Technical Vocabulary and Grammar

This is in response to Chris Shiflett’s “Technical Vocabulary and Grammar” post. My comment became so long that I decided to blog it instead.

Being someone with a degree in English…

I’ve always heard to treat collective nouns (groups, etc.) as plurals. So, “Brain Bulb are…” would be correct. However, reading through Lapsing Into a Comma by Bill Walsh (pg. 101) and The Associated Press Stylebook 2005 under the “collective nouns” entry, it would appear that nouns denoting unit take on singular verbs and pronouns, while nouns denoting individual items use plural verbs. For example (taken from Stylebook):

Right: A thousand bushels is a good yield. (A unit.)
Right: A thousand bushels were created. (Individual items.)
Right: The data is sound. (A unit.)
Right: The data have been carefully collected. (Individual items.)

Thus, a company name could possibly use either form, depending on the context. I can’t think of an example off the top of my head that would illustrate the differences.

As for periods and commas within quotation marks, I think this is often a confusing issue for professionals, much less students. In American English, though, commas and periods go inside the quotation marks, period; semicolons and colons never go inside quotation marks. Question marks and exclamation points depend on the context. Contrary to popular belief about usage of commands, etc., there are no exceptions to this rule. (See section 2.7.7 in the MLA Handbook, pg. 92 in Comma, and pg. 334 in Stylebook.)

I agree that this can lead to confusion in technical writing when explaining something to enter at the command prompt, etc. However, to resolve this, I would personally not place the command in quotation marks. Instead, I would set it in a monospaced typeface to indicate that it is a command:

Then delete a line from the file by typing dd.

Now, for computer jargon. The one thing that has been bothering me lately is this:

PC != Windows
PC != x86 processor

The term “PC” refers to a “personal computer,” which could be any computer running Windows OR Macintosh operating systems, x86 OR PowerPC processors. What’s going to happen to this term now that Macs are running on an Intel (x86) processor? Nothing. Everyone at my office will still call their computers “PCs” and mine a “Mac.”

Even the publishing community refers to Windows-based computers as “PCs.” I can’t find any guidelines in my AP style book on this, though.

UPDATE (23 Jan 2006): Chris points out that even Apple uses the PC vs. Mac distinction in their promotion of the Intel Core Duo when they say on their Web site “What’s an Intel chip doing in a Mac? A whole lot more than it’s ever done in a PC.”