Shibboleths of Technical Communication

By | 2012/06/29

A shibboleth is a test which separates friends from enemies, insiders from outsiders, the trustworthy from the suspect.

In medieval England, it was easy to tell the nobility from the peasantry: the nobility spoke French; the peasantry spoke English. This is why our words for meat on the hoof are Anglo-Saxon in origin (cow, sheep, pig) while our words for meat on the plate are French in origin (beef, mutton, pork). A peasant might steal a noble’s horse and cloak, but he could not pass himself off as a nobleman because he could not steal a noble’s tongue.

After the English crown lost its grip on its French possessions, and France became an enemy, the English nobility began to speak English. But they still needed a shibboleth to separate themselves from the peasantry, and so they created their own English, the English of the privileged and the learned. This English had a grammar based on Latin, which is why it forbade structures natural to English, but foreign to Latin, such as the split infinitive (to boldly go) or the ending of a sentence with a preposition (the sort of arrant pedantry up with which Churchill reputedly refused to put).

These particular latinate shibboleths are rarely insisted upon today in “standard” English, but grammatical shibboleths still abound; that is, linguistic conventions and usages that do not exist to convey meaning, but are recommended simply because they are “correct”. “Correct,” that is, not because they are necessary for communication to occur, but because they conform to an established standard.

Detecting which of our rules of grammar, orthography, and style are shibboleths is simple enough. If you can tell what the author of the offending passage meant, then any lapses from the standard are matters of shibboleth, not essential meaning. If you can “correct” the passage without any doubt as to is meaning, then you are correcting violations of shibboleths. The corrected passage does not mean something different from the uncorrected one, but it says (potentially) something different about the education, trustworthiness, or insider status of the author.

A resent WSJ article, This Embarrasses You and I*,  focuses on the shibboleth function of grammar: the ways in which lapses from the standard in business communications may embarrass their authors.  The joke here is that for the most part, these lapses from standard grammar do not actually embarrass those who commit them. Rather, they scandalize the sticklers who still see standard grammar as the mark of an educated person. These sticklers believe the lax should be embarrassed, but if the lax actually were embarrassed, they would change their ways. Since they don’t, we must presume they are not embarrassed. As the antics of the Hollywood train wreck of the moment teach us, the fact that we are scandalized by their behavior in no way implies that they are embarrassed by it.

In a Linked-in discussion (no link, because it is a discussion in a member’s only group) sparked by the WSJ article, Terry Kistner speaks for the sticklers:

Label me as an “Old School” stickler, but I believe the quality of grammer you use when communicating with others says a lot about your character. I suppose there is a time and place for slang or the use of acronyms, emoticons etc., and I can deal with that. I can even understand that there might be mistakes in a translation. But when someone uses “then” when it should be “than”, I want to pull out the rest of my hair. I think this kind of misuse says “I don’t care enough to know which word is the right word to use” or “I wasn’t paying attention in grammer classes”. Either way, I sense a lack of professionalism.

This is the essence of the stickler’s case: if you do not respect and obey the shibboleths of grammar, orthography, and style, people will not regard you as a professional. The function of these shibboleths is specifically to separate the professional from the unprofessional, just as classically their function was to separate the nobility from the peasantry.

The problem is that the ranks of professionals — people whose other credentials, accomplishments, and responsibilities mark them undeniably as professionals — no longer regard standard grammar as a hallmark of professionalism. (This much is clear from the WSJ article.)

To suggest that no member of the professional class will regard you as a fellow member of the professional class unless you follow all the shibboleths of grammar, orthography, and style, therefore, no longer holds water. These shibboleths are no longer the shibboleths of professionalism, they are the shibboleths only of sticklers (as Terry Kistner tacitly acknowleges by describing his view as “old school”).

The community of sticklers includes many writers (though clearly not all), and a scattering of readers who may be found in all sorts of different professional positions. I have encountered avid sticklers in the ranks of engineers and product managers. Often sticklers in these positions are sticklers even for some of the latinate rules that most contemporary usage gurus would regard as moribund. (In a sense, knowing that these latinate forms are now considered moribund is itself a kind of super-shibboleth, separating the grammatical elite from the common stickler.)

Anyway, my point is that, however much we might wish otherwise, adherence to standard grammar rules is no longer a shibboleth of either the educated or the the professional. People who demonstrate their professionalism and expertise in other ways are given a pass on lax grammar and awkward style. What are the consequences for technical communication?

First, it is worth acknowledging the undoubted truth that many of the linguistic conventions which would count as shibboleths by the test I proposed above, nevertheless play an important role in making communication more efficient. The familiar is easier to parse, so following familiar usage certainly helps lower the barriers to comprehension. This does not cover all shibboleth rules, since many of them are more honored in the breach than the observance, but it is important to acknowledge the role that conventional usage plays in easing comprehension.

That said, we have to acknowledge that one of the main criticisms that writers make of community and collaborative content — that is lacks authority because it violates grammatical shibboleths — does not hold water. The simple fact is that people do not judge the reliability of community content by its grammatical purity, a shibboleth that is meaningless to them. They judge it by other measures, such as the grasp of the subject matter that the author displays, or the respect that the author has earned from other members of the community. To believe that tech writers can or should ignore community content, or to believe that their careers will not be affected by its impact in the information space for a product, is to be blind to the reality of how trust is earned and granted on the Web.

We have to see and acknowledge that the community of technical information providers is now far broader than ourselves, and that quality in that community is not, except by a few, judged based on the shibboleths of language, nor by the more specific conventions and shibboleths of technical communication. And we have to understand and acknowledge that we will not enhance our own standing in the community by carping at the grammatical foibles of others. It will not make us look trustworthy; it will make us look petty.

Does this mean that we can or should abandon the shibboleths of language ourselves?

There is a principle in network information systems design: be liberal in what you accept and strict in what you send. In other words, a good network application will conform strictly to all network protocols in what it transmits, but will be as open as possible in what protocols and errors it accepts in the information coming from other systems. An example of the latter is a web browser, which accepts content from millions of web servers around the world and accepts, and makes the best of, all kinds of poorly-formed and error-filled HTML documents.

On the same principle, it seems like a good rule for us to be liberal in accepting community and collaborative content, while continuing to adhere to standard grammar and usage in what we ourselves produce (though not to the extent of being outright obscure in adherence to the obscure shibboleths still beloved of some sticklers).

Be liberal in what you accept, and strict in what you send. In a technical communication environment in which professional tech writers are only one voice in the choir, that seems like a pretty good operating principle to me. What do you think?

12 thoughts on “Shibboleths of Technical Communication

  1. Larry Kunz

    When even a self-proclaimed “Old School” stickler uses the spelling “grammer” twice in a single paragraph, then I believe we have to admit the truth of your argument. The rigid rules we once used to guide us (and, yes, to judge others) no longer apply — except when failure to obey them results in distorted or grossly unclear writing.

    That said, I’m not ready to start writing “grammer” yet. So, yes: I’ll be liberal in what I accept, and strict in what I send. Well said.

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Funny thing is, I never noticed that misspelling! I probably would not have used the quote if I had.

      I think it may be the wrath of the gods that prevents any criticism of the grammar of others to be written without errors. For my own part, I am far too aware of my own fallibility to take pleasure in that kind of sport!

  2. Joe Pairman

    Great post. It makes a lot of sense to “Be liberal in what you accept, and strict in what you send.”

    There are indeed some prescriptive grammar rules that not only fail to reflect standard usage now, but didn’t even make much sense at the time they were cooked up. (One minor point: I seem to remember that many of the obscure shibboleths were actually created in the 19th century and that before then, people tended to be a lot more liberal about everything, including spelling.)

    I think there’s just one time when it’s better to follow this kind of outdated rule: when breaking it would cause distraction for many readers. If people do a kind of mental double-take when reading, because they think the grammar’s wrong (or because they think that others will think the grammar’s wrong!), it can detract from the point.

    Of course, if following an outdated rule detracts from clarity, breaking it may be the best course after all. Steven Pinker gives a good example in The Language Instinct. There’s no way to “fix” the pronoun agreement in this sentence without sounding very awkward:

    “Mary saw everyone before John noticed them.”

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Hi Joe. Thanks for the comment. Yes, I painted the history with a very broad brush. I do believe that new shibboleths continued to be invented (and perhaps still are being invented). Particularly in the 19th century, with the rise of the “Bradford millionaire” there were reasons for the noble and learned to seek ways to differentiate themselves by manners when they could no longer distinguish themselves by property.

      My parents were both the first members of their respective working-class families to go to university, and both were taught in high school how to speak “properly” so that their northern English dialects would not be looked down on by the university crowd.

      And yes, the principle of being strict in what you send notwithstanding, clarity take precedence over any rule. I’m a great fan of George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”, and his rules of composition, the last of which is: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”

  3. DelphiPsmith

    Maybe I’ve misunderstood, but the difference between “then” and “than” doesn’t seem to me to be a minor matter. They may be homonyms, but they have very different meanings (much like the very important distinction between “your crap” and you’re crap”!!). The difference between “you and me” or “you and I” on the other hand I agree is minor, since me and I are both, well, me.

    “The simple fact is that people do not judge the reliability of community content by its grammatical purity.” That depends on the community you’re in. It’s reasonable to judge a surgeon partly by how clean his fingernails are; likewise, it’s reasonable to judge someone whose job involves communication by how well they communicate, and whether they’re willing to make the effort to do so clearly and accurately.

    “An example of the latter is a web browser, which accepts content from millions of web servers around the world and accepts, and makes the best of, all kinds of poorly-formed and error-filled HTML documents.” But the end result is that we enable and encourage sloppy coding. You haven’t convinced me that that’s a good thing.

    I grasp your point and broadly speaking I agree with it, but there is also a lot to be said for demonstrating a grasp of basic grammar and punctuation. The fact that almost everyone speaks sloppily doesn’t make it right, or wise, to join in the fun. Take a look at John McWhorter’s book and see what you think of his arguments.

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Thanks for the comment. Yes, then and than mean something completely different. They are not strictly homonyms because they are spelled differently, but they are generally homophones. But what the case of homophones and homonyms tells us is that very different meanings can be attached to the same sound and/or the same symbol without actually causing difficultly in understanding.

      It is really hard to think of a case in which mixing up then and than would create real ambiguity. The reader who noticed the mix up would never be confused about the meaning of the sentence. Ambiguity only arises in cases where both meanings make equal sense, and it is hard to imagine a case where that would be true for then/than confusion. If the purpose of language is to convey meaning, then/than confusion is minor because it does not prevent meaning from being conveyed. At most, it upsets and distracts the stickler who encounters it. It does not confuse them about the meaning of the sentence.

      You are right, of course, that it depends on the community you are dealing with. That is the point of a shibboleth, that it is used to establish trust in a community. My point is that the things many writers assume are shibboleths for the community of technical communication consumers, generally aren’t.

      For example, if I am looking for help in setting up a printer under Linux and I come upon a forum post by someone who obviously knows a lot about printing in Linux, and is obviously respected by other people on the forum, but how commits a then/than confusion in his post, do I trust him or not? The answer, of course, is that I do trust him. The number of people who would dismiss the advice of an obviously respected expert on the subject on the grounds of a grammatical/spelling error, are few.

      And that is the point: lapses from standard English, if they don’t render the meaning incomprehensible, don’t generally cause someone to distrust someone who is obviously qualified in their profession. Standard English usage is therefore no longer a shibboleth of the professional class.

      I’m not actually commenting on whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. I’m simply pointing out that it is a fact. As technical communicators, we have to make our careers in the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. I have seen and heard many tech writers dismiss community and collaborative content on the grounds that it will not be considered trustworthy by readers because of its lapses from standard English. My point is, they are wrong to think this, and they could damage their careers if they continue to think and act as if it were true.

      Thus my advice: be liberal in what you accept and strict in what you send.

  4. Tim Penner


    I certainly consider tolerable grammar and usage a mark of the writer. (It’s quite a bit like being a musician: at what point do you actually become a writer?) But, there are great many other such shibboleths or perhaps we should call them features of bad writing.

    I’ve been doing some editing lately. I occasionally review the work of other technical writers. I can tell that I’m reviewing the content of a pro because there are sentences and paragraphs and an obvious intent to communicate.

    Some months ago, I graded 41 undergraduate sociology papers, which, no matter the requirement for the hypodactic style, I consider it a technical form. Setting aside the content of the arguments, the quality varied from graduate quality to all but incomprehensible. The hard work for me was helping those who very badly needed it by finding the edifice of logic in the rubble that might had been deposited by a cranial tornado.

    If you really want to talk about shibboleths of technical communication, I think you should necessarily stroll past mere grammar and usage, and contemplate the higher order aspects that deeply afflict the output of the disorganized brain.

    1. Mark Baker Post author


      It was not so long ago that everybody sang. They sang in stadiums, they sang in the pub, they sang in church, they sang as they staggered home from the pub, they sang as they worked, they sang around the family piano. They surely did not always sing well, but they enjoyed themselves. It is only recently that singing has become the almost exclusive domain of musicians.

      As it was with music, it still is with writing. Everybody writes. They may not write well, but they make themselves understood. You don’t have to be a professional writer, or follow all the shibboleths of the professional writer, to use writing to communicate successfully. I’m not advocating that professional writers abandon any but the stupidest and most obscure shibboleths. I’m advocating that we quit carping at the rest of the population for technical violations of standard English, when they are in fact communicating adequately and usefully to other people.

      I certainly agree, however, that there are many people who cannot communicate effectively, and that their issues are at a much higher level that issues of grammar and usage. Disorganized exposition is disorganized exposition, whether expressed with grammatical purity or not.

  5. Myron Porter

    To me, the issue is largely a matter of taste–some have it; some don’t–and my strongly held opinion is that professionally published material should be professionally edited for grammar.

    However, I also want the flexibility to convey what the limits of grammar won’t allow. In fact, this can have a beauty of its own.

    “The purpose of a fish trap is to catch fish, and when the fish are caught the trap is forgotten. The purpose of a rabbit snare is to catch rabbits. When the rabbits are caught, the snare is forgotten. The purpose of the word is to convey ideas. When the ideas are grasped, the words are forgotten. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words? He is the one I would like to talk to.” Zhuangzi

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Myron. I love the quote. “When the ideas are grasped, the words are forgotten.” That is the perfect illustration of why we are wrong to think that any text that does not meet grammatical shibboleths will not be trusted. If the reader grasps the idea, they forget about the words.

      It also highlights the difference between a shibboleth and the core grammar that is necessary for communication to take place at all. Until the reader is able to grasp the idea, they cant forget about the words.


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