The Magic of Syntactic Cues

By Michelle Corbin

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published as a post to Michelle’s blog, Technical Editors: Arbiters of Quality, on January 23, 2012.

Recently, I ran across a Grammar Girl article that was guest authored by a linguist about the topic of omitting the word “that” from sentences. This post in particular talked about how newspaper editors tend to delete or omit the word, even when it creates a more confusing sentence for the reader. He breaks down his discussion into omitting the word “that” after verbs, nouns, and adjectives, and ultimately concludes that native English speakers should really just go by their ear to determine when to omit it. I really enjoyed reading this linguist’s perspective on this grammar question.

I find it fascinating that editors sometimes feel that (look! I just used a syntactic cue!) shortening a sentence by one or two words might make the sentence better. In some ways, it seems like because a style guide said to omit the word “that,” we went delete-happy and thought we were improving the sentence. We need to remember to stop and think about the rules in our style guide, and apply the grammar rules thoughtfully.

This post on Grammar Girl reminded me of a journal article that John Kohl wrote, which I actually remembered the title of as I went in search of it: “Improving translatability and readability with syntactic cues” (Kohl, John R., Technical Communication, Volume 46, Number 2, May 1999, pp. 149-166(18)). I did also discover that he included much of the content (and more) in chapter 6 of his book, Global English Style Guide (which I was happy to discover is available in Kindle format!). In any event, I have always believed that writers should rarely omit syntactic cues, and this journal article helped me formulate that grammar opinion.

Syntactic cues clearly expose the syntax of the sentence to the reader, making it quicker and easier to read and understand the sentence. And, if you make something easier to translate into other languages, you ultimately help native English speakers and especially help non-native English speakers. John Kohl points out that if your sentences are simple and use controlled terminology, then omitting syntactic cues is perfectly acceptable. However, if you tend to write longer, more complex sentences (like me! like most of the writers that I edit for!), then you must include syntactic cues for clarity. I always thought that (look! I did it again, using “that” as a syntactic cue!) this was an artifact of technical communication, but the Grammar Girl post seemed to show it off in traditional journalistic communication too.

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