Re: Semicolon Survey

Subject: Re: Semicolon Survey
From: "Robert Plamondon" <robert -at- plamondon -dot- com>
To: "'TECHWR-L'" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 26 Aug 2003 08:40:05 -0700

>Robert wrote:
>> ...I learned a long time ago that you can't dumb stuff down to the
>> least common denominator without dropping a lot of content on the floor.

>Okay, I'll bite.
>Give me an example of tech writing where changing a passage that has a
>semicolon into a passage that uses some other construction would
>necessarily "drop a lot of content on the floor."

I was making a more general comment. You can't dumb something down merely
by screwing around with punctuation; you can only make it unclear. It is
easiest to write to a fifth-grade reading level if the material calls for no
more than a fifth-grade level of understanding. A lot of tech writing
covers such material, but some is much more involved.

For example, take the following paragraph from Foley and van Dam's COMPUTER
GRAPHICS (2nd Ed., p 623) [italics replaced with all caps]:


"Sampling theory provides an elegant mathematical framework to describe the
relationship between a continuous signal and its samples. So far, we have
considered signals in the SPATIAL DOMAIN; that is, we have represented each
of them as a plot of amplitude against spatial position. A signal may also
be considered in the FREQUENCY DOMAIN; that is, we may represent it as a sum
of sine waves, possibly offset from each other (the offset is called PHASE
SHIFT), and having different frequencies and amplitudes. Each sine wave
represents a component in the signal's FREQUENCY SHIFT. We sum these
components in the spatial domain by summing their values at each point in

My observations:

1. In my opinion, the semicolons are neither here nor there. It seems
terribly implausible that there exist people for whom this paragraph would
make perfect sense if the semicolons were replaced with em dashes, but who
would see only gibberish otherwise.

2. MS Word claims that this paragraphs measures out to a grade level of 9.8.
Whether this is appropriate for a highly mathematical college textbook is
something I leave to the taste of the individual. My own writings on the
same topic are easier to read, but I think they work out to about the same
grade level when scored mechanically. By the way, replacing the semicolons
with periods doesn't affect the measured grade level at all.

3. This is not the greatest paragraph in the world, and no doubt it can be
improved in a number of ways, but I doubt that its grade level can be
dropped very far without making it worse (though I invite everyone to try).

>And we don't seem to be talking about the same thing when we discuss
>people with a "low level of reading skill." People I would assign that
>attribute to simply do not read recreationally, whether it's Wodehouse or

The difference is that I am using "level of reading skill" in its
conventional sense: as measured in normal reading tests, which would return
an equivalent grade level. Other posters seem to be using a dichotomy,
dividing the world into "readers" and "non-readers" and assigning
characteristics to the two groups. The two methods aren't compatible.

>And for that matter, by your logic should we assume Hemingway
>was writing dumbed-down stuff for fifth-graders?

Hemingway isn't easy to read. Short sentences promote jarring transitions.
Transitions can be used for effect. Hemingway knew this. Tone and
presentation are crucial. Jumbling the sentence order adds additional
jarring. Content is often secondary in fiction. The effect can be heightened
by adding anomalous long sentences to keep the reader off balance and to
keep the effect from becoming too monotonous. Disconnecting thoughts is
crucial. Separating them, too. Make the readers work for it. Poor flow is
key. Good technical writing connects the thoughts. The word-counters among
us would be happy with bad Hemingway. Reading-score methods reward
choppiness. They penalize connectedness.

(Mind you, that paragraph comes out to grade level 7.2 because I'm talking
about a general technique and am thus using the passive voice. To get it
down to the fifth-grade level, I'd have to select a spurious viewpoint
character in order to dodge the passive-voice penalty.)

-- Robert
Robert Plamondon
President, High-Tech Technical Writing
robert -at- plamondon -dot- com
(541) 453-5841

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