A perspective on the grammar beast



Don’t be alarmed. Grammar is not a set  of arbitrary, despotic rules that are the special province of the knuckle-rapping teachers of old. You had learned mastered the basics by the time you were three. At the same time, there are many exceptionally good 13-year-old mathematicians, chess players and coders, but can you name a famous, or even decent 13-year-old novelist? Good writing and good communications are, more than most crafts, experience-dependent.

To me, and to most students of language, grammar is no more than the sense of making sense; it’s the meta-language of language. For our purposes, it has two main components: semantics and syntax. If you are at all familiar with computer codes, these are familiar terms, one signifying the meaning of words (or character strings) and one the arrangement of words (syntax). They both aim to cause something to happen.

Further, grammar is descriptive, not prescriptive. Unlike coding, speaking or writing that does not follow all the “rules” of grammar is usually understood, to a degree. But your personal and company reputation take takes a serious hit whenever you let by the wrong word or ungrammatical element. Writing in the Harvard Business Journal, Kyle Wiens makes this assertion:

Good grammar is credibility, especially on the internet. In blog posts, on Facebook statuses, in e-mails, and on company websites, your words are all you have. They are a projection of you in your physical absence. And, for better or worse, people judge you if you can’t tell the difference between their, there, and they’re.

I would agree entirely with Mr. Wiens, except that his spelling of “e-mails” distracts me. I’m pretty conservative when it comes to letting the patients run the asylum. For instance, I know I will die capitalizing the Web (what’s a proper noun if not that?)—but “e-mails” is so 2001! (Aside: I’m still Mad Magazine enough to get a kick out of the Web address (not URL) assigned to Wien’s HBR blog: http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2012/07/i_wont_hire_people_who_use_poo.html!)

So good grammar is good business. In these periodic entries to Grammar Diaries, I will try to instruct and entertain by drawing attention to common and not-so-common errors that could hurt you or your company, always with the proviso that breaking the “rules” of grammar is perfectly okay, as long as you’re aware of what “user expectation” you’re defying or surprising and have a good reason for doing so.


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