Grammatical & Contextual Correctness in Technical Communication

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  • 1:22 Correct Spelling
  • 3:22 Correct Punctuation
  • 6:22 Correct Grammar
  • 8:00 Correct Style
  • 9:08 Contextual Correctness
  • 10:53 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Suzanne Sweat

Suzanne has taught 12 years in the NC Public School System and three years at Campbell University. She has a master's degree in English Education.

One of the most important jobs of a technical writer is to make sure that the information published is accurate. This video provides tips to ensure that your documents are grammatically and contextually correct.

Communicating Correctly

When I first started teaching, one of my discipline policies was to confiscate notes that students passed to each other, correct all the grammatical errors, then give them back to the students. I always put a note at the bottom reminding them that they should probably pay attention during class, since clearly they hadn't learned all they needed to know about the English language. I hoped that through this experience I was teaching the kids two lessons - one, don't pass notes in my class, and two, grammar is important!

In fact, the number one thing employers say they look for in employees is good communication skills. Communication is especially important for technical writers because the documents they produce must be able to clearly and effectively communicate ideas in order to keep a business running successfully. This is why it is vital to make sure that the documents you produce as a technical writer are both grammatically and contextually correct.

Grammatical Correctness

Once you've written a document, it is vital that you check to see that you have corrected any grammatical errors. There are four areas to check before you publish:

  • Spelling
  • Punctuation
  • Grammar
  • Style

Correct Spelling

I saw on Facebook a few years ago a paragraph full of misspelled words. The message in the jumbled paragraph was that as long as the first and last letter of each word were in the right place, the human brain can figure out the rest of the word, even if the other letters in the word are mixed up. Supposedly, this paragraph was part of a Cambridge study that proved the power of the human brain.

I fell for it until a friend showed me an article stating that there was no such Cambridge study and that the only reason we could read the words was because the letters weren't that scrambled and the words didn't have many letters to begin with. Our brains aren't wired to figure out what a word means even if it's misspelled. Misspelling words can lead to confusion among your readers and, potentially, misinterpretation of your message.

If you're writing a technical document, you probably already know how to spell well. So when proofreading your work, focus on ensuring that some of the most commonly misspelled words are spelled correctly. Some of the most commonly misspelled words are 'accommodate', 'acknowledgment', 'commitment', 'consensus', and 'dependent'.

Another problem is a heavy reliance on spell check. Though it can alert you to a word that is misspelled, spell check can not tell you if you've used the correct word. For example, if you write 'If boys weren't so weird, than I mite except they're requests for a date', your spell check may not indicate that any of the words are misspelled, even though four are, based on the context of the sentence. It is important to carefully check over commonly confused words, such as 'to' and 'too', 'their' and 'they're', and 'except' and 'accept', to ensure that you've used the word you intended.

Correct Punctuation

I used to have a poster in my classroom that said, 'Punctuation saves lives!' and gave an example that said, 'Let's eat Dad!' instead of 'Let's eat, Dad!' Though our own punctuation problems may not mean the difference between cannibalism and dinner with dad, they can still create confusion for the reader.

Commas follow specific rules; we shouldn't insert a comma every time there is a pause in your sentence. Below are three common comma rules to check for in your writing:

  • Use a comma to separate three or more items in a series. For example, 'I like apples, oranges, and bananas.' There are three items listed - apples, oranges, and bananas - so there must be a comma to separate the items.
  • Use a comma to separate two complete sentences if there is a conjunction between the sentences. Many people use a comma between two sentences instead of a period. The only time you can use a comma to separate two sentences is if the word 'for', 'and', 'nor', 'but', 'or', 'yet', or 'so' come between those two sentences. For example, 'I like apples, but I don't like bananas'. Since the conjunction 'but' separates the two complete sentences, I put a comma before the word 'but'. Writing 'I like apples, I don't like bananas' is incorrect because the comma should be replaced with a period.
  • Use a comma to set off extra information. If there is additional information that can be taken out of the sentence and the sentence still makes sense, then commas should be placed before and after the extra information. For example, 'I eat bananas, which are high in potassium, as a mid-morning snack every day'. The phrase 'which are high in potassium' is extra information about the banana, so I must add a comma before and after the information.

Another punctuation mark to check for correctness is the apostrophe. Apostrophes are used to show possession. They shouldn't be placed in words that are meant to be plural. For example, the sentence 'Apostrophe's can be confusing' should not contain an apostrophe because we were using the word in the plural sense instead of a possessive noun.

Also, there is a big difference between 'The dog's teeth sank into my leg' and 'The dogs' teeth sank into my leg'. One implies a single dog bite, while the other implies many dogs were biting! Check to make sure that when you're referring to one item showing possession, the apostrophe comes before the 's'. If you're referring to two or more, the apostrophe comes after the 's', and if the item isn't possessive, there shouldn't be an apostrophe in the word.

Correct Grammar

In addition to punctuation errors, grammatical mistakes, such as having fragments and run-ons, subject-verb agreement errors, or misplaced modifiers, can also lead to confusion among your readers.

For a sentence to be complete, it must have a subject, verb, and complete thought. Make sure that every sentence states a complete idea.

In sentences, the subject must agree with the verb in number. This means if you have a plural subject, you have to have a plural verb; if you have a singular subject, you must have a singular verb. For example, 'Kids, on Halloween night, screams trick or treat' is incorrect. The subject, 'kids', is plural, while the verb, 'screams', is singular. To fix this sentence, we must change 'screams' to 'scream' so that both the subject and the verb are plural.

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