Thursday, May 15, 2008

"Nu grammar"

Sarah Maddox posted a summary of the "new grammar" session led by Jonathan Halls at AODC (Australasian Online Documentation and Content Conference) she attended. Her summary hooked me.

Jonathan's interpretation of "grammar" turned out much broader than I've ever took it: "the principles or rules of an art, science or technique". Hmmm... After reading Sarah's post, I took some time to read Jonathan's AODC handout Do you have time to read this? and many points of his "nu grammar" philosophy became clearer.

I agree with Jonathan that (a) in the recent years, communication patterns have changed dramatically (yes, in Russia too!), and (b) technical communicators must therefore respond to people's new expectations towards communication. Yes, we must, though often it's quite a challenge. It's true that people now emphasize the importance of faster, easier, and this way more efficient communication. At my current workplace, I mostly write documents for internal use, and colleagues sometimes ask me to shorten some written piece because they feel frustrated to read that much text. In Russian, we even have a popular ditty for this kind of complaint: "mnogabukav niasilil" -- literally "manyletters couldn'tmanage". :-)

I also agree that many innovations in the techcomm area can help us "win the fight" for readers' / listeners' / watchers' time. I like the ideas of adjusting content for speed reading, delivering information in quickly accessible formats, using collaborative environments, encouraging interactivity and authorship delegation, favoring more conversational style over "official language", etc.

However, I still feel "digital immigrant" rather than "digital native" when it comes to applying "nu grammar" ideas to strictly grammar issues. For example, now and then I'm asked to review my colleagues' documents and emails. When I follow "classical" English grammar and stick to Chicago Manual's guidelines, people say I make their prose too heavy. They want lighter constructions (though sometimes wrong in terms of "classical" English), and make me break my head over rephrases that would be both "light enough" and "grammatically correct" (not to say about clarity).

I just can't reconcile myself with the idea of writing technical specifications in instant-messaging style -- even if I knew it would boost understanding. My current "freedom limit" here is Richard Lanham's idea to replace "official style" with everyday though grammatically valid "business prose".

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