Sunday, January 29, 2012

Coulda, shoulda, woulda

I never, ever say going to when I mean gonna. I don't say "I'm going to do this," I say "I'm gonna do this." Or, even more likely, I would say "I'ma' do this." 
I'm not illiterate or inarticulate. I know the right way to say things and the right way to write things. I certainly wouldn't write such a thing in a technical document. But why wouldn't I? How many people do you know who don't say gonna? Who says kind of instead of kinda? Supposed to and not sposda
I think about that a lot. Why don't we write like we talk? 
In technical documentation, you're not supposed to personify computers. Computers don't talk to each other, they communicate. They don't see hardware attached to them, they detect it. When a programmer explains something to me in programmer-ese, it's my job to translate it into English. But if a programmer explains to me that the Server "sees" another computer on the network, I have to translate it to the dry diction of technical documentation. To do otherwise would make the documentation seem unprofessional. 
Of course, back in the day, you weren't supposed to use the second person in professional writing.  Instead of saying "You can configure the program this way or that way," you would say "the user can configure the program this way or that way." Why ever would one add more words to make a sentence less direct? Because those are the rules.


When we were kids, we were supposed to practically copy the encyclopedia articles when we wrote a report. Then we were supposed to paraphrase the encyclopedia. Then we weren't supposed to use the encyclopedia when we wrote reports.
Once, we learned a million fanciful ways to say the word said. Declared, stated, exclaimed, voiced, communicated... and you barely use any of them. If you wrote fiction and used a different synonym for said every time someone said something, you'd look pretty silly. 
It's not linoleum, but it is flooring...
Or is it a picture of the Midwest from above?
Once, we learned a million and one adjectives and adverbs, and we were encouraged to use them to make our writing more descriptive. We padded our papers with them and no one complained. Then William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well told me not to overuse adverbs. They're annoying and often redundant, he said. Instead, you should use strong verbs that make adverbs unnecessary. He's right, of course. The longer you take to get your point across, the more work your audience has to do to get what you're trying to say, the less effective your message. Adjectives need to be got rid of too, of course. William Zinsser says "The adjective that exists solely for decoration is self-indulgence for the writer and a burden for the reader." Sometimes it's important that your reader know that the table is ornate, oak, and ancient. Most of the time, all they need to know is that it's a table. That's tricky too. In technical writing, I have to decide whether to tell the reader to push the round, red button, or whether the reader will know what I mean if I just tell them to push the button. In fiction, it's even trickier. If the table is too thoroughly described, it's burdensome vanity. But sometimes you need details to draw your audience into the scene. If you set me in a room with a table, I'm in a white-walled room with a nondescript table, and I'm not invested. If I know that the room has cracked linoleum and that the table smells of Murphy's Oil Soap, I'm right there. I may, though, just have proved Zinsser's point... there's only one adjective in that sentence. If I said that the linoleum was black, cracked, and dusty, would that really be telling you anything you really need to know and/or couldn't infer? 

1 comment:

  1. I work in IT and know how difficult it is to demo our product without having our users think that I just started spouting Greek! You have my utmost respect!

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