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A tough day in technical (writing) support

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2006. A tough day in technical (writing) support. Indus VIII(4), September/October 2006. <>

Several lights begin flashing on the phone.

"Good morning, word support... Which style guide are you using? Chicago, right. And which edition? Right. Sir, the rule of thumb is that yes, you can end sentences with a preposition, though you're right that this can sometimes be a bit awkward. That's permitted in pretty much all versions of Chicago. Yes, Sir, really. Might I recommend an upgrade to version 15? I understand that it doesn't really address your preposition issue, but it solves many bugs in earlier versions. I'm not permitted to say whether the Garner sections are an improvement or not. He's a great writer and a well-respected authority, and if he turns out to be wrong, well... that's what bug fixes are for. We have a promotion on right now, where you can get Chicago for half price if you purchase APA too. Just between you and me? I'd personally want at least two more style guides thrown in for free before I'd clutter my shelves with APA. In any event, Chicago v. 15.0 is a good buy in its own right. Can I transfer you to Sales? Great. Have a good day, Sir."

"Good morning, word support... Dangling participles? Yes, they're illegal. Always have been. Why? Well, Sir, I'm not one of the designers, but I have to say that English is used by something like half a billion—500 million—people as their native or primary language. If it makes sense to them, it must have something going for it. I'm sorry if that response doesn't satisfy you. Let me see if I can find something in my support database. This will take a moment." [Places customer on hold and goes for another cup of coffee.] "Hello? Still there?" [dial tone] "Look it up in the style guide, moron."

"Good morning, word support... Yes, it's fine. No, really... it's not just To boldly go; English is rife with split infinitives. The proscription against them is a misguided application of Latin grammar to English despite the clear lack of overlap between the two. Probably another engineer trying to tell us how to use our own language. Next question! Yes, Ma'am, you can quote me on that. Please give your colleague my extension, and I'll be happy to politely set him straight. You too, Ma'am."

"Good morning, word support... Any key? Hold on a second while I bring up the tech support database." [Puts customer on hold, plays a quick game of Solitaire, whistles a pop tune.] "Yes, Ma'am, it's certainly possibly you bought a defective keyboard. You're using a Mac, right? Yeah, Apple is weird that way... not a big one for standards. The keyboard's probably fine, but the software is asking you to use a Windows-only feature with a non-Windows keyboard. But you're in luck. One of our support guys recently discovered a stunning solution to this problem: press the Enter key. Oh, wait... that's probably Windows-only. What? You have one on your keyboard? Great! Try pressing it. It worked? Hallelujah! I'll add that to the tech support database, Ma'am. Your pain will surely make the lives of many other Mac users that much easier. Thanks. You too!"

"Good afternoon, word support... Yes, Sir, I'm aware that autonumbering has been broken since 1995. Yes, Sir, I know this is shameless and willful ignorance of the needs of the common technical writer... If I may interrupt for a moment? Thanks. You want Microsoft, Sir. This is word support, and you want Word support. No, Sir, I'm not in India. Would it really matter if I were? Yes, Sir, were, not was. It's called the subjunctive. You can find more details if you read the fine dictionary. Look under S.

"Sir, I have to caution you against using such strong language. I understand how frustrating grappling with Word can be. Look, if you promise not to tell my supervisor, I can help you. Do a Google on David Knopf and Word autonumbering. That'll solve your problem. But really—and I'm speaking ex officio now—you want to complain about this to Microsoft. Thank you Sir, you too."

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