Technical editors do not need to be grammarians

After reading a grammar textbook, I have been pondering how well technical editors need to know grammar. How much grammar must they know to edit the information, but also how much must they know to help their writers improve their writing ability?

As a technical editor, I view myself differently than other editors. When most people hear that you work as an editor, they immediately think that you are a grammar expert and that you constantly correct grammar errors everywhere you go. From a publishing perspective, this role is the copy editor, the editor who reviews text for spelling, grammar, punctuation, and adherance to a style guide. (This blog post, “Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor,” presents a nice summary of the different types of editors in a publishing industry.) Taking a technical communication perspective, I downplay the importance of this copy editing role, and try to identify a distinct technical editor role. I still do some copy editing as part of my technical editing, but it is only a part of the editing task, not the entire task. Thus, I think this leads me to the belief that technical editors do not need to be grammarians.

By taking a step away from just the language, or just the grammar, technical editors really focus on the content of the communication. To help writers communicate their content effectively, technical editors must know their audience, even more so than copy editors. Knowing the audience certainly helps copy editors do their job, but they can do much of their job regardless of knowing the technical subject matter or the audience.

Grammatical sentences certainly communicate better than ungrammatical ones, but to what degree and to what end? If a split infinitive or missing comma or misused semicolon appears in a document, but the audience still understands the content and can complete their task, is it that important to remove every grammatical error from the document? If a technical editor wants to remove a grammatical error, is it important for the editor to know the rules or terminology of grammar in order to suggest a change (make an edit) about a comma or semicolon?

Perhaps a rudimentary understanding of grammar and syntax can help us read style guides or usage guides, and this basic knowledge can help us “edit by what sounds right.” After all, it worked for Mark Twain, who said this about grammar rules in his own autobiography: “I am almost sure by witness of my ear, but cannot be positive, for I know grammar by ear only, not by note, not by the rules. A generation ago I knew the rules–knew them by heart, word for word, though not their meanings”. But do we need to use standard grammar terms to communicate the changes needed? Oxford Dictionaries calls their list of grammar terms “Jargon buster” in their “Better Writing” area of their site; I infer from this that the OED editors consider this to be jargon for the writers who come to their site seeking understanding.

While part of my job is to help my writers produce high quality content, the other part of my job is to coach my writers to be better writers. If I can teach them some of the rules to follow, they won’t make the same mistakes over and over again for me to mark up. I find myself translating the grammar terms into simpler terms or giving examples of the revisions to try to demonstrate that the change makes it better.

As an example of using grammar terms to teach a writer about writing better sentences, consider this scenario. In mentoring a new writer, I was looking at the help topics for our grammar checker with the writer. These help topics used precise grammar terms to explain why something was being flagged as an error; however, the help topic used jargon (the grammar terms) instead of explaining things more directly. The writer could not figure out an appropriate change to make and asked me to help. I read the original sentence, then read the help topic for the flagged error, which included examples of correct and incorrect sentences. From there, I was able to suggest a specific revision to the original sentence and explain why the change was necessary, avoiding the grammar terms that were tripping up the writer.

As technical editors, we need to understand some grammar, but we do not need to be experts in grammar. As Rosalind from Shakespeare’s As You Like it suggests, you really can have too much of a good thing. A basic knowledge of grammar is good for technical editors; but too much grammar will distract technical editors from the real value that they bring as arbiters of quality.

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3 Responses to Technical editors do not need to be grammarians

  1. kairee says:

    I agree with you. The goal is to convey useful information… fighting over a grammar technicality might be counter-productive.
    As a writer sometimes I struggle with presenting all the collated information. That’s where my editor jumps in with a helpful suggestion or two and viola – my document I suddenly useful! 🙂
    Having said that, I need to get my grammar exactly right when my docs are intended for localisation.

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  2. Anna Biunno says:

    You make perfect sense, and I agree with your point of view to a certain extent. However, grammar can help with hammering out a sentence that says exactly what the writer intended. As you and I well know, one slight move of a punctuation mark or a modifier and a step or procedure is rendered inaccurate.

    As well, the requirement to write for a global audience demands greater attention to the rules for easier translation. I’m going to state the obvious: As a technical editor, I know enough about the grammar rules to know when I can bend them or let go of them, because, as you mentioned, our ultimate goal is to ensure clear communication with the reader.

    I also don’t underestimate my audience. Research sponsored by ACES (http://www.copydesk.org/blog/2011/03/17/aces-sponsored-research-study-says-yes/#sthash.pD96JOrR.dpuf) found that readers do care about whether content was edited. “Readers notice grammar errors and find them troubling and distracting”. While the study focused on a certain industry, I still think it has some universal insights that we can tap into as technical editors.

    I love your blog posts, and I look forward to reading more.

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    • Michelle Corbin says:

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments! I learn so much by writing these, and knowing I have thoughtful readers, who challenge me and help me consider other nuances really inspires me to write more blog posts!

      Thank you also for the link to that research study! I will most likely write a new blog post about this…

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