Over the coming weeks, and possibly months, I will be using my Writing Tip Wednesdays to focus on some grammar mistakes. These are intended as simple reminders for both Native and Non-native English speakers and writers and will cover some of the most common issues I see floating around the internet, and even on my phone. Spammy texts have horrific grammar if you haven’t noticed.
As always, my focus will be on the reason behind the rules so that you can connect the rule with the logic behind it. You will nearly always find conflicting advice out there, so if you don’t agree with me, then you don’t agree with me. No hard feelings. We’re a little more loosey-goosey these days with how we talk and write.
But first, a few caveats and warnings.
Grammar is not offensive, but some people think it is.
English grammar has come under fire in recent decades for several reasons. Some of it is warranted. I can remember a time when grammar inhibited my writing abilities because I was too afraid of making a mistake and not afraid enough of lacking solid ideas. That is not a good thing.
Some of the rules don’t make sense when you look at them. And, if you aren’t going into a field that requires formal language, then you don’t need to worry about some of them. You certainly shouldn’t be worrying about them when you go to apply pen to paper. Or fingers to keyboard. Whichever is your preferred freewriting method.
But, some of the criticism out there is nonsense. For instance, criticism geared towards painting English grammar as some kind of ideological institution leveled at the preferential treatment of some groups over others. If you catch my drift.
Grammar is a means of communication, not an entity. This means it cannot have either a positive or negative moral value. I take the point these critics are making. Standard English is difficult and your mastery, or lack of it, can cause others to judge you, whatever your background. But what most of these critics are harping on isn’t a grammar issue, but a styleissue.
So, have an open mind and keep in mind that how you express yourself in a language is your own business. It doesn’t mean I expect you to agree with me, just as I don’t expect you to force me to agree with you. Look at it as food for thought. And, on the other side of that coin, I’m talking about these rules from a more real-world perspective. Not the perspective of the ivory tower.
The real world requires a little more practicality and a little less ideology.
Think of grammar as common courtesy guidelines.
You’ve seen those clickbait articles floating around with people who are obnoxiously rude in stores, on airplanes, and in restaurants. Think of grammar as the linguistic version of those common courtesy guidelines that people like to ignore. Only with grammar, there’s a little more wiggle room.
For instance, if you are writing in a derivative language of English, like Ebonics, Gullah, or Creole, that is far different from if you are writing in standard American English. The same goes if you are writing in Scots English. The standard rules do not apply because you aren’t technically in the mother tongue anymore.
It’s the same if you’re dealing with earlier forms of English too. Anglo-Saxon and Middle English have very different rules than what we have now too. So, the “rules” of grammar are guidelines largely based on common usage.
But, while they’re not hard and fast rules, just like common courtesy, they are advisable if you want to communicate effectively. And, if you’re in a business or customer service setting, you definitely want to follow them as on-point as you can. Because miscommunication in the business world is disastrous and can cost both consumers and business owners millions.
Grammar should be practical, not pedantic.
“Pedantic” refers to someone who prizes formality and preciseness over and above anything else. This is usually where grammarians, language teachers, and academia run into problems and where so-called “grammar Nazis” get their reputation. Grammar, if you take it too seriously, can end up being pedantic, whether you’re a “grammar Nazi” or a fan of “critical grammar.”
Like with almost everything else out there, the best approach is practicality. This goes for anything from pronouns to sentence structure. It isn’t practical to have your own language specific to you that everyone has to follow. Grammar is supposed to order language for effective communication.
You can’t effectively communicate if you throw everything out the window or assume that the rules only serve a specific group of people at the expense of either self-expression or another group of people. That’s a mindset issue. Not a grammar issue.
So, go into grammar with the mindset that it’s there to serve you—not hinder you. When you go in with that mindset, you may find a much different world is open to you.
Grammar references everyone needs.
You can’t just rely on Grammarly or ProWritingAid to catch all of your grammar mistakes, as wonderful as both programs are. At some point, learn and relearn the rules over and over again. Native speakers learn grammar intuitively mostly–it’s how I learn it.
And that is why you want to be sure your grammar is correct in your speech and your writing. Because the better you are at both, the more intuitive grammar will be and the fewer corrections you’ll have to make.
So, what are some good sources for grammar? Well, believe it or not, you can find good resources around every corner, whether that’s a podcast (think Grammar Girl) or a traditional handbook.
Well, both Grammarly and ProWritingAid have tutorials and blogs on grammar. Even Microsoft Word has an Editor feature. These are quick and easy fixes that, while they cost money, can take a lot of the headache out of writing and worrying if you’re grammatically correct or not.
Well, go into any standard college bookstore and browse their shelves. Most remedial and 101-level courses will have a grammar handbook required. I’ve kept my own from college—a Bedford Handbook from 2002. It’s now 20 years old, but the grammar rules don’t change that much over the years.
Another good handbook for you to consider is The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation. This one is much shorter than Bedford, and the website has free tutorials, quizzes, and how-tos for you to explore.
For those of you not in the know, a style book is a way of standardizing non-standard elements, such as how to differentiate between titles of books, and titles of poems, papers, and other media. Just as an example. Most companies will have their own in-house style book for all internal communications, signature blocks, and rules for displaying the company logo.
Your best guide in stylebooks for grammar is probably The Chicago Manual of Style. This is a standard reference if you studied the humanities in college and it’s still the standard in the publishing industry. It dedicated an entire section to grammar and the explanations are very detailed.
It’s the oldest of the styles out there and perhaps the one which is still the most widely used of them. AP style is possibly the one exception as it became the de facto guide for internet publication.
I use ProWritingAid and occasionally consult either my handbook or stylebook if I need a quick refresher.
What grammar mistakes or questions do you have? Let me know in the comments below!
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