It’s important to keep up with your fellow technical communicators; one should be up-to-date on all of the latest advances in the technical-communication profession. But sometimes we can get too caught up in the latest professional advancements—XML, DITA, information architecture, online help systems, metatags, user-interface eye tracking, etc.
Among all of these sophisticated, bewildering advancements, verbal text (words and paragraphs) is still one of the basic building blocks of technical communication, and good grammar is what makes verbal text solid and valuable. As a result, a good grammar refresher is needed from time to time.
There are many educational tools that can provide such a refresher. One tool that I have found particularly helpful is the Bedford/St. Martin’s Exercise Central 2.0 Web site (http://bcs.bedfordstmartins.com/exercisecentral/). As you may know, Bedford St. Martin’s publishes the informative Handbook of Technical Writing. When you access the Exercise Central 2.0 home page, you will notice that you have to log on to the Web site. To do so, you need to sign up as a either a student or an instructor—don’t let this deter you. Sign up as a student. If you don’t log in, only limited content will be available to you. (Note: I contacted the Web site’s staff to determine if use of their Web site by common users is a violation of their policy; a staff member stated that it is not against their policy for the Web site to be used by someone who is neither a student nor an instructor.)
Once you are logged in to Exercise Central 2.0, it will be important to note the Tutorials and Exercises hyperlinks under the Web site’s banner at the top. These sections will provide you the educational meat you’re looking for. (The Diagnostic and Scorecard sections are primarily for students and instructors who need to view reports of exercise scores.) The Tutorials section gives you a great refresher on common grammar rules (in addition to usage and style issues), so take that first if you are particularly rusty on grammar. After you have taken the tutorials, the Exercise section allows you to test your grammar knowledge. The exercises are usually 10 questions each with easy option clicks to speed each exercise along. Simply click Submit once you are done with the questions, and you immediately get your score. Exercise Central 2.0 is a very lean, easy method for exercising your grammar knowledge.
Another tool that I have found particularly helpful is Diana Hacker’s Grammar Exercises Web site (http://bcs.bedfordstmartins.com/rewriting/ge3.html), which is related to Hacker’s book A Writer’s Reference published by Bedford/St. Martin’s. Again, these exercises serve as a refresher on more than just grammar (if you consider grammar in its strictest definition: how words and phrases function in relation to one another to form a coherent language); exercises on usage and style (word choice and sentence style) are also present. Unlike Exercise Central 2.0, these grammar exercises do not require registration. You are prompted to provide a name each time to sign on, but, technically, you don’t even have to do that. Once you have selected an exercise from the exercise menu, either type a name (any name), and click Begin, or don’t provide a name, and click Begin. Diana Hacker’s Grammar Exercises has a slightly more contemporary instructional design with the employment of hyperlinks rather than option buttons, but the overall design is the same—10 questions with easy answering for a streamlined educational experience.
Sometimes our heads can get lost in the proverbial clouds of technical advancements, especially publishing-format advancements. It’s important to periodically ground ourselves and remember some of the basics of our profession. Those basic building blocks include verbal text and grammar. Bedford/St. Martin’s Exercise Central 2.0 and Diana Hacker’s Grammar Exercises can help you get reacquainted with those building blocks.