Sadly, grammar has acquired so many negative connotations that most people wince when they hear the term.
Images of worksheets packed with sentences that need to be rewritten spring to mind, and I think we all had at least one teacher who refused to let us do anything unless we politely asked if we “may.” There are “grammar police” as well as “grammar Nazis” and even “grammar hipsters” – though most people would prefer not to belong to any of those groups. In his book Damp Squid: The English Language Laid Bare, the philosopher Jeremy Butterfield sardonically states that grammar is “a generic way of referring to any aspect of English that people object to.”
The irony of all this animosity is that the vast majority of people can’t really tell you what grammar actually is. Does it refer to spelling mistakes? Well, not really. Does it come into play when we incorrectly use semicolons, commas, or colons? Only tangentially.
A basic definition of grammar is “the study of the way the sentences of a language are constructed; morphology and syntax.” Thus, spelling mistakes don’t really fall under the purview of grammar; however, the different spellings of different forms of words (morphology) does. Punctuation is nowhere to be found in that definition, but the grammatical structure of a sentence (syntax) influences what types of punctuation you can and should use.
For these reasons and more, I consider grammar to be the infrastructure of language: most of it is hiding in plain sight and we constantly take it for granted, but the second something goes wrong, we notice. For example, one rule of grammar is that singular subjects must be matched with singular verbs and that plural subjects must be matched with plural verbs. Most native English speakers can’t recite this rule to you; we just “know” what’s right. That’s what we believe, anyway; the reality may not be as clear.
Stop! Grammar Time. Choose the Correct Verb in Each Pair.
(Or Just Skip the Worksheet and Move On.)
Take a few simple sentences as an example. Try to choose the correct version of the verb – the first option is always plural and the second option is always singular (note that singular verbs tend to end in “s”):
- The children (chase/chases) the dog.
- The dog (chase/chases) the ball.
- The children and the dog (chase/chases) the squirrel.
- Neither the children nor the dog (chase/chases) the snake.
Chances are good that you got the first two correct without even trying. Singular verbs matched with plural subjects just sound off: “the children chases the dog.” The same is true when plural verbs are matched with singular subjects: “the dog chase the ball.”
The third sentence is a little tricky since we have a compound subject (“the children and the dog”) with its singular element listed second; however, since it’s the children and the dog (which adds up to at least two things), we know that the compound, plural subject should take the plural verb. So the correct answer in the third sentence is “chase.”
The last one tends to trip people up. In the case of compound subject joined with “or” or “nor,” the verb takes the form of the subject element it is closest to. Thus, since “the dog” is listed second and is singular, the verb should actually be “chases.” How’d you do?
To quote a classic adage of exasperated students everywhere, “who cares?” And the answer to that is, “primarily stodgy WASPs who teach grammar – and also Millennials.” As I mentioned in an earlier post about the importance of good writing in the Internet Age, 74% of Millennials claim that they are bothered by typographical errors in social media, which is to say nothing of how they feel about those errors in more formal avenues of communication like emails, blog posts, etc.
While I think everyone is willing to admit that language is constantly changing and that there is no stopping that change, I think everyone also agrees that language needs to be understood by the speaker (or writer) as well as the listener (or reader) in order to be truly effective. So, while pretty much everyone I interact with knows what I mean if I “lol-ed” at something (even though “laughing out louded” makes no grammatical sense whatsoever), I can’t just go around CAWN-ing (creating acronyms willy-nilly-ing) unless I fully intend to be misunderstood.
The other essential problem with saying that grammar doesn’t matter as long as people know what you’re saying is that it fails to recognize the importance of professionalism and common courtesy. While you may be fine writing that your “management skillz are off the hizzook” in your cover letter because, well, people should obviously know that it means you’re a competent manager who treats employees equitably and fairly and who helps maximize efficiency in your department, the simple truth is that we don’t know who’s reading our work and/or what their perception of our writing will be.
Interestingly enough, this was actually a huge problem when the telephone was first invented as well. Many people are surprised to discover that “hello” only came into fashion as a greeting after the invention and widespread use of the telephone. In fact, the original telephone greeting was “ahoy.” Why? Because people didn’t always know who they would be addressing. Victorian etiquette dictated that you didn’t generally speak to someone unless you had first been introduced, and over the phone it was also impossible to know if you were going to be addressing someone of a higher or lower station than you, which would determine the “proper” or “polite” way to address them.
Thus, a neutral greeting needed to be established for a situation that had never existed before: people speaking together without being introduced or in close proximity. While “ahoy” was a favorite of Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the first telephone, it turns out that Thomas Edison’s “hello” won out – so much so that the early switchboard operators were called “hello girls.”
And much like Victorians talking on the phone in the late nineteenth century, we ever-increasingly find ourselves communicating from afar with someone we don’t know as a result of the proliferation of digital, remote communications. And the use of “proper” and “polite” grammar is ultimately the courtesy we extend to anyone who isn’t intimate enough with us to know our personal predilections about language and to anyone who is in a station above us – our bosses, the person reviewing our resume, etc.
Proper grammar and usage also serves as a benchmark by which people can be evaluated. Whether we like it or not – anyone who encounters your writing is making a judgement call about your intelligence and perhaps even your character. It’s why resumes with grammatical errors go directly into the garbage. It’s why you double check that important email you’re going to send. And it’s why any “public” (as in, “seen by more than just you”) piece of writing you create needs to be as refined as possible.
Your Clients Care
When you scale up from your individual writing to writing that represents your business and your brand, it’s not just your colleagues, your peers, or anonymous Internet browsers that you need to impress.
You need to wow your potential clients with every piece of content you create.
Whether they’re grammar experts or they’re just experts when it comes to the age-old question of “it’s” vs. “its,” if your potential clients catch you making mistakes, they’ll leave and find someone else. It’s that simple.
So, if you’re comfortable in your knowledge of which indefinite pronouns require verbs conjugated as plurals and which require verbs conjugated in the singular, you’re likely well on your way to becoming an official member of the grammar police force. But if you’d like to leave syntax and morphology up to the content marketing experts, call LaFleur. We take pride in our exceptional, prolific writers and editors, and we’re happy to pour our efforts into building up your brand and helping you wow your potential clients. Call today at 888-222-1512 or fill out a convenient form online to take your marketing to the next level.
Grimes, W. (1992, March 5). The great ‘hello’ mystery is solved. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1992/03/05/garden/great-hello-mystery-is-solved.html