Plainly Speaking: Only You Can Make it Plain

by Karen Field Carroll on 25 April 2014

Recently I wrote an article for a charity newsletter about the charity’s annual banquet. I opened with this paragraph: We’d had a lovely evening. As I sat at our table at the banquet last month, checkbook open, pen poised to jot down a donation, I looked back over the last two hours.

(Yeah, not my best work. Let’s move on.)

When the charity’s director sent me the final piece, I noticed she’d replaced a comma with a semicolon: “… pen poised to jot down a donation; I looked back over the last two hours.”

Thinking that the director had a lot of gall to assume that a professional writer wouldn’t punctuate her own work correctly, I wrote her back and explained that the semicolon was incorrect. I told her that semicolons separate two complete, but closely related, sentences, and that the first part of the sentence in question was a dependent clause, not a complete sentence.

She wrote back and agreed to put the comma back in, adding, “But Word told me to use the semicolon.”

Ah. So it wasn’t gall; It was Word. Or maybe it was Word’s gall.

I can’t count the times I’ve used Word’s spelling- and grammar-checking “feature” only to discover that Word proposes erroneous—and sometimes ridiculous—changes.

I could spend a few hours researching the logic Word uses to verify spelling and grammar and then tell you how to work around it, but Word just isn’t worth my time. Instead, I’m going to tell you this: You don’t need Word to check your grammar. You’re the technical writer because you know how to write, not because you know how to use Word (or FrameMaker or MadCap or DITA-plus-the-content-management-system-du-jour). You understand spelling and punctuation. You could spot a widowed transitional verb from four paragraphs away. You know the rules of English and when to break them. You know how to write.

Don’t you?

I’m not a grammar ghoul. But English, like all languages, has its rules. And everyone who speaks English knows them, to a greater or lesser extent.

To illustrate, here’s a sentence I’ve never used before:

The blue, bear-like mountains seemed to lurch toward the green glaciers before them.

I can write—and you can read and understand—a sentence I’ve never used before because we know the rules of English syntax.  What makes us writers, though, is not that we know the rules; It’s that we know how to use them well. We have command of them, you could say, and we use our mastery to write text that is clear and readable.

As for the article about the charity banquet, I overcame my indignation when the director told me she’d gotten that semicolon from Word. Then I gave her advice similar to the advice I’m giving you: Rely on your own experience as a professional writer, not some software’s spell-checker, to tell you when a sentence doesn’t make sense. If you’re not sure, look up the info you need online.

Apps like Word can check your writing for spelling and grammar errors (however misguided the results), but only you can make your writing plain.

Karen Field Carroll is a senior technical writer, author, and plain language advocate. She and her husband live in Arizona with their German shepherd, Gunther, and their cat, Callie. Visit her blog at http://www.write2help.com.

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