Re: Avoid the Semicolon in Tech Writing?

Subject: Re: Avoid the Semicolon in Tech Writing?
From: Bruce Byfield <bbyfield -at- axionet -dot- com>
To: Janet Vega <anutha_writer -at- yahoo -dot- com>
Date: Sat, 16 Aug 2003 18:13:10 -0700

Janet Vega wrote:

Hi all
I recently read a Style Guide from another company
with which I was previously unfamiliar. In it, it
stated that the semicolon is to be avoided in
technical communication since one can almost always
make two shorter sentences using a period.
On the whole, I think this is good advice. In other words, it reflects my own practice. I'm cautious of following any rule religiously, because I'm sure there are exceptions, but, on the whole I agree with it.

I also try to minimizie compound and complex sentences, too (for those who have forgotten their grammar: a compound sentence has two complete thoughts; for example: "I avoid the semi-colon and I avoid long sentences in technical writing." A complex sentence is one that contains a subordinate clause; for example: "I made a statement about sentence structure, which brought many harsh responses from the list.")

In all three cases, my reasoning is the same. When readers use documentation, they generally want to find the information they want as quickly as possible and get on with whatever they are doing. Simple sentence structure help them absorb the information they need quickly. Therefore, minimizing sophisticated structures is usually a good idea for tech-writing.

I use all three structures all the time in other writing, and I'd even go so far as to say that all of them help to make writing a closer reflection of my actual thought. However, tech-writing isn't about my self-expression, or about showing off my own skills. It's about delivering the information that readers need as efficiently as possible. Using simple sentence structure helps with this basic aim, so that's what I try to use.

And, just in case anyone agrees with a former sub-contractor that this means that manuals are written in "baby talk," let me paraphrase Isaac Asimov, a writer who was often criticized for his own simplicity of language. Stain glass goes back a couple of thousand years, he wrote once, but clear glass that you can actually see through is only a few hundred years old. To write about technical subjects simply, you have to know your material, and you need to have your information exceptionally well-organized. It's actually far harder and takes far more experience to discuss complicatd subjects in simple language than to do so any other way.

Bruce Byfield bbyfield -at- axionet -dot- com 604.421.7177

"Comes a heat wave, you can go down to the shore,
Comes a summon, you can hide behind the door,
Comes love, nothing can be done."
-Lew Brown, Sammy Stept, and Charles Tobias

Avoid the Semicolon in Tech Writing?: From: Janet Vega

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