Grammar Wars

Grammar Wars

Although, by night, I may pose as a mild-mannered blogger and amateur scriptwriter, by day I work as copywriter and online editor for Netregistry. Therefore, I was a little surprised to receive the following comment on a recent promotional piece I wrote to launch the new web copy service.

May I respectfully suggest you sack your copywriters, or whomever drafted the page advertising the service. It contains dozens of basic grammatical errors.

After I got over the inevitable sense of hurt pride, I reread the ‘offending’ page and satisfied myself that the grammar is entirely respectable within the context of web marketing copy. There were a couple of phrases I would enjoy redrafting for stylistic reasons, forcing me to remember the crunch day of deadlines, but nothing that I would change grammatically. Copywriting is often about letting go of a piece once the deadline arrives. Any professional writer would always prefer to give their work one last polish and rewrite before handing it over. Sadly, the pressures of daily copywriting mean articles are lucky if they receive more than a single reread and edit before publishing. Yet, stylistic quibbles aside, and there were some that did make me cringe, the grammar was not an issue for me.

A quick MS Word check unleashed absolutely no green squiggles. Don’t worry. I’m the first to caution people against relying on MS Word to inform their grammatical decisions, but it can still be a quick tool to identify obvious errors. A more detailed check only alerted me to a comma that was probably better swapped for a dash, to appropriately bookend a parenthetical phrase. This was a grammatical decision, but certainly not a binding rule worthy of a request for my sacking.

Could the objection have been prompted by my construction of the penultimate paragraph? “Each additional 100 words per page is charged at $50”. Yes, the use of ‘is’ instead of ‘are’ may cause some people to feel a basic grammatical law has been stomped on from a great height. But look closer. As the sentence begins with ‘each’, it is established that we are talking about singular items. The phrase ‘additional 100 words’ may seem plural, but is singular in the same way as ‘group of people’ is singular. As the sentence is applying the verb ‘charged’ to a singular group of words, and not to a number of single words, ‘are’ would be incorrect.

I’m the first to admit that it is not the prettiest of sentences, and should probably have been recast to avoid the issue altogether, but it is not grammatically incorrect.

Grammarians and Writers – Two Separate Breeds

This comment set me thinking about the debates that still rage about grammar. Some grammarians, my commenter most likely included, believe in a rigid adherence to grammatical rules. Other writers understand grammar’s place in the scheme of producing readable prose.

I have a number of reference books on my desk that are regularly consulted when writing to inform my grammatical and stylistic decisions. Not all of them agree on many contentious issues of grammar, highlighting how the topic is not always a defined and clear-cut art. Strunk & White’s “The Elements of Style” is still the most popular handbook for students and writers alike, but even this paragon of grammatical usage is often questioned by modern analysts of the language.

There will always be certain rules of grammar that should never be broken and are never contested. For example, most punctuation conventions are essential to provide the necessary road map to the reader. Nothing annoys me more than a missing full stop or misplaced apostrophe.

Yet there are many grammatical conventions that are more a question of style than an unbreakable rule. For example; although sentence fragments are considered grammatical no-nos, they serve a real purpose in creating emphasis and rhythm when used sparingly.

One possible objection a strict grammarian may have with my writing is the stylistic tendency to open sentences with a conjunction; ‘yet’, ‘because’, ‘and’ or ‘but’, for example. Starting a sentence with a conjunction – something I have already done a number of times in this post – can set some grammarians’ teeth on edge. Nevertheless, there is no real basis for this belief beyond the archaic tenets spouted by some teachers.

Bill Bryson had this to say when discussing the other common conjunction – ‘and’.

The belief that and should not be used to begin a sentence is without foundation. And that’s all there is to it.”

Bill Bryson – ‘Troublesome Words’

Why should I take my cue from Bryson? As one of the foremost writers on English usage, as well as on the origins and evolution of the language, he would know. Having developed a deep fondness for words and grammar in his time as a journalist for The Times and The Independent, he is a distinct authority on modern usage with a clear understanding of how these sometimes arbitrary rules formed.

So how fanatical should modern writers be when it comes to grammar? Should we ignore those green, squiggly lines in MS Word? Should we obsess over semi-colons and predicated verbs?

Cyanide and Happiness, a daily webcomic
Cyanide & Happiness @ Explosm.net

To a certain extent, grammar is worth fighting for. I can’t describe the creeping horror I experience every time I see a misplaced apostrophe or a misused word. But grammar has to serve the writing.

Good writing is about clarity. Therefore, there are certain grammatical rules that you break at your peril. Moving an apostrophe just one letter to the right can dramatically change the meaning of a sentence. Forgetting to place a comma, where one is required, can cause the reader to confuse two related ideas. Mistakes in grammar can seriously impact your ability to concisely and effectively get your message across. If a person has to read a sentence twice, or concentrate on deciphering the structure to glean meaning, the writer has failed. The foundations of good writing should be invisible to the reader. If a reader begins pondering your choice of words rather than the words themselves, your message is diluted. Hence my belief I should have recast the sentence I used as an example.

Sometimes grammar can get in the way of this goal of clear writing. Some archaic and arbitrary grammatical beliefs serve to merely complicate a sentence or confuse the writer. The belief that a writer cannot start a sentence with a conjunction is one such rule.

The written word is often enshrined in a higher level of formality than speech, which goes some way to explaining this phenomenon. Yet it is the spoken word that informs the way we process language. If it is common for people to start sentences with a conjunction in conversation, why do some frown upon it on paper?

This is why there is often no consensus on certain grammatical conventions. With the clarity of the message no more obvious one way or the other, it becomes a debate about style and tone. A leaflet aimed at teenagers and a detailed legal contract will take different decisions on these stylistic conventions. Neither can be said to encapsulate better grammar.

Grammar for Every Occasion

The application of grammar also differs from genre to genre. In writing a novel, a writer may choose to adhere to different grammatical conventions than when producing copy for a one page advertisement. In copywriting, a few extra characters in a sentence can be enough to sink a project, so grammar often takes a back-seat to brevity. Every piece of ink has to fight for space on the page. If the only justification for inclusion is a dusty text book from the ’60s, it is best left out.

Web copywriting has also developed its own grammar. Some of the rules adhered to offline are avoided on the web, as people read online content very differently.

Online content has to allow for the quick scan. Eye studies have shown that over 80% of online readers merely scan online copy, placing particularly unique demands on the writer. Certain grammatical constructions – although theoretically correct – can actually interfere with the reading process, jolting the reader out of their flow. Web copy thrives on shorter, punchier sentences and paragraphs. Sentence fragments are legion, one word paragraphs the norm.

In producing copy for business websites, I have become acutely aware of how the internet is influencing the evolution of the language. As internet continues to spiral upwards as a primary source of information and communication, the written word will adapt and change to this new environment. Unlike the influence of the mobile phone – which bred a new form of abbreviation and abhorrent slang to condense ideas into fewer characters – the internet promises to shift writers towards clear, unambiguous and brief prose.

In his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language, George Orwell outlined six rules for clear writing.

  • (i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  • (ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  • (iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  • (iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  • (v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  • (vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

I cannot, hand on heart, claim I am always innocent of these crimes, but then neither can any professional writer. The key is in the aspiration to improve and to continually learn.

So, should I be concerned about the original comment that sparked this rant on grammar? I have only one thing to say:

It would be more correct to say – “whoever drafted the page” rather than “whomever”. When deciding on whether it is right to use ‘who’ or ‘whom’, it is useful to recast the sentence in a ‘he/him’ format. Just as it would be incorrect to say “him drafted the page”, “whom” is equally inappropriate. Just so you know.

Further reading and listening

Eats, Shoots and Leaves Lynne Truss
The King’s English Kingsley Amis
Bryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors Bill Bryson
Troublesome Words Bill Bryson
The Elements of Style Strunk & White
Grammar Girl podcast Mignon Fogarty

Comments

  1. Jonathan,
    Another great post here. As a self-professed grammar Nazi myself, I understand your pain at seeing horribly misplaced commas and apostrophes! Where is the justice?
    I’m glad you cited Orwell – that was required reading in first year of my Journalism degree at Carleton University and I really loved that article. Such a great guide for clear, concise writing. (By the way, if you or your readers are adept at clear, concise AND clever writing, make sure you enter my Twitter Wordplay contest before it closes.)
    The “groups are singular” thing is something a lot of people struggle with. It’s the same in French – I remember when I was in high school, the “trick question” on French exams was inevitable some sort of conjugation involving the phrase “tout le monde” (directly translated as “the whole world”, better translated as “everyone”), the trick of course being that it is a singular noun and not a plural one, as most would expect because of the image of so many people.
    And one more thing – I routinely use the prepositions like and and but to begin sentences, ever since we were taught in JSchool to do so as an emphatic instrument. I rule myself by the Grammar School of “If it sounds right, do it!”
    Keep up the great writing,
    [Re-checks comment for embarrassing spelling or grammar mistakes…]
    Daniel Smith
    Smithereens Blog

  2. @DS “If it sounds right, do it!”
    Which sounds right, ‘I go to a University’ or ‘I go to an University’
    I always follow a different different set of rules, things like never start a sentence with AND, unless you do. In Copywriting we target the common man and you have to write how he speaks. I ain’t got no problem twisting the rules if the twiest makes a point clear for the reader.

  3. Kimota says

    Aha! Richard, you have just illustrated one of the great grammatical myths. It is not incorrect to use ‘a’ in front of ‘university’ or ‘an’ in front of ‘FBI agent’. Many people believe the grammar rule is to use ‘a’ before consonants and ‘an’ before vowels, but the correct rule is to use ‘a’ before consonant SOUNDS and ‘an’ before vowel SOUNDS.
    In the case of ‘university’, it begins with a consonant sound – ‘y’ as in ‘yooniversity’ – hence it requires an ‘a’. This isn’t a bending of the rule, this is how the rule has always been, but it has become misrepresented over the years.

  4. Jonathan, you beat me to it. Congrats on all the Diggs btw!
    Daniel

  5. “Strunk & White’s ‘The Elements of Style’ is still the most popular handbook for students and writer’s alike…”
    “Writers” not “writer’s” 😛
    You’re right, though. And I say this as someone who is an editor by trade. There are times when grammar can get in the way of effective prose. I’ve learned that, as an editor, my job is to try to help writers express themselves within the confines of good grammar. But it’s also my job not to allow grammar to overly stifle the creativity of the writer. There is always a trade-off.

  6. Rosemary Lyndall Wemm says

    “Yooniversity” requires an “a” in front of it, not an “an”. You must follows the same rule as “a eunach”, whether you are one, or you are not. As my grandmother used to say: “You are a one, dear.”

  7. Kimota says

    Nuts and fiddlesticks. Ern, do you know how many people have read this piece, people whose grammar I respect and are as fanatical as me, only for none of us to pick that mistake up? Just goes to show how mistakes can slip through even the most stringent editors. Until you of course… 😉 Consider it now corrected.

  8. I once had a reader who would comment on my blog just to point out my mistakes. I’m just as much a stickler for grammar, but sometimes I think there’s a proper way to point out errors (or, as in your case, non-errors) that would not come off as sheer arrogance.
    One thing I learned is that if you’re quick to point out other people’s errors, check and double-check to see if your own comments are error-free. Otherwise, it’s just open season.
    Love this post 😀

  9. The issue of grammar is a vital question and i respect grammar. But grammar sense is a tough thing as english has two stream Speaking and writing. I have read a lot of novel with grammatical mistakes.
    As far as The Ms word is concerned it is not full proof and a writer cannot rely solely on the software. The software only suggests some mistakes and in reality one find that the squiggles are wrongly placed.
    Recently i was editing my first novel and the Ms word objected in its own way but i silenced it as i knew very well that in my context the sentences were correct. “Why?” This question mark will be squiggled in Ms word, but in reality that is perfect and correct.
    My grammar sense developed during proof reading my novel. I along with one of colleagues were editing the manuscript and were surprised to find some common mistakes that had crept in during writing, thanks to my lack of grammar sense. And i had to print two copies to edit the novel, by my friend as well. And successfully we weeded out a lot of grammatical mistakes from the manuscript.
    Grammar cannot be thrown and ignored as i personally feel and it was this revelation that led me to start my blog.
    Thanks for the great post that revived the debate in me once again. Keep it up

  10. I note this is a really old stream that I have just discovered but I feel compelled to comment.
    I am a great believer that language is nothing more (or less) than a complex code we use to communicate. Of course grammar is just one facet of this -whether written or spoken. As Johnathan so rightly points out once our message is obscurred or made unintentionally ambiguous we have failed to express our intended meaning. Poor old English really does cop a blow here. The post above is point in proof that much communication in English is left to assumption. We get the “gist” more often than we communicate complex nuances of thought (“full proof” I assume was meant to read “fool proof”). I mean no disrespect to the author above as they are demonstrating a skill I have never mastered – communicating in a second language (point taken Miss Write). However, we do tend to be very forgiving in the English speaking world, despite the current dialogue, accepting in both written and spoken forms communication that is barely even English! Perhaps the finer points of grammer are the least of our worries.

  11. One Year Old Today

  12. Kon Kim says

    I’m afraid your analysis of “Each additional 100 words” is incorrect. The subject in this sentence is “100 words” with “each” being an “adjective” of “100 words” and is thus plural. But having said that, I feel like a prig whose entire sense of importance is predicated on the insistence of a set of arbitrary rules that no one, it would seem, takes particular care in following.

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