Monday, February 26, 2007

In Defense of a Populist Grammar--
My blog today will not be popular with most of my audience (ironically, given its title). I invite all who disagree to post their responses in Chaucerian English.

And that introduces my point, when is a language supposed to stop adapting itself? Twice last week I came across conversations involving transitive and intransitive verbs, specifically vilifying those (like me) who have started to use some transitive verbs as intransitive.

Quick refresher: Transitive verbs take direct objects, as in "Joe hit the ball." Intransitive verbs do not take direct objects, as in "The light shines." Some can do either, as in "Mary played the piano" and "Billy played all day." So my first point is how seriously should I take a rule when the mother tongue herself seems a bit ambivalent about it?

The issue is around transitive verbs that get used in intransitive ways, for example, "The error message displays in the status bar," or "Do not close the connection until the document prints."

This is an interesting usage and one I think has some positive aspects. It is also closely aligned with the disdain many hold for the passive voice. The trend I see is that certain transitive verbs are becoming intransitive when the logical subject (had it stayed transitive) would have been the computer. In short, we do not care about the ghost in the machine. I know the computer prints the document, but I don't care or I don't want to talk about the computer. So I make the verb "print" intransitive to mean "gets printed." Agency (whodunit) is lost, but we know (or don't care) what printed it. Same thing with error messages that display.

A positive aspect is that this construction makes it easier to treat the object of interest as the topic (subject) of the sentence. This construction is similar to passive voice (which I think writers and editors unfairly eschew). I had an editor today change my sentence from "the user's focus is distracted away from the text by the radio buttons," to "The radio buttons distract the user's focus away from the text." No big deal, but I wanted the sentence to be about user focus, and now it is about the radio buttons.

There seems to be a humanistic need to ignore the computer as doer (controller?), and this move to intransitize verbs seems to be an adaptation to that need. I think "The error message displays in the status bar" is a better sentence than the "The system displays the error message in the status bar." For one, it keeps the sentence about the error message, and secondly, we know the computer does it so no information is lost. And for purists who love active voice, it does it without resorting to the passive form, "The error message is displayed..."

Just one little problem. Display is a transitive verb (well, it does have an intransitive use that deals with birds and animals behaving in ways that tip off others what species they are). One solution is to recognize that there is a trend to downplay the computer as agent and shift agency to objects by treating heretofore transitive verbs as intransitive. A useful device. But to whom do we write in order to make that change official?

Well, I would look to the bard for that answer:
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes.
Clear enough for you?

Conclusion: Let the language adapt to our changing needs and perspectives. The grammar books and dictionaries are history books after all--how the language was spoken. As long as meaning and clarity are not lost, what harm is done? Only English teachers get confused by the sentence "The error message displays in the status bar," sitting in front of the documentation asking, "Displays what? " Everybody else gets it and looks in the status bar to see if the system is displaying an error message.


Martha said...

OK, I’ll get on the soapbox. I couldn’t find a Middle English translation engine anywhere, so you’ll have to imagine sort of a swelling, strings-driven soundtrack reaching a crescendo around the 5th para instead.

I’m also all for letting language adapt, but not at the cost of clarity, which I think is the case here. Technically, what "The error message displays in the status bar" means is that “in the status bar” is the error message being displayed. I know the argument to that is: that makes no sense, so users automatically figure out the right meaning. But why make them do that when there’s an easy fix that uses words correctly and with greater clarity? The easy fix in this case is to substitute “appears” for “displays”. It fixes the transitive problem without introducing any new ones like passive voice.

Another problem for me with “displays” is that it is more system-centric than user-p.o.v.-centric. I don’t think people say, hey, that system is displaying something at me…they say something appeared in front of them.

I believe that we creators of user assistance have a responsibility to influence the evolution of language by balancing trends with existing rules of grammar in our products. Two trends that internet sources argue are winning out over grammar are the abandonment of hyphens and the end of distinction between who and whom. Apparently, these rules were arcane enough that the average Joe did not differentiate between correct and incorrect usage, and in both cases, the loss of clarity is minimal. I think there is a much higher percentage of users who couldn’t explain transitive verbs to you, but for whom their misuse is a clanker.

Neither of the abandoned rules above is something you see in user assistance with anywhere near the frequency of “displays”. We have a real opportunity to hold the line on both correct grammar and clarity by using “displays” and other transitive verbs properly. What we put online/onscreen/in docs will “stick” with people.

Pitfalls abound: there’s another way to fix the printing example sentence, and that’s “…until printing ends”. Unfortunately, people sometimes use the word “completes” or “finishes” with that solution, thereby introducing a transitive verb without an object!

Ted said...

Martha's second point is the one that matters most to me here. (Hi Martha! She was my boss years ago, but I'm not sucking up here, really.) I work on a huge enterprise product designed by and for engineers, with professional tech writers brought in only last year. All the legacy material I'm working with takes the system as the actor, in the big gross ways ("This product has the capability to...") as well as the subtle ways, like "display" instead of "appear." So I'm on a rampage to root out system-oriented rhetoric from my material in whatever form I find it. I wouldn't have let "The error message displays" go by me, not because I care about transitivity (I do a little, but I don't lose sleep over it) but because it takes the reader out of the driver's seat.

Mike Hughes said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mike Hughes said...

These are great comments. My take-away from both Martha and Ted is that I had constructed an unnecessary either/or dichotomy. There were third alternatives that would meet my rhetorical goals and stay within the bounds of correct usage.

I bow (with a somewhat Chaucerian flourish) to their greater wisdom on this.

Ted said...

Speaking of Chaucer, every technickal communicateur ought to have this on ye olde liste of bookmarkes: