Exorcising your grammar demons

If I could scrape up some spare time, I think I’d tackle a screenplay for a horror movie. My movie would feature an entity more terrifying than a chainsaw-wielding maniac. More dreadful than the living dead. More heart-stopping than a fire-breathing demon.

It would be an English teacher.

Okay, hold on. I really, really like English teachers. They are truly dedicated people whose bravery eclipses mine. Anyone who can interest seventh-graders in the poetry of e.e. cummings or bring Shakespeare to life for sophomores is genuinely inspiring.

“…I’m convinced that what English teachers inspire more than anything else is sheer terror. ”

But after dealing with hundreds of clients over the years, I’m convinced that what English teachers inspire more than anything else is sheer terror. I’ve reached that conclusion after watching the way people react to grammatical issues.

Sometimes, I see it when they are struggling with something they’ve written, wondering whether this phrase or that one is grammatically correct. At other times, it becomes apparent in their reaction to something I’ve written on their behalf. (“He started a sentence with a conjunction – doesn’t he know you can’t do that?”)

Once the discussion moves beyond opening arguments to testimony, they invariably cite the same source as the basis for their contention. “Well, when I had Mrs. Jones, she said …” “Now, Mr. Smith told us we should never use …” “If I turned in a paper with that sentence to Miss McGillicuddy …” And when I gently suggest that the English teacher who towers over their subconscious might be wrong in this instance, panic flickers in their eyes. It’s as if I’ve suggested that the North Pole is uninhabited.

How could that be? They wrote hundreds of themes in grade school, essays in high school and term papers in college, and those rules applied every single time. Don’t use contractions. You should never use the second person. Or fragments. And absolutely no sentences that begin with conjunctions.

Their teachers were absolutely right. When one is creating sentences and paragraphs for a formal document within an academic setting, it is critical to employ proper form, syntax and mechanics to ensure a favorable evaluation. Such are the rules of the academic world.

But once you’ve left the confines of school and find yourself communicating in a persuasive manner to prospects, customers, co-workers, and anyone else who falls under that “stakeholder” umbrella, grammar takes a backseat to something far more important. Whether you want to tell, sell, convince, entertain, emphasize, or even infuriate, you must connect with the reader and ensure that your message is clearly understood.

The most effective way to do that is to be individual and personal, and that calls for a conversational style. Conversation is far more informal than the academic writing style. When we speak, most of us don’t use textbook grammar. We start sentences with conjunctions, we end them with prepositions. We even use fragments. Those whose spoken grammar is letter-perfect come across as tedious snobs (think of TV’s Frasier).

Grammar is not a rigid set of rules. It’s a framework of structure and standards that varies by the type of writing and the audience – just as different types of buildings demand different degrees of engineering. It’s also important to remember that grammar isn’t timeless. If it were, we’d all write and speak in the style of the King James Version. Some rules that were considered inviolate just thirty years ago have already faded away.

When you write something other than a term paper, write to communicate. Don’t agonize over the grammatical correctness of your work. Match it to the situation and the audience. A memo about the company picnic doesn’t need to be as formal as a white paper directed to college professors. Focus on conveying the message, not on achieving grammatical perfection.

And don’t be afraid that your English teacher will come after you. If what you create is truly communicative and accomplishes the goal, he or she would actually be very proud.