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Possessives in technical writing?

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2001. Possessives in technical writing? The Technical Editorsí Eyrie Newsletter, Aug. 17,

In July of 2001, a brief debate erupted on techwr–l about whether possessives were appropriate in technical communication. There was some sympathy for the notion that they were not, and that possessives should be avoided. I replied:

It's not a rule; it's a style choice, and probably a bad one for competent writers to use as standard operating procedure. The reasons I've seen given to justify this rule include:

About the only good reason to avoid possessives is the risk of confusing a reader with poor English skills (e.g., someone whose native language isn't English, or a low-literacy audience), but even then, the problem only arises if you're sloppy about clearly attributing the possessive to the right object.

You can certainly write around this by using genitives (e.g., the Word menus rather than Word's menus), but that's not necessary in most cases. So on the whole, it's not a guideline you really need to follow. Moreover, careful use of possessive makes your writing seem more fluent and idiomatic, and that can be a very good thing indeed for most audiences.

Jean Weber, the newsletter's editor, observed: A practical reason for not using possessives is that so many people these days don't know how to use an apostrophe correctly. "Real" techwriters should (and usually do) use them correctly; but as we all know, a lot of techwriting is done by other people who don't get it right—and don't have the benefit of an editor to fix their punctuation errors. I can easily see a company (or a style guide) that forbids possessives for this reason, even though the reason isn't stated; later the rule is remembered as a more general one ("not appropriate in technical writing").

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