Standard English is built from agreed-upon conventions

I’m busily preparing a course for the UCSC Silicon Valley Extension Technical Communication certificate program. It is “Grammar and Style for Technical Communicators.” I’ve chosen three (yes, three!) textbooks, and I continue to find wonderful articles across the bloggersphere and twittersphere that I keep adding to the introduction area. I do realize that most of the students who sign up for this class are doing so only because it is one of the required courses before they can take other courses in the certificate program. I guess I am hopeful that the students might enjoy discussing or debating the ideas behind the pedantic arguments about grammar (which are often not really about grammar, but about style, but let’s not digress and go there).

One of my favorite blogs about grammar is the Lingua Franca blog on the Chronicle of Higher Education site. A blog post from March 2015 made its way around the Twittersphere recently called “Talking About Grammar Pedantry.” It is a wonderful essay about Standard English. This quote from the post is at the heart of my grammar course:

Standard English, like all standard languages, can serve as a kind of lingua franca, especially in writing, for people who use different dialects. It also provides a target for speakers learning English as a second or foreign language. The problems emerge when standard English gets mistakenly equated with “the only kind of good/right/correct English.”

I applaud this author’s view that we should avoid “proper” or “correct” modifiers for English. Also, the author likes to use the word “conventions” instead of “rules,” to bring the conversation away from the polarization that comes from engaging in grammar pedantry. Standard English is an agreed upon set of conventions for the written word such that we can write, edit, revise, and potentially translate the information quickly and easily. And another great quote from the post about pedantry:

What a good usage guide can do is help us understand and effectively navigate those distinctions to achieve our own purposes as speakers and writers without ill-founded and sometimes snobbish pedantry.

To be a good technical communicator — be that a technical writer or a technical editor — you must be able to understand style guides and usage guides for your products and communications. I think that’s why I assigned three different textbooks for my course; I want my students to see how differently authors organize the grammatical and stylistic conventions for producing clear communication. You encounter and use many different style and usage guides, so having a solid foundation in grammar and style is a key to your success as a technical communicator.

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