (often causing confusion or ambiguity) or is completely wrong. Some examples:

  • Changes meaning: It’s (contraction of “it is” or “it has”) or its (possessive of “it”); who’s (contraction of “who is”) or whose (possessive of “who”); the manager’s decision (one manager made the decision) or the managers’ decision (more than one manager made the decision)
  • Just plain wrong: Mens’, childrens’, its’ (all intended to be possessives); video’s, photo’s (when intended to be plural, not possessive)

Subject-verb agreement (but see notes on “data” and “they,” below). When the subject and verb are separated by many other words, this agreement may be difficult to sort out. Often the best solution is to rewrite the sentence: If you can’t easily decide whether a verb should be singular or plural, chances are your readers will get lost in the sentence anyway.

Avoiding dangling modifiers, unclear antecedents, and other constructions that can create ambiguity, even when most readers will eventually figure out what’s meant. Some examples:

  • Dangling modifier: Can occur at the beginning or end of the sentence. After reading the original study, the newspaper article is unconvincing. (or) The newspaper article is unconvincing after reading the original study.
    (The article–the subject of the main clause–did not read the original study.)
  • Squinting modifier: Can relate to a word that comes either before it or after it. Players who seek their coach’s advice often can improve their game. (What happens often–seeking of advice or improvement?)

Examples of Nonessential Grammar and Punctuation Rules

Nonessential rules are those that are not required for clarity and unambiguity. Some examples:

  • The distinction between “different from,” “different than,” and “different to.”
  • “Different from” is traditionally used when the comparison is between two persons or things: My writing style is different from yours.
  • “Different than” is more acceptably used where the object of comparison is expressed by a full clause: This town is different than it was 20 years ago.
  • “Different to” is chiefly British; in the USA “to” gets little use and is often considered incorrect even though it is an acceptable variation.
  • The use of old forms of English: Use of the subjunctive (“if he were to do something”), the pronoun “whom” as the objective form of “who,” and several other somewhat old-fashioned (though correct) forms of English.

Many (but not all) rules about the use of commas, given that many punctuation “rules” are different in US English and UK English. For example:

  • Comma after introductory word or (short) phrase or clause:
  • Having chosen nursing as a career, Susan enrolled in many science courses.
  • Having chosen nursing as a career Susan enrolled in many science courses.
  • When he was in high school, he was known only as an athlete.
  • When he was in high school he was known only as an athlete.

My rule of thumb is: If I stumble after an introductory word, phrase, or clause and have to re-read to make sure I understood the sentence, then a comma is probably required (or the sentence needs rewriting), but if I don’t stumble, then the comma is probably optional, even if traditional usage says it is required.

  • The distinction between “which” and “that” in some clauses. Although technically there is a significant difference, in most (but not all) cases readers will not misinterpret the meaning of the sentence, and conventional usage varies between US English and UK English: UK English uses “which” in most situations.
  • Some apostrophe use. For example, does the use of “user’s guide,” “users’ guide,” or even “users guide” or “user guide” lead to any confusion or ambiguity? I think not. (But do pick one variation and use it consistently.) Yes, there’s a difference: “User’s guide” means a manual for one user, whereas “users’ guide” means a manual for multiple users. This is a clear grammatical distinction, but to the reader, it’s irrelevant: In both cases, the title clearly communicates that the manual is intended to help them use the product. (“Users guide” is technically incorrect but perfectly clear, and “user guide” is common usage.)

Examples of Usage Rules

Style and usage rules may be written into a style guide as “the way we do things here,” to improve consistency in a company’s publications, but editors and writers need to recognize them as choices, not rules of English grammar.

Another good reason to include some usage rules in your style guide is to clarify what’s negotiable in your company and what’s not negotiable.

Some examples:

  • Punctuation order, for example whether commas and periods (full stops) go inside or outside a quotation mark. Conventions vary between US English and UK English.
  • Punctuation and capitalization rules for vertical lists. Several styles are in common use; pick one style and use it consistently.
  • Whether “data” is a singular or plural noun. Usage varies; in computing, “data” is typically collective and singular; in mathematics, “data” is usually the plural of “datum.” Choose the conventional usage for your audience.

Examples of Fake Rules

  • The rules against using split infinitives or ending a sentence in a preposition. You may have been taught these rules in school, but they are based on some decisions made by a few people a century or two ago and are irrelevant to modern communication.
  • The rule against using “they/them/their” as a singular indefinite pronoun. In fact, the singular “they” has a long history as being acceptable in English.


What’s the bottom line?

  • Realize that copyediting is important, but it is only part of an editor’s job.
  • Distinguish between grammar, punctuation, and usage rules that are essential for clear, unambiguous communication, and those that are not essential or even irrelevant.
  • Recognize that many things we were taught to consider as “rules” are actually style choices or conventions of usage, and that deviations are not necessarily “wrong” but rather “not the way we do it here.”
  • Include some grammar and punctuation style choices in the style guide to improve grammar consistency.


Thanks to Geoff Hart and the students in two editing workshops for their comments on an early draft of this article.


Category: Editing - Tag (s): editing / grammar / punctuation / usage


12 years ago

I’m a grammar-holic but I wodner sometimes where grammar ends and pedantry begins (I remember going NUTS when a new version of Foweler claimed different to was acceptable NO IT’s NOT).I work as an administrator, and get deeply upset by my so-called elders and betters. I remember writing a letter for my senior boss to sign once about a student who’d been made several college offers. The letter came back, signed (i.e. too late to change) with MY contact details at the bottom (i.e. everyone assumes the eroors are down to the dumb secretary , namely, me), the only amendment being to chaneg the correct A number of colleges has made this student an offer to the frankly illiterate a number of colleges have . The thing is, I can sort of see their point (not in the context of an official letter, but in the context of a novel). Have is wrong but sounds right, and I think that’s the question I want to ask people: we all accept (I assume we do, anyway) that in poetry we can do what we want, provided the sound gets across (or IS) the intention. But some voices of novelists also feed on this lyrical, lilting (yes, that’s a deliberate reference to Nabokov) style where teh flow of the sentence means more than correctness. So, when the all-important voice is at stake, where does grammar end and pedantry begin? Or do we really fall back on that rather sad rule that (NOT which) seems to predominate in art those who’ve already made automatically get the benefit of the doubt, whilst those who haven’t get the assumption of dimwittery? Or is the answer that if the voice is THAT good, it doesn’t matter (much more egalitarian).Or, am I missing the point? Are we talking about much more basicer errers like wot if I woz to use bad commers?

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