Five reasons to ignore your grammar gremlins (for now)

gremlinHere’s the good news: if you’re worried your documents are not as good as they could be, your grammar is probably not the problem.

Don’t get me wrong. Grammar matters. Of course it does. Getting it wrong can undermine your reputation (though probably not as much as you think – see below). Poor grammar can even completely change the meaning of a sentence.

But focusing too much on it could actually be more damaging. Here are five reasons why you should get over your grammar hang-ups.

1. Poor punctuation matters more than grammar. Colons and commas are vital sign-posts, so it’s important to put them in the right place. And a misplaced apostrophe (or, worse, a missing one) will make it look like you don’t care. On the other hand, I’d argue that no-one is going to get that worked up about whether you end a sentence with a preposition.

2. Grammar (and punctuation) issues usually indicate deeper problems. It’s probably not your imperfect understanding of a set of arcane grammar rules known only by master pedants that’s holding back your writing. It’s far more likely to be structural issues or focusing too much on your own aims rather than your readers’. In fact, worrying too much about your grammar can actually cause deeper problems. That’s because it seriously undermines your confidence, causing you to compensate with overly complex language or sentences.

3. Almost everyone struggles with it. Believe it or not, FTSE 100 directors and new graduates are often united in uncertainty over certain grammar points. Even experienced editors can spend a lifetime picking up the finer details. So waiting until you’ve perfected your grammar knowledge before you write anything is counter-productive – and futile.

4. Perfect grammar does not automatically mean perfect documents. Perfecting your knowledge of grammar will not automatically make you produce good documents, any more than memorising the workshop manual to your shiny new Ford or Volvo will make you a good driver. It’s perfectly possible to be technically perfect yet still produce an impenetrable tome stuffed with turgid professionalese.

Focus on your readers’ needs, structure your document well and use the right level of language. Then you stand a very good chance of making a real impact – yes, even if you’ve misplaced a modifier or left a participle dangling helplessly.

5. It’s not too late to fill in the gaps. If English is your first language, you already know 95 per cent of the grammar you’ll ever need. (And if it’s not, take comfort from the fact that your knowledge of technical grammar rules is probably superior to that of most native English speakers, simply because we learn our first language through usage rather than studying grammar.) Native speakers beyond the age of four or five already know which common verbs are irregular. They’d never say, for example, ‘I digged a big hole in the sand’.

They know that ‘dig’ becomes ‘dug’ in the past tense. They just don’t know that it’s called the past tense. (Nor, at that age, do they need to.) So the task of filling in the gaps is pretty straightforward. The odds are that the things you’re unsure about are the same ones that other people struggle with. (See point 3, above.)

So, take heart. Focus first on what your reader needs to know, then tell them in as straightforward a way as possible. Then – and only then – look up any points of grammar you’re not sure about.

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