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Thursday, January 21, 2010


Slashdot, Pronouns, and the Python Essential Reference

Yesterday, I was ecstatic to see a positive review of my Python Essential Reference book on Slashdot. I've never had a book reviewed on Slashdot before. However, I also know that with Slashdot, one never really knows what direction the subsequent discussion is going to take. For instance, will someone jump in and say something like "in Soviet Russia, Python indents you" or will the conversation devolve into something about how Python programmers will never have a girlfriend? That's not true by the way. I once had a girlfriend who went to hear me talk for 90 minutes about LALR(1) parser generators at a Chipy meeting despite the fact that she didn't know the first thing about programming. That's surely a sign of true love or insanity if there ever was one. Needless to say, I married her. However, I digress.

No, this time around, the Slashdot discussion decided it was going to focus on the use of pronouns--namely in response to a comment that included the sentence "... there is a lot of what a developer needs and very little of what she doesn't need." Now, I am by no means any fan of political correctness, but I had to chuckle at the irony. Of all of the things to discuss about the Python Essential Reference, pronouns would have to rank at about the bottom of the list. This is because the entire book is virtually devoid of personal pronouns. With the exception of the word "you" (e.g., "you type this..."), you won't find "he", "she", "him", "her", "we", or anything like that used anywhere in the text. This was an intentional choice, but it wasn't related to any kind of political influence (in fact, editors of the Essential Reference have often tried to add pronouns like "he" and "she" to the text only to have me take them out again).

First published in 1999, the Essential Reference was actually my second major writing project--the first being my Ph.D. dissertation which had been completed the year before. As you know, writing a dissertation is a pretty major affair. Not only do you have to do original research and defend it, you also have to write a major document describing the results. For a typical graduate student, the dissertation is the most technically demanding document you will ever write. It might even be the first document that you will ever submit to a real-world copy editor--an editor who will very likely tear your precious document to shreds in front of your eyes.

In my case, the final stage of my dissertation involved a somewhat prolonged battle with the dissertation editor at the University of Utah. Upon submitting the document, she would immediately put it under the microscope to see if it met the required "technical specifications." This meant measuring margins, line spacing, tables, figures, and other details with a ruler. Any deviation whatsoever meant instant rejection of the entire document--please play again.

Assuming one could pass the basic technical requirements, the next stage involved a review to see if you were strictly adhering to the required writing "style guide." When submitting a dissertation, you actually had to indicate a specific writing style guide. For example, I said that I was writing the document according to the "Chicago Manual of Style." What this meant in practical terms is that upon submitting the dissertation to the editor, she would read it and return it to you a few days later dripping in a sea of red ink. Every sentence of the document that did not precisely adhere to that style guide would be torn apart. I have to say that in my entire academic and professional career (grade school, high school, college, etc.), I have never had any paper reviewed like that.

Just to give you an example of the agony, if I wrote something like "the data is plotted" (something that sounded perfectly reasonable to me as a programmer) the editor would reject it because "data" is a plural (of datum) and you can't use "is" with a plural (e.g., you would never say "the points is plotted."). The other major source of agony was in the use of pronouns. The editor would instantly punish you for any use of a personal pronoun. So, a sentence like "we took the points and processed them with a script" would be rejected.

Essentially the editor wanted the entire document to be written in what I would roughly describe as "academic passive voice." It's a style of writing where you never identify who is actually carrying out various actions. So, instead of saying "we took the points and processed them with a script" you had to write "the points were processed with a script." As you can see, A major feature of this writing style is that it is very direct and precise. Not only is the second sentence more compact, it doesn't muddle the discussion with unimportant details about who is actually carrying out the action. Obviously, you also avoid the whole issue of "he" versus "she" with such a writing style.

Anyways, work on the Python Essential Reference started just 6 months after finishing my dissertation. Having fought all of those editor battles, I wrote it in the exact same style. So far as I can remember, I don't think any pronoun other than "it" or "its" appeared in the text. It must have blown the copy editor's mind. What kind of deranged lunatic would write a 300-page impersonal document like that? Especially since writing in the passive voice is something so actively discouraged.

Over the last ten years, various copy-editors have worked on the Essential Reference, but much of that original academic writing style remains. At some point, use of the word "you" was introduced in the book. I was somewhat lukewarm about it at the time, but as an author you also learn to pick and choose your battles--and that wasn't one that seemed worth fighting (unlike the battle to convince my publisher that putting out a Python 2.6 book hot on the heels of Python 3.0 was going to make any sense).

So there you have it. A review of a book virtually devoid of personal pronouns spawns a big discussion on the use of he/she on Slashdot. Who would have thought?

Naturally, I disavow any grammatical mistakes in this blog post---after all, I don't have a editor.

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