Whether it’s a missing apostrophe or a misplaced comma, you’re probably aware of the subtle—and sometimes hilarious—changes in meaning that a single overlooked grammar error can create. Grammar, alone, has the ability to reduce serious public warnings or heartfelt company statements to a laughing stock.
It’s likely that no one has actually been hurt as a result of the admonition “Elephants Please Stay in Your Car” outside the gate of an Animal Safari Park. But there are many cases where an error—even a small one—has led to a million-dollar lawsuit. Lawsuit-level grammar errors seldom result from misleading marketing content or a small spelling mistake; instead, they are often a result of confusing technical documentation that is intended to provide accurate information or instruction.
So how can writers avoid some of the common grammatical errors in technical writing? Let’s find out.
Grammar, Spelling and Technical Writing
Grammar and spelling mistakes can strike anywhere and embarrass a writer. In technical writing, the consequences can be more severe, because the primary purpose of technical writing is to provide instruction and guidelines. Therefore, technical writers are under more pressure than most to be concise in their written communication.
The Cost of Ambiguity
Grammar is meant to provide clarity. In speech, additional factors such as the tone of voice, facial expression and limb movements help convey specific meaning. These factors naturally eliminate the ambiguity in our sentences. The same cannot be said for written communication, however. Without proper and thoughtful use of grammar and spelling, your writing may be unclear.
A recent Accenture study, for example, reported that American consumers returned $13.8 billion in electronics in 2007. Between 60 percent and 85 percent of this equipment was perfectly functional, but the purchasers returned it because of confusing interfaces, features that were difficult to access, a lack of customer education and weak documentation. These were all factors that excellent written communication could have solved—yet in its absence, many electronics companies found that they were frustrating customers to the point of initiating a product return, and their credibility was taking a hit.
Avoiding grammar and spelling mistakes is one of the most important skills you can cultivate as a technical writer. It is important for many reasons. First, any mistake you overlook in your text will most likely be caught by someone else. If that someone else is your senior manager or employer, it will reflect badly on your professional capabilities. Poor writing often predicts poor attention to detail, inadequate critical-thinking skills and a lack of motivation among employees. Grammarly recently conducted a survey on grammar in the workplace and learned the following:
- Professionals with fewer grammar errors in their profiles achieved higher positions. Those who failed to progress to a director-level position within the first 10 years of their careers made 2.5 times as many grammar mistakes as their director-level colleagues.
- Fewer grammar errors correlate with more promotions. Professionals with one to four promotions over their 10-year careers made 45 percent more grammar errors than those with six to nine promotions in the same time frame.
Simply put, an erroneous technical document will compromise the credibility of the product as well as the company and the writer. A little caution, on the other hand, will help you create a better professional reputation and achieve self-satisfaction.
Common Mistakes Technical Writers Must Avoid
If you are a professional technical writer, there is a good chance that a majority of your spelling mistakes are due to a lack of proofreading. For instance, writing right instead of write, there instead of their, or than instead of then. Depending on the context and sentence structure, such mistakes may or may not have a significant impact on your intended meaning.
On the other hand, some mistakes are more severe in nature. These mistakes either compromise the clarity of your intended meaning or degrade the overall quality of your writing. Maintaining quality is important, so let’s discuss some of the common grammar mistakes that technical writers must avoid to maintain a high writing standard.
1. Present vs. Future Tense
Technical writers should use the present tense as much as possible. Present tense indicates established facts and knowledge, which all writers should have available when creating public-facing information about a product. Future tense is rarely acceptable in technical writing because customers expect that companies are certain about “what happens,” and that they are not simply predicting “what will happen.” Here is an example:
A broken antenna distorts signals.
is better than writing
A broken antenna will distort signals.
2. Using Too Many Nouns
Technical writing is very different from creative writing. In the latter, use of modifiers such as strong adjectives or abstract nouns is acceptable, if not desirable. In the case of technical writing, using too many nouns can create confusion. Take a look at this example:
Pushing the button causes the termination of the program.
Instead of using the abstract noun termination, it is better to write
Pushing the button terminates the program.
3. Passive Voice
Active voice is always preferable for technical writing because it sounds more natural than passive voice. Passive voice usually leads to longer sentences with confusing structures. More importantly, it stresses the object rather than the subject, so unless that is your intention, avoid using passive voice and stick to a natural active style. For example,
The report was presented by Prof. Howard.
This statement should read
Prof. Howard presented the report.
As a technical writer, it is important for you to be aware of the common use cases for the comma, period, hyphen and other punctuation marks. But even more important than knowing how to use these symbols correctly is that you must also pay close attention to detail.
In 2006, Rogers Communications was expected to lose $2.13 million because of a misplaced comma in a contract. It may be little, but punctuation can sure pack a punch.
The list of common technical writing mistakes is expansive, and these errors can afflict even stodgiest grammarians among us—with potentially disastrous results. That is why proofreading your work before publication is important.
Alison Doyle at About.com writes, “It’s a challenge for me to catch my own mistakes, because I see what I think I wrote.”
With that in mind, you should also consider requesting a second set of eyes to help you proof your work. It doesn’t necessarily have to be an editor. Today, a number of brilliantly creative online tools facilitate and promote self-assessment and improvement.
About the Author
A self-proclaimed word nerd, Allison VanNest works with Grammarly to help improve communication among the world’s 2+ billion native and non-native English writers. Connect with Allie, the Grammarly team, and more than 655,000 Grammarly Facebook fans at www.facebook.com/grammarly.
Image courtesy of davef3138