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Double Take
Published
2006, Q3 (February 28, 2007)
Andrea Wenger, Carolina Chapter Senior Member

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Sometimes I feel like the grammar police. When I peer-review a four-page document and insert the word the seventeen times, I wonder: Is this what my company is paying me to do? Am I truly adding value for my customers?

Then, I'll come across a phrase that reminds me why I care. For instance, shaft of handle operating rod. Does this mean shaft of the handle operating the rod or shaft of the handle-operating rod? Only the engineer knows for sure. If I don't ask for clarification, the user may need to call technical support. So by inserting an article, I am adding value for the customer and saving my company money in the process.

The rules of grammar weren't invented by grammarians--they're intrinsic to the structure of language. And the integrity of our writing depends on our applying the rules vigorously to ensure that our readers understand our sentences.

Articles: Who Needs 'Em?

I often wonder why engineers omit articles when they write (a practice known as telescoping). Is it something in their education? Is it a holdover from an ink shortage during World War II? Whatever the reason, telescoping is ubiquitous and maddening. And it's our job as technical communicators to eradicate it.

According to The Chicago Manual of Style, an article is an adjective that indicates whether a noun is definite or indefinite. The definite article, the, is used with singular, plural, or mass nouns (the glow of the lights, the luck of the Irish). The indefinite articles, a and an, are used with singular, uncountable, or generalized nouns (a bowl of cherries, an excess of ideas, a mathematical impossibility). Use a before a consonant sound (a user's manual, a historic victory, a SWAT team); use an before a vowel sound (an understatement, an herb, an S-curve).

In a series, use an article with each noun:
The controller, the protection module, and the communication module are separately programmable.

If the nouns function together as a single unit, don't repeat the article:
The controller and protection module offer unprecedented flexibility in motor control.

If multiple modifiers refer to a single noun, don't repeat the article:
The fourth- and fifth-graders enjoy recess at the same time.

You can sometimes use the definite article to replace a possessive pronoun:
A player suffering an injury to the back must report to the trainer.

The phrase the back establishes gender neutrality more elegantly than the cumbersome his or her back.

Often, when used with plural or mass nouns, the article is implied, so you can omit it without affecting the meaning:
We served pumpkin pie on purple plates.

In some cases, however, omitting an article completely changes the meaning of a sentence — for example, we have little time to prepare instead of we have a little time to prepare.

The word article means "joint," and it's useful to think of articles this way. They show how the words in a sentence fit together.

English lends itself to the easy transition of one part of speech into another. Nouns become verbs, verbs become adjectives, and in spoken language, somehow it all works. But when reading, we rely on syntactic clues to lead us in the right direction. An article is a powerful signal that a noun is coming.

Noun Stacks

The frequent use of nouns as adjectives (ground bar instead of grounding bar, for example) makes articles all the more important. And the more nouns we stack together as modifiers, the more incomprehensible the expression becomes. Noun stacks like the following often appear in titles and headings:
New Controller Adapter Extension Card Part Number

To figure out the meaning of this phrase, the reader has to start at the end and work backward. Even a modest change would improve readability:
New Extension Card Part Number for the Controller Adapter

Not perfect, certainly, but better.

A trick I find useful when parsing phrases like the one above is to imagine it translated into Spanish or French. In those languages, articles generally are not dropped, and their syntax doesn't permit noun stacks. The word flow of the translations would go something like this:
New Number of Part for the Card of Extension for the Adapter of the Controller

Changing the syntax back to English:
New Part Number for the Extension Card of the Controller Adapter

The purpose of this exercise is to ensure that the writer understands what each word in the phrase modifies. Only then can she reword the phrase so that the reader can understand it — without the possibility of misinterpretation.

If you write documentation for products that can be dangerous if misused, ambiguity is scarier than rush hour traffic on I-40. If you already know what the sentence means, it's difficult to perceive that it could be taken to mean something else. By stringently applying rules of grammar, you help eliminate potential ambiguity even when you don't perceive it. Technical content is difficult enough to navigate; give the reader a clear path so he can focus on the journey instead of the road.


Andrea can be reached at andrea dot wenger at us dot schneider-electric dot com. End of article.

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