Grammar: if you’re going to get it wrong, get it REALLY wrong…

Now that the mass media with its “newspeak” vocabulary has been part of our lives for several generations we really can’t afford to be pompous about spelling and grammar any more.  Even the stuffiest of academics has had to admit that stiffly formal writing is not clever, it’s boring.  They may look down their elegant, aquiline noses at the language of popular tabloid newspapers, FMCG advertising, and more recently the Internet, but that’s the language nearly everyone speaks today.

I won’t bore you with my theories on why that has happened, but the bottom line is that English as a language has become simpler and less complex than it was 100 years ago.  And quite right too.  I’ve never understood why some people get so uppity about the fact that a language has evolved.

Well, you and I haven’t got time to mourn the relegation of Shakespearean English to books and the stage, even if we want to.  We’ve got work to do here and now, and these days we write as we speak.

It’s OK to write as people speak

“Writing as people speak” is not an excuse to be lazy or ungrammatical.  It’s a faster and more efficient way of putting across ideas and communicating messages.

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And because you don’t have the formality of old-fashioned “grammatically correct” syntax and clauses and long adjectives and everything else to hide behind, your message is standing out there all by itself.  So it’s got to be strong enough to hold its own without the support that old-fashioned writing often gives to less-than-strong messages.

Having said that old-fashioned writing with perfect grammar and syntax and spelling etc. can be forgotten, am I saying that today we can all write what we like in the way that we like?  Well yes, but wait a minute.

Rather like with golf or poker, with writing you really should know what the rules are before you can benefit from breaking them.  Now, I’m not going to launch into a lesson in English grammar here because that would be insulting your intelligence and education.  It would also be intensely boring.

The little goofs let you down

What you really do need to avoid is not the blatant, deliberate thumbing of the nose at grammatical correctness such as that found in consumer advertising campaigns, but the piffling little mistakes you see in some business communication which are simply the result of ignorance and carelessness.

These are the goofs that separate the professionals from the amateurs.  It’s the body copy that talks about “you” in the same sentence as “them” when referring to the same person.  It’s the long-winded sentence in a business letter or e-mail that has so many dangling participles you could decorate a Christmas tree with them.  It’s the absence of an apostrophe when we’re talking about “it is” and the inclusion of an apostrophe when we’re talking about something belonging to “it.”

(And in the UK at least, it’s the inclusion of an adverb between the two halves of an infinitive … many Brits still cringe when they hear the Startrek line of “to boldly go.”  But in the USA no-one seems to mind.  Ah, vive la différence.)

If you challenge grammar rules, be bold

These small slips and goofs in grammar, punctuation and syntax really do cheapen people’s written material (more noticeable, of course, on paper or screen) and they drop the writer’s credibility right into the doo-doo.  But the bold gestures … the one-word sentence, the verbless sentence, the folkloric use of slang and so-on … these are so obvious that no-one is going to think they are oversights.

This makes them acceptable – even effective.

If you take a look at some of the top-end consumer advertising that I so enjoy snarling at most of the time, you’ll see how such deliberate, bold grammatical mistakes not only work well, but also manage to make the advertising look classy and svelte.  The secret of success here is the intelligent and measured use of poor grammar, and that’s something professional copywriters are very good at.

For well-meaning amateurs, however, remember that there’s only a fine line between the slick and the sloppy and it takes experience and expertise to keep everything on the slick side.  It’s a lot safer to stay away from the borderline so if you want to play the brinkmanship game. You have been warned…

And if you don’t want to get it wrong…

“How To Write About Yourself”…how to make the most of yourself, whatever you need to write

“Business Writing Made Easy”…everything you need to know about writing for business in English

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English

Comments

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Thoughts

  1. Hi Suze,

    Thank you for your post. Grammar is something that I really work hard at, as I struggle with it, purely because my school did such a terrible job at teaching it. When it came to learning French, it was horrendous, because I didn’t have the basics in place with verbs, tenses etc… I am so paranoid about it Thankfully, I believe I am getting much better at it, and this will certainly be good news for my mum LOL

    • Thanks for your comment, Anita. I think we should regard grammar as a framework on which to build a language, whether it’s our own native language or another one. Although very few modern languages stick strictly to the grammar rules in informal use and conversation, the fact that you have learned it from the basis of that structure means you can take some liberties and still be understood!

  2. Some people would probably call me a grammar snob, but I do enjoy deliberately breaking the rules in conversation and when writing online. In fact, I really appreciate the freedom I have when blogging to do whatever I please!

    You’re right about the split infinitive. Most of us Yanks–even pedants like me–think it’s no biggie these days.

  3. LOL @ Mary … glad you enjoy breaking the rules! And the argument about splitting infinitives is likely to go on and on, I fear … ah, well! Thanks for stopping by.

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