10 September 2010
At school, I was taught the order of the parts of a German sentence was time, manner, place. At university, I was told that wasn't true. The correct order was attitude, time, reason, instrument, place, manner. Even if we cull the extra detail, that's a significant change from school: place and manner have swapped positions. That's because the things that are considered places at GCSE level are more likely to be complements that have to be there because there is a verb of movement or positioning. It's just much simpler to teach school students that the order is time, manner, place because it's good enough.
I was reminded of this when I was writing a chapter for my new book Web Design in Easy Steps, last week. After writing something, I thought "hang on a minute: that's not strictly true". It's always easy to think of exceptions to the rule, and sometimes they're important. But in this case, the extra detail required to explain the exceptions would have greatly increased the complexity of what should have been a relatively simple idea.
I concluded that the most important thing is not that you teach readers absolutely everything. Actually, the skill in writing is to work out what's important and to convey it clearly. And sometimes there will be stuff you know that isn't important to the reader at the level they are working at.
One of the challenges is to balance the need to remain accurate with the need to sound authoritative. You wouldn't want to create the impression that there is an absolute rule that can be easily challenged later on, because it makes the text look inaccurate. At the same time, using words like 'generally' or 'most of the time' sounds a bit wishy-washy. For readers who want to stretch themselves, you can always point them to where they can find out about the exceptions.
The key thing is that sometimes when the inner pedant speaks, it's okay to tell it to go away. Not everything that is true is important. At least, not important enough to damage the flow of your reader's learning.