Friday, September 2, 2011

Me + Soapbox

     As my mini-bio states, I consider myself to be many things.  I have a background in engineering, and I also want to be a writer.  I suppose I am a writer.  I write, so I'm a writer.  I love this unique perspective I have on being in both worlds.  At the same time, I think it's kind of bullshit that it is a unique perspective.
     A friend of mine asked for my opinion regarding a certain "technical guy" she was working with and his lack of English skills.  The specific issue was how he misused a/an every time.  In essence, she was asking how I feel about engineers' supposed lack of composition skills.  My response was as follows:
Well, I hope you're ready for a novella- I have a lot of opinions on this.  Actually, I have one very strong opinion on this.

I think it's complete bullshit for engineers to not have a firm grasp on the English language.  There is no excuse for it, no matter what any of them say.  Understanding math, physics, and engineering does not preclude someone from understanding basic sentence structure.  People use being smart in one thing as a crutch for not being functional in another.

At U-M, all (well, most) engineering classes were coupled with a technical communication component.   As we entered the College of Engineering, we were put in a course colorfully referred to as "English for Engineers."  This was a class that taught composition of technical reports.  Writing technical reports is different from writing rhetoric or proving Hamlet was crazy all along.  The point is, we were all taught about the importance of communication.  Good engineering principles don't have resonance if they can't be explained clearly and concisely.

The idea that an engineer is excused from knowing how to write, especially very basic things, is antiquated and lazy.  It offends me.  The a/an principle is a basic piece of grammar from elementary school.  We're not talking about finer point of style, turning phrases, or nuanced definitions of words people rarely use.  The difference between a/an is simple.  And clearly, that was not a typo.  It's a gap in knowledge, and frankly it's a gap I have no patience for.

When I hear someone defend their gaps in knowledge with "well, I'm an engineer" I immediately call bullshit.  People don't wake up just knowing how to engineer things.  They read about them, in books.  These books are not just full of equations and drawings.  They are presented in the same way any book would be, with complete sentences, articles, nouns, verbs, and prepositions.  (I did that on purpose to end my sentence in a "preposition!")  But apparently when genius engineers are reading, they're not taking any of it in.  Somehow it doesn't translate.

The most offensive bit of the entire argument is that knowing how to write well is perceived as a weakness.  The engineers I have come across in my short career have the idea that the engineers will do the heavy lifting, and then someone else will shiny it up with words.  They don't think writing is hard.  They may be willing to admit they can't do it, but they'll say it's because it's a waste of their time.  They don't have time to be bothered with trivial things like sentence construction.    

Since I've started here, people have come to recognize me as a writer of sorts; they give me the speeches and awards, and coworkers will ask me to look over drafts of things.  And then they find out I have a background in engineering and their brains melt out their ears.  If I'm good at one, how could I be good at the other?  Or, even worse, why would I bother with the other?  If I know how to run a nuclear power plant, why do I bother keeping The Elements of Style at my desk?  Clearly, the two are unrelated, and one of them is not important.  (Sorry, slight divergence.)

Engineers who cannot write sink back into the old archetype as a safety net.  They use it to hide their insecurities.  Engineers should know how to write.  At a minimum, they should be trying.  People's egos get in the way when it comes to grammar.  Common usage is a shit excuse.  If an engineer says "well, you know what I was talking about, so it doesn't matter that I used the wrong effect/affect," a part of me dies inside.  I made it a bit of a personal crusade to be good at both things; I wanted to build a rocket and be able to tell people how I did it.  There should be more shame in not doing that. 

So to sum up, I think your Technical guy on the contract is an asshat.  For his sake, I hope he's civilized enough to accept constructive criticism, learn the lesson, and keep it in his wheelhouse.  Again, being an engineer, or a "technical person" does not preclude someone from knowing how to write a simple sentence.  It's arrogance, and it's lazy.  It's lazy arrogance. 

I'll be here on my high horse all day if you have any further questions.
She responded with "you + soapbox = MY FAVORITE."  I assume she will read my response to him at their next meeting.  

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