Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Word Choice and Grammar or, It's not a problem

I was teaching my technical writing course for Learning Tree last week and we had a young woman in the class from China. When we got to the final exercise--about 600 words aimed a recent immigrant on how to survive a Chinese wedding party dinner--her document contained numerous grammatical mistakes (mostly around plurals) and at least one unfortunate word choice (in suggesting that guests wear formal outfits, she suggested a tuxedo for the man...and a nightgown for the woman).

It was a great document to end the course with because (a) it gave us a chance to laugh at ourselves and (b) it made a great point that I keep hammering away on in the course: those errors don't really matter. I'm not denying that they needed to be fixed--a final pass by an idiomatic English speaker was definitely required. But the changes were trivial: add an "s" here, change "nightgown" to "evening gown." The content was spot on, there was an excellent balance of given and new, the organization was great. All the things that would require real time to fix or force a significant rewrite were taken care of.

What's too bad about this is how readers react to the errors that were present. Readers take the presence of the kind of trivial errors that were in this document as measures of overall quality. So much poorer documents than the one that this student produced would be more highly valued than this document. It emphasizes that the final pass through a document has to be a proofing pass to remove these kinds of "dissatisfiers."

I suspect, though, that the reason that I feel this is so wrong is that I am so bad at proofing my own work (so bad that no one would ever ask me to proof someone else's work).

Reading or read

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