31 January 2013

Language marches on

One of my fascinations is the evolution of language and the force that we as writers can sometimes exert to change or preserve it. I feel that the study of the origins and history of the words we use are eximius (that being, something that used to have high value or standing that has fallen out of favour, practice or repute... by learning this word and definition and possibly using it yourself you’re joining my ongoing quest to get a dead word together with a revised and pertinent meaning back into the language and the OED!) and sometimes feel that as authors we have a role to play as the stewards of the language.
This week I’m onsite with a client, sitting next to their existing and quite large technical authoring team. It’s fun to sit with other technical authors shooting the breeze and debating issues for the style sheet. One of the debates has got me thinking about the future of the language, and one about its past:
Articles with extensions?
When mentioning .atd files in a sentence, is it “a .atd file” or “an .atd file”? There didn’t seem to be a definitive source, and we found that we were divided between those who say “an Ay Tee Dee file” and don’t include the dot in the file extension, and those who say “a dot Ay Tee Dee file”. It might sound like a small discussion, but it’s one that would not have been necessary before the computer. Sooner or later, based on consensus, or diktat from one of the style manuals, this issue will pass into a formalised convention and technical communicators will have changed a small part of the grammar and style of English usage.
Wordy Recipes
The second discussion that came up was the consideration of the plural of “formula”. I am pleased to say that as the team was quite strongly weighted with both chemists and those with theological training, the Latin based “formulae” won out. I’m sure there are those out there who think that it doesn’t matter, or that the alternative plural endings we find on some words are tricky to teach the iTunes addled minds of the young. Yet the chemists and theologians amongst us feel compelled to go for the older ending. This was perhaps because in some ways the older variant feels like a richer source of information. Like an old bemedalled soldier on a park bench, the word seemed to lend an air of intrigue and respectability to the otherwise ordinary scene that is painted by a manual.

Back when understanding language was more cool than eximius, an old man was receiving a literary award. He included in his speech the idea that “Broadly speaking, short words are best, and the old words, when short, are best of all.” This is good advice for a technical communicator, if acted upon it leads to writing that is accessible and understood by a wide audience. The implication however is that if we are to marshal words and have them merrily marching across landing pages, fields, sheets and books we must know something of their character. Given the influence this individual had on history, it will surprise some to know that his eventual Nobel Prize wasn’t in something mundane like peace or economics but Literature which goes to show that words do carry extraordinary weight. To borrow from another of his contemporaries, I feel we should tread softly, and carry a big book.

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