Putting grammar in its place

For a writing-training company, we run surprisingly few grammar and punctuation courses.  To be more precise, we run few courses that focus solely on grammar and punctuation – even though more people come to us asking for training in just this area than in any other.

And why? Are we phasing the subjects out? Do we not think them important? Has everyone, including us, given up caring?  Goodness, no.

The fact that our clients often don’t end up taking a grammar and punctuation course is not because we’re keeping it all for ourselves. Rather, it’s that when they describe their needs in more detail, it often turns out that they’re looking for something broader than just grammar and punctuation.

Grammar can be a red herring

Most people have a clear idea of what punctuation is, but grammar’s a little tougher to define. Putting it broadly, grammar is the structure of language: things such as different word classes (verbs, nouns, adjectives, etc) and how words relate to each other or change to show different inflections (such as number, tense and case). However, thanks to the promulgation of so-called rules such as ‘don’t start a sentence with a conjunction’  or ‘don’t split infinitives’, grammar can seem like a narrow set of procedures that you have to master in order to write well.

Peevish articles that get passed around online only add to the misapprehensions (many have cited this one, to which writer and editor Stan Carey has written this comprehensive reply). Such articles tend to further muddy already murky waters by confusing personal preferences or long-standing superstitions (which are usually just extremely old personal preferences) with genuine guidance on rules that will give your writing real clarity.

For example, contrast the rule about misplaced modifiers,  where the writer inadvertently modifies the wrong part of the sentence,  with the superstition that it’s wrong to put prepositions at the end of a sentence. It does make sense to avoid misplaced modifiers, such as:

Showing strong growth, the chief executive presented an impressive set of results.

These can bewilder your reader or undermine your writing (not to mention anger chief executives who don’t care to have attention drawn to their waistlines). Ending on a preposition, however, is no barrier to clarity.

When people approach us with ‘grammar and punctuation’ on their minds, it may be that they’ve noticed errant apostrophes in their team’s work, that the writing isn’t following a logical structure, or simply that they’re not getting the results they want. Improving writing skills can make a great difference, but there’s more to it than blindly following prescriptive mandates.

The bigger picture

On her academic writing blog, Explorations of style, English language lecturer Rachael Cayley points out that fretting about grammar in isolation, as if it were some loose screw that needed tightening, misses the point and can actually be counterproductive. ‘Improving your writing isn’t just fiddling with technicalities and arcane rules,’ she says. ‘It is a matter of thinking deeply about your ideas and your communicative intent.’

There’s plenty more to think about when it comes to good writing: planning; structuring (yes, sentences, but also your entire document); drawing the reader in and keeping them hooked; building your argument; picking the best word for the job; and always (always!) considering the needs of the reader.

So we’re not saying grammar isn’t important. Of course it is. It’s just not the whole story.

If you want to have a chat about where grammar fits into your company’s story, or how you can get the results you’re looking for, call us on +44 (0)1273 732 888. Or take a look online at the courses we offer.

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