Printed from the Technical Editor's Eyrie,

Escape from the grammar trap

by Jean Hollis Weber

Too many editors focus on the details and don't pay enough attention to the bigger picture. Editors can--and should--add even more value through substantive, technical, and usability editing.

Copyediting is important, but the details are only part of what an editor can and should be reviewing. After all, a document can be correctly spelled and punctuated, grammatically correct, use only approved terminology, and follow the style guide perfectly--and still not serve the audience's needs.

This article covers some reasons why editors focus on details and not the bigger picture; describes how much attention technical communicators should pay to formal rules of grammar, punctuation, and usage; and describes how we can distinguish between essential and nonessential rules of grammar, punctuation, and usage.

Why do editors have such a narrow focus?

Some reasons for an editorial focus on details have to do with editors themselves; other reasons arise from the perceptions and priorities of managers and writers.

Many editors are in one of these groups:

Many managers, writers, and other clients believe one or more of the following statements:

Distinguish between essential, nonessential, and fake rules

How much attention should technical communicators pay to formal rules of grammar, punctuation, and usage? Does incorrect grammar, punctuation, or usage detract from the value and usability of your group's publications? Does your audience care, or even notice, if formal rules are broken?

To answer these questions, we need to examine grammar, punctuation, and usage:

Rules of grammar, punctuation, and usage can be essential or nonessential--or even fake!

Essential rules are those that are necessary for clear, unambiguous communication.

Nonessential rules are those that are not required for clarity and unambiguity.

Fake rules may actually be matters of word choice, style, or conventional usage, not rules of grammar; or they may be things many of us were taught were wrong, but which are in fact acceptable variations in usage.

Writers and editors need to pay attention to the essential rules, but can spend less time on nonessential rules--particularly in the face of tight deadlines--and they can ignore the fake rules.

Some rules, such as those about dangling participles and not ending sentences with prepositions, are nonessential because readers can figure out the meaning; but they are still important rules to follow in those cases where following the rule would make the writing easier to understand. For example, split infinitives are acceptable in English ("to boldly go"), but if you replace the adverb (boldly) with a long adverbial phrase, the meaning becomes more difficult to decipher.

I'm sure all technical communicators would like to produce perfect documents, but we rarely have the leisure to do so. Business realities too often require compromises from writers and editors, so we place accuracy and usability ahead of minor issues of grammar and punctuation--as I think we should.

Of course, what's a minor issue to me may be a major issue to you; some audiences may have an unusually high percentage of people who won't trust your facts if they think you're misusing the language; and some of your technical reviewers will focus on the grammar instead of the facts. All of these scenarios provide good reasons to pay attention to grammar rules, or at least not abuse them too blatantly or frequently.

Examples of essential grammar and punctuation rules

Essential rules are those that are necessary for clear, unambiguous communication. Some examples:

Use of commas, when errors can cause ambiguity or misunderstanding. For example, these pairs of sentences convey quite different messages:

Use of apostrophes in possessives and contractions, but not plurals. Incorrect placement of apostrophes changes meaning (often causing confusion or ambiguity) or is completely wrong. Some examples:

Subject-verb agreement (but see notes on "data" and "they," below). When the subject and verb are separated by many other words, this agreement may be difficult to sort out. Often the best solution is to rewrite the sentence: If you can't easily decide whether a verb should be singular or plural, chances are your readers will get lost in the sentence anyway.

Avoiding dangling modifiers, unclear antecedents, and other constructions that can create ambiguity, even when most readers will eventually figure out what's meant. Some examples:

Examples of nonessential grammar and punctuation rules

Nonessential rules are those that are not required for clarity and unambiguity. Some examples:

The distinction between "different from," "different than," and "different to."

The use of old forms of English: Use of the subjunctive ("if he were to do something"), the pronoun "whom" as the objective form of "who," and several other somewhat old-fashioned (though correct) forms of English.

Many (but not all) rules about the use of commas, given that many punctuation "rules" are different in US English and UK English. For example:

Comma after introductory word or (short) phrase or clause:

My rule of thumb is: If I stumble after an introductory word, phrase, or clause and have to re-read to make sure I understood the sentence, then a comma is probably required (or the sentence needs rewriting), but if I don't stumble, then the comma is probably optional, even if traditional usage says it is required.

The distinction between "which" and "that" in some clauses. Although technically there is a significant difference, in most (but not all) cases readers will not misinterpret the meaning of the sentence, and conventional usage varies between US English and UK English: UK English uses "which" in most situations.

Some apostrophe use. For example, does the use of "user's guide," "users' guide," or even "users guide" or "user guide" lead to any confusion or ambiguity? I think not. (But do pick one variation and use it consistently.) Yes, there's a difference: "User's guide" means a manual for one user, whereas "users' guide" means a manual for multiple users. This is a clear grammatical distinction, but to the reader, it's irrelevant: In both cases, the title clearly communicates that the manual is intended to help them use the product. ("Users guide" is technically incorrect but perfectly clear, and "user guide" is common usage.)

Examples of usage rules

Style and usage rules may be written into a style guide as "the way we do things here," to improve consistency in a company's publications, but editors and writers need to recognize them as choices, not rules of English grammar.

Another good reason to include some usage rules in your style guide is to clarify what's negotiable in your company and what's not negotiable.

Some examples:

Examples of fake rules


What's the bottom line?


Thanks to Geoff Hart and the students in two editing workshops for their comments on an early draft of this article.

This article was originally published by RayComm (

An earlier version of this article is archived here: