Archive for July, 2010
I am a practical person. Oh, no doubt I love discussing the theory and craft of professional development; dreaming great dreams is how we move forward. But we live in the here and the now, and I’m happy to accept that theory doesn’t do very well at bringing home the bacon—at least not for most of us.
So after years of teaching grammar and writing, I’ve come up with three timeless, practical grammar rules for the business environment—yes, grammar rules with no exceptions:
Rule number one: When in doubt, rewrite it!
Oh, you know the grammar rule for whatever it is you are writing, but does your reader? And if your reader doesn’t know the rule, how well is he or she likely to understand what you’re trying to communicate? Ultimately, writing is about communicating as perfectly as possible what it is that you want to say. Consider this example:
“When the Harley Roadster hit the 100 year-old oak tree, it was badly damaged.”
You may have it clear in your mind that the poor old oak was badly damaged—a grammar rule would back you on this—but logic would lead the reader to surmise otherwise. When editing your document, always try to see the various ways someone can interpret what you’ve written. If readers can misinterpret your writing, try again. Rewrite it.
Here’s a better way to write the sentence above: “When the Harley Roadster hit the 100 year-old oak tree, the bike was badly damaged.” By simply replacing the pronoun “it” with “the bike,” there’s now no doubt in the reader’s mind about what you meant to say.
Rule number two: The “boss rule”
Stop beating your head against the wall; in the end, what the boss says is what you should do. If you can’t handle that, it’s time to get a job somewhere else. And yes, this applies to writing style and grammar. If you have a good relationship with your boss, go ahead and push back on her insistence that you eliminate the comma before the conjunction and in a list or series. The shocking truth is that there are very few hard and fast grammar rules. Grammar is as much about preference and style—current style—as it is about rules.
In every class I teach I hear the complaint, “You recommend we write it this way, but my boss insists that we write it a different way.” Okay, write it that way! Unless there’s a grammar rule—a real, no-kidding, documented grammar rule—to the contrary, do what the boss suggests.
And that brings me to rule number three: Language changes. Get over it!
Did I really start a sentence with the word And? Yes. And from time to time, I’ll start a sentence with But. Or I might—dare I say it—end a sentence with a preposition. Gadzooks! I might even use a contraction in my business correspondence. Guess what? It’s okay to do so; the former president of the United States said I could use “common, everyday words” in my business writing. Go ahead and google President Clinton’s 1998 Plain Language Memorandum.
In a recent writing class comprised of federal employees, when I brought up that the Plain Language Memorandum suggests it’s acceptable to use contractions (common, every-day words), I nearly had a revolt on my hands. “It’s unprofessional!” several declared. Another participant complained, “I was told that I shouldn’t use contractions in business writing.” I smiled and calmly asked the class, “Would you consider your responses unprofessional or inappropriate?” “Of course not,” was the response. I followed, “But all of your statements just contained contractions.” Silence.
I don’t write using the language of my ancestors. I can’t tell you the last time I used the expression “four score and seven years ago” in a note to my boss. Nor did our forefathers write in the language of Shakespeare, just as Shakespeare did not write in the language of Beowulf. Let me be clear. I’m not advocating that we riddle our documents with the expressions “dude” and “um.” But our language evolves and our writing evolves along with the spoken language—thankfully. Yet for some reason we are uncomfortable with changing our writing.
Maybe this says more about human nature than grammar, but it’s okay to move forward in our writing.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about our changing business writing “rules.”