Two key phrases: “I don’t know?” and “It depends.”

Are technical editors (or information architects, for that matter) allowed to use either of these two key phrases:

  • I don’t know.

  • It depends.

I can tell you that I have used both of these phrases, but I especially use “It depends” quite a lot, which of course greatly frustrates my team. In the business of writing, everyone hopes for black and white answers to their grammar questions or even to their design ideas. Team members turn to us, asking questions of all types, and we have to be willing to say “I don’t know,” but also be willing to offer up “It depends” as an answer to those questions.

My Twitter feed served up someone reacting to another tweet, about being willing to say “I don’t know,” and really wanting the stigma to using that answer removed. It immediately made me ask myself if I allowed myself to use those three little words. I do, and depending on who’s asking or the context, I will usually add, “but I can try to find out!”

I think editors (and information architects) are natural born researchers, who don’t want to accept the “I don’t know” answer. As for my very frequent response after doing said research… I often take great pride in responding, “It depends,” because then we all have a chance to explore the question a bit further and determine the direction to go. (A previous team said that they were going to get me a tshirt made with “It depends” on it, because I said it just that much with them. They were really after a yes-no answer.)

Happy editing everyone!

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One Response to Two key phrases: “I don’t know?” and “It depends.”

  1. Just today I sent an email with details that supported my “it depends” answer. Before the email, the writers were forcing my hand for a “yes” or “no” answer. So far, no rebuttals, but we shall see.

    As you mentioned, not all is black and white, and writers must instead use their discretion. In those cases, I try to provide a framework of guidelines and boundaries so that they can apply their discretion with a degree of confidence.


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