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By: Jacques Couret
I read etymologies for kicks. I find editing and proofing fun. I’ve carried my badge as a proud member of the Grammar Police for nearly four decades. But now, I might have to turn in my credentials.
As part of my professional development at Allison+Partners, I recently viewed an excellent grammar and style refresher on Poynter.News University called “Sweat This, Not That: Real Rules vs. Grammar Myths.” The University of Kansas’ Lisa McLendon, aka Madam Grammar, hosted the one-hour video, which teaches writers and editors about grammar rules and “rules” pounded into their skulls that have no real basis in English grammar.
As the product of a liberal arts education, I learned strict grammar rules, including “rules” I now must forsake reluctantly as grammar myths only posing as rules. For example: “Never end a sentence with a preposition.” We all know that one, right?
It’s a myth. Some Latin-obsessed English grammar enthusiasts decided centuries ago to apply Latin rules to English. That may have made sense during the Renaissance, but today it can lead to odd-sounding sentences. Sir Winston Churchill once mocked someone who criticized him for ending a sentence with a preposition by saying: "That is the sort of thing up with which I will not put!" I, your editorial manager, approve of anything Ole Winnie said!
McLendon also believes it’s acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition because it’s contextual -- If it sounds OK to the ear and the audience is informal, it’s fine. “This isn’t the grammar rule I came here with.” I, your editorial manager, still don’t like it!
Similarly, the rule about not splitting infinitives and correct adverb placement also have Latin roots. And they’re both myths. It’s correct when Star Trek’s Capt. Kirk says, “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” It’s also acceptable to write, “I quickly read The Stream.” Your editorial manager harrumphs at all of this!
McLendon gave her blessing to start sentences with conjunctions. Again, if it sounds good to the ear and the audience is informal, no worries. Your editorial manager always broke that rule anyway as a matter of personal choice!
The Serial Comma and Oxford Comma are both grammatically correct, she noted. Your editorial manager suggests deferring to your audience or personal preference and notes McLendon and her Ph.D. in Slavic languages can go jump in the lake with her Oxford Commas!
You may also noun a verb and verb a noun without fear of breaking grammar rules. What’s that mean, you ask? Nouning a verb: “Here’s an ask.” Verbing a noun: “God, I hate adulting.” Your editorial manager is “finalizing” his Grammar Police resignation papers as we speak.
English is such a complex and beautiful mélange of Anglo-Saxon, Latin, Greek, German, French, Spanish, Persian and damn near everything else. Even India has left its mark – the word “shampoo.” You can thank Arabic for “alcohol.” Your editorial manager now dreams of a lovely single-malt scotch!
But grammar myths and professional styles also developed as English evolved over the centuries. In service to our clients, and with respect for the predominant American tongue, we PR professionals must always communicate well by sticking to the rules of grammar. But we must also be comfortable breaking a grammar “rule” or two in the interest of communication that calls to action, changes hearts and delivers feeling.
Take Apple’s wildly successful campaign: “Think Different.” Grammatically speaking, it’s not even a true sentence and “different” should be an adverb here -- “differently.” But who would argue the grammatically correct “You should think differently” is better?
As McLendon emphasized, the guiding grammar principle must be to defer to what is most clear, clean and concise for the reader. We should never let a rule of style guide trump clarity, she said. Your editorial manager now clings for dear life to his beloved Associated Press Stylebook!
“Writing is hard enough without worrying about manufactured distinctions that add nothing to a sentence,” McLendon said. “Writers and editors, and teachers of writing and editing, need to focus on the grammar problems — and there are plenty — that can impede understanding, mislead readers, or simply make a writer look sloppy and unprofessional, instead of sending more grammar myths around the Internet.”
I urge you to check out McClendon’s seminar during a lunch break and refresh yourselves on English grammar rules, and perhaps rekindle your love for the written word with all its contradictions and complexities.
Jacques Couret is a former journalist who currently serves as editorial manager of All Told, Allison+Partners’ global integrated marketing offering.