That isn’t grammatically correct!

I have overwhelming respect (and more than a little sympathy) for English teachers. But I do have to say they manage to make being an effective writer more difficult than it should be.

Now, I’m not referring to all English teachers. Anyone who’s dedicated their adult lives to convincing bored adolescents to fall in love with dead writers can’t be all bad. No, I’m thinking about that one – you had her – and yes, so did everyone reading this.

She wasn’t exactly warm, though all the teachers and other adults in your life would say, “but she has a heart of gold” before shaking slightly and looking for the nearest bar. And though she may have retired long ago, I hear her legacy in others’ questions (and occasional barbs).

The questioners come from all walks of life, from every conceivable grouping, all sharing one proud heritage. They were the kids who got good grades in high school English – and no, I wasn’t among their number. (As they’re secretly saying as they read these words: and it shows.)

“Miss Dinwiddie would have failed me if I ended a sentence with a preposition.” “You obviously never had Mrs. Smootsdell, so you probably are unaware it is most inappropriate to begin a sentence with a conjunction.” They’re often stunned someone arrogant enough to call himself a writer clearly doesn’t grasp the most basic grammatical laws. Sometimes, they even take the time to rewrite my copy properly so I might better understand their points.

Having written hundreds of themes in grade school, essays in high school, and term papers in college, they religiously followed those rules every single time. Don’t use contractions. You should never use the second person. Or fragments. And absolutely no sentences beginning with conjunctions.

Like someone who thinks George Orwell’s Animal Farm is just a silly story about talking animals, they’ve absorbed the material but misunderstood its meaning: the rules drummed into their heads during sophomore year apply to academic writing. However, that doesn’t mean they all apply to communication outside the classroom. 

When one creates 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 conventions for writers within the academy.

But once you’ve moved from pop quizzes being your greatest source of terror to that email you need to send Tuesday taking their place, those therefores and whereases are only going to get in your way – and they don’t need to be there. When you communicate persuasively to prospects, customers, co-workers, and other stakeholders, grammar takes a back seat to something far more important.

It doesn’t matter whether the immediate need is to tell, sell, convince, entertain, emphasize, or even infuriate. You can’t convey anything until you connect with the reader and ensure your message is clearly understood. The most effective way to do that? Be individual and personal, and that calls for a conversational style.

Conversation is far less formal than the academic writing style. When we speak, most of us don’t use textbook grammar. We start sentences with conjunctions, and we end them with prepositions. We even use fragments. Those whose spoken grammar is letter-perfect create an image of tedious snobbery.

You may have been taught grammar was a rigid set of rules, but it isn’t. Grammar is a framework of structure and standards that varies by the type of writing and the audience. Just as two very different buildings are engineered differently, varying levels of grammar apply.

Nor is grammar timeless. You can find proof of that by searching for a magazine article from 20 years ago. You’ll likely encounter words or phrases capable of making you uncomfortable. As awareness of the hidden messages or effects some words convey grows, we stop using them. And … unthinkable as it may be … some of that teacher’s rules have become archaic since you memorized them.

The best professional writers I’ve known all have a solid knowledge of grammar. More important, they have an even stronger awareness of the power and impact of language. Their goal is finding the most compelling way to connect with your most important audiences, not trying to impress Mrs. Granville by displaying grammatical perfection.

Besides, if your message ends up truly communicative and accomplishes the goal, Mrs. Granville might even show the hint of a smile and offer an “Excellent.”