Because Communication is Key!
The TWO Super Powerful Secrets you MUST KNOW to Write Compelling Copy for Twitter & Facebook
& Usage Manuals
|In the summer of
2007, I was working with a group of biologists for the Fish and Wild
Service of the Department of Interior in a class called Critical
Writing, Critical Thinking. It’s a grueling, week long session of
reading, writing, thinking, and reviewing, during which we all get
frustrated more than once. And by the time we leave, we’re all
exhausted and exhilarated.
And on this one afternoon in July, when the frustration was running pretty high, and the exhaustion was just around the corner, and we couldn’t even glimpse the exhilaration, one of us broke. A certain biologist skipped his pen across the table, tossed himself back into his chair, threw his arms up, and surrendered.
To be fair, the morning session on sentence structure had been rough, involving a fairly intense battle between the phrase camp and the clause camp. Anyone who has worked for the government (or tried to decipher IRS publications) will understand what it must have been like to rally those troops. When the afternoon lesson on causal argumentation broke down precisely because of a sentence structure issue, a minor skirmish was to be expected.
So it was that a very well respected, long term employee of the federal government in all seriousness, albeit with some vehemence exclaimed, Why can’t we just hire some grammar experts in Washington to clean up this crap and let us do our jobs? And the revolutionary shot was fired. Grumbles began throughout the room, and the instructor team began furtively glancing, first at one another and then at the exits.
As a composition instructor, an English PhD, and a contractor for the federal government, you might expect me to jump on an opportunity like that. Perhaps if I were a little more mercenary, I might have said something like, Pay me an excellent salary, and I’ll be happy to clean up your crap. Except I won’t. Nor will I argue would any other English expert, language lady, or grammar guru. (And despite the foregoing penchant for alliteration, I personally prefer GQ—Grammar Queen!)
It’s not just that the idea of copy editing bores me to tears. There are plenty of people that do it, and that love what they do. It’s simply the fact that a copy editor cannot clean up faulty grammar. Take the following example:
The authority to list a “species” as endangered or threatened is thus not restricted to species as recognized in formal taxonomic terms but extends to subspecies and for vertebrate taxa to distinct population segments (DPS’s).
If you’re not a biologist, and I definitely am not, you’re probably going—what does that mean? Sorry, but I don’t really know. What I do know is that it might need a comma around the words “for vertebrate taxa.”
You see, that phrase is an element that might be restrictive or non-restrictive, also called essential or non-essential. The answer hinges around the question, are vertebrate taxa the ONLY subspecies to have DPS’s? If so, the phrase requires commas, because DPS necessarily refers to vertebrate taxa.
Do you see what I mean? Only a biologist would understand that. But it’s a biologist’s job to make that clear to his readers. And the commas make that clear, whether you’re a biologist or not.
So who is going to be the next grammar guru? You. Because you are the only person with the knowledge, expertise, and PASSION, to care enough about your subject matter to express it clearly, concisely, and correctly. And in order to do that, you have to know the difference between a restrictive and a non-restrictive element. You have to understand how to punctuate coordinating conjunctions properly. You need to know when to use a semicolon and when to use a hyphen. In other words, you have to become the grammar expert.
There’s no grammar guru that can clean up your crap. But if you care enough about your profession, you’ll become that writing expert so that you can advocate for your own message effectively. In order to do that, you’ll need some tools, including a grammar handbook.
There are many to choose from. I’ve selected four to review here based on their ease of use, their credibility, and their longevity. And as always, feel free to contact me with any questions, comments, or suggestions: firstname.lastname@example.org.
St. Martin's Handbook
Andrea Lunsford is one of the world’s leading composition theorists and writing experts. Under her direction, the St. Martin’s Handbook features in-depth, thorough, and clear explanations of even of the most complicated grammar questions, including flow charts and graphs as well as a plethora of exercises. This is not a quick reference guide but a tool for the serious student.
Hacker, A Writer's Reference
Diana Hacker’s Writer’s Reference features an incredibly user friendly design. The spiral binding allows it to be laid flat during use. A table of contents is provided on the front end papers, and sections are color coded, outline numbered, and tabbed allowing for multiple methods of quick access. Explanations are concise, and the visual editing of exercises on the page makes them clear. The online quizzes offer the chance for some critical thought about the writing triangle and the writing cycle rather than mere exercises in grammar. The index is hard to find and difficult to use, buried behind the main text and obscured by several appendices.
Hodges’ Harbrace has a classic ivy league feel to the hardback that some will find appealing. Others will be turned off by the inability to lay the book flat without a spiral binding. Tables of contents and indices are printed on the end papers and chapters are color coded for speed of reference. Cheryl Glenn’s explanations are clear and lucid, and the examples are excellent. ESL and technology issues are not quite so robust.
Little, Brown Handbook
The Little, Brown Handbook is used by many of the nation’s top universities. I personally have not taught from it, so I cannot speak to its usability. However, the website does offer an extensive set of exercises, available for individual download as Word files. And the weblinks page offers excellent resources from a wide range of public, educational, and corporate entities.