Three Things to Recognize About Grammar for Effective Communication

Worrying about grammar when you’re writing will make you a worse rather than a better writer. That doesn’t mean grammar doesn’t matter…it just doesn’t matter the way you think it does.

Bishop Robert LowthThere seem to be a lot of people who believe that someone, somewhere wrote a specification for the English language…and that we do a terrible job of following that specification. These people also seem to believe that they were taught that specification in grade 6 and any changes in the language since then are wrong, wrong, wrong.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth: no matter what your teacher told you, there is no specification for the English language except for the way that people speak the language. People made up the language as they were speaking it – in fact, we’re still making up the language.

Fashion in English Grammar

The most obvious example of those changes is how words have changed meaning over time. “Silly” originally meant something like “innocent” or “saintly” but doesn’t mean that any more. “Diction” meant “word choice” in 1900 but in 2014 it’s more often used to mean something like “pronunciation.”

And that’s just the start of the changes: Words have also changed their purpose over time. When “worship” first appeared it was a noun (“Your worship”) but now it’s used more as a verb (“I worship”). At the start of the 20th century “contact” was a noun (“a point of contact”) but, at the start of the 21st century, it’s more frequently used as a verb (“I contacted her”).

Over time, some words have even gone from being acceptable to being unacceptable. These days, nobody would use “ain’t” in a sentence. However, Jane Austen frequently used “ain’t” in her letters and I’ll argue with her when I’ve written a half dozen of the most important novels in the English language. Another novelist, Dorothy L. Sayers (no slouch in the language department, being an authority on Middle English), had her fictional Lord Peter Wimsey educated at Oxford…and also had him use “ain’t” in conversation. Another example: Today, if you heard someone use “drug” instead of “dragged” as the past tense of “drag” (“I drug him out from under the car”) you’d think that person was speaking poorly. However, Shakespeare would have said “drug” (Shakespeare would also have used “clumb” as the past tense of “climb” instead of “climbed”) and, again, when I’ve written…

Not only has the English language been changing, it continues to change. In my own lifetime, I’ve seen my children replace “he said/she said” with “he was like/she was like.” I suspect that we’re also in the process of seeing the end of the distinction between adjectives (“a serious woman”) and adverbs (“he should be taken seriously”). I frequently hear well-educated, professional communicators drop the “ly” at the end of an adverb to say, for example, “They didn’t take us serious.”

Rules that Don’t Exist

My point is that there really isn’t a “right” and “wrong” set of grammar rules. In fact, many of the “grammar” rules that some people insist on applying simply don’t exist. I was recently taken for task by an editor for using “More importantly” (“More importantly, this will cause the application to crash”). The correct grammar, I was told, is “More important.” The only problem with this rule is that I have never heard a native English speaker say “More important, this will cause…” If no native English speaker actually speaks this way then what is the basis for saying that it’s not proper English? We’re back to that mythical specification, again.

The same is true of many other invented grammar rules: I’ve been told to avoid dangling participles (“That’s where I’m going to”), split infinitives (“to boldly go”), and to never begin a sentence with “hopefully” (“Hopefully, that won’t happen”). Unfortunately, native speakers have been dangling participles, splitting infinitives, and acting hopefully since English first appeared.

Many of these rules were advanced by Bishop Robert Lowth, the author of the first popular English grammar book (that’s his picture at the top of the post). Lowth wrote his grammar book in 1762 when people had been speaking English for several hundred years. Despite that history, Lowth not only claimed that the general public was getting their own language wrong but that John Milton and William Shakespeare were also guilty of mangling English grammar. I will grant Lowth one thing — he did have an authority for his rules: English wasn’t following the rules of grammar for Latin. Unfortunately, that’s an authority that I am willing to argue with: English ain’t Latin.

Not surprisingly, then, several studies have shown that writers who focus on grammar produce poorer documents than those writers who don’t worry about it. The ground keeps shifting under their feet.

Dealing with Fashions in Grammar

When it comes to communicating there are three things you should recognize about grammar and one thing you should do. First, you should recognize that “good” and “bad” English is more about keeping up with fashion than following some immutable set of rules.

Second, people are less likely to spot errors in English grammar when you’re speaking than when you’re writing. You shouldn’t worry about grammar when giving a presentation – at least, for the spoken part of your presentation.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the written part of your presentation, your documents, or your emails people do notice your grammar. The unfortunate truth is that when a reader sees you break a grammar rule that the reader believes in, the reader treats it as an indicator for the quality of your document. For readers, finding a grammatical error is like finding a cockroach in a hotel room – they assume that there are a lot more errors in your document than the one they’ve just found.

So, third, you should regard grammar as a tool that you use to reach your readers. You want to avoid breaking the grammar rules that your readers believe in because breaking those rules costs you credibility with your reader. When my editor told me to use “More important” I made the change: He was, after all, the audience that bought my article and signed my cheque.

The good news is that bringing your documents in line with your readers’ beliefs about grammar is the easiest set of fixes you’ll ever need to make: add an “s” to a word, type in some articles (“the”, “an”), delete a word or two. If English is your second language you should consider getting a ‘grammar buddy’ who will find and make those changes for you (trust me: The language only makes sense to someone who learned it as a child).

While making grammar-related fixes you may be tempted to make other enhancements to your document. The problem is that, while making non-grammar related changes in your document, you can accidentally introduce new violations of your readers’ grammar rules. The one thing you should do, therefore, is save your grammatical fixes until the last moment and then make one final pass through your document doing nothing but fixing what your readers will regard as grammar errors.

And, if you’re one of those people who objects to the changes you see other people making to the English language, I have just two words: Give up. You don’t want to speak like William Shakespeare did; Your great-great-grandkids won’t want to speak like you do. You might as well stop complaining and enjoy the ride.

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