Forget What Your Teacher Taught You: Why Grammar is About Communication, Not the Other Way Around! By Guest Blogger Will Light
As bloggers & business owners we try to be conversational in our writers while still minding our our p’s & q’s & comma splices. It’s easy for this to feel like a balancing act, and a tedious one at that.
I can’t even begin to count the number of people I’ve known who learned to hate writing in high school English, because unfortunately school grammar is horrifically prescriptive—it focuses on rules of so-called “correctness” which are all too often based on outdated ideas, or worse, deep prejudice. Putting aside the not at all insignificant issues of racism, classism, and xenophobia involved in this traditional view of grammar, it’s totally un-fun to write when we’re worrying about split infinitives and ending prepositions bringing down our grade.
Grammar & Linguistics: What They Mean For Bloggers
Here’s the thing about high school English teachers (as told to you by someone who almost became one): for the most part, they mean well. The problem isn’t that that stickler of a teacher you had sophomore year was actually as horrible of a person as you and your fellow fifteen year olds thought, but is as much a victim of the broken traditionalist system of language education that most of us (in the US at least) grew up with. When I was looking to earn a BSEd in Secondary English, I looked at all the universities in my state, and found that very few offered linguistics classes at all, and only one required it for BA and BSEd students. (Naturally one of the schools required six semesters of science classes as part of their English degrees, because, you know, logic.) I was fortunate enough to go to a community college out of state that had an excellent English program, which required us to take an applied grammar class that also dealt with linguistics; not all English or English education majors have had such luck.
Instead they’re typically fed traditionalist grammar that constricts writing more than it enhances communication. Result: they teach that same grammar full of fake rules to their students, often because that’s what’s required by a curriculum designed to prep students for standardized testing rather than for a life of learning, but hey, another rant, another time. There’s a simple mathematic formula at play here:
adults who either hate writing or love writing, but really take pedantic grammar to a new level of obnoxious
Let’s go back even further to elementary school. We all had That One Teacher (or more than one) who, when asked “Can I go to the bathroom?” responded with “I don’t know, can you? If you can, you may go to the bathroom.” Yeah, I didn’t like that teacher either.
This pedantic approach to grammar isn’t just limiting, it’s linguistically inaccurate. More importantly for our purposes, it’s an ineffective way to communicate with our blog audience.
Grammar exists to aid communication, and the rules are set by native speakers, who are each and every one subconscious experts in the grammar of their native language and dialect. There is in fact, no one English grammar to rule them all. One only needs to hand an American a book written & published in the UK to see this. Instead, there are a wide variety of grammatical forms, of which the standard of English used in formal writing is only one. This is what linguists call descriptive grammar as opposed to prescriptive grammar. It describes the way grammar actually is used, rather than prescribing an idea of how some think it should be used. Writing the way our audience uses grammar is the most effective way to speak directly to a specific group of people.
Grammar “Rules” It’s 110% Okay to Break
Let’s have some fun now that we’re on the same page about the true purpose and form of grammar. That’s right, it’s time to hold up two middle fingers and maybe even a middle toe (if you can manage that, I salute you, good citizen!) to some so-called “rules” that, from the perspective of grammar serving communication, are total crap.
To Boldly Split Infinitives No Man Has Split Before
Not only is this perhaps my favorite line from a really great book (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, page 634784, section 5a, to be exact), but it points out how revolutionary (or not, since Shakespeare split infinitives like mad) Star Trek was. “Never split an infinitive,” you say? I say: 100% Certified Pure Organic Beefshit. It’s an import from Latin, but here’s the thing: Not only is a Germanic language, not a Romance language (the group of Indo-European languages that are descended primarily from Latin), but it is literally impossible to split an infinitive in Latin. Latin verbs have a single word infinitive form, while English words have the infinitive spread over two words. In Latin, laudāre; in English, to praise. This absurd “rule” came about in the mid-nineteeth century, likely because you can’t split infinitives in Latin, and misguided grammarians of the day were seriously into Latin being the Best Thing Ever.
Prepositions are not Words I End Sentences With
Okay, that’s a ridiculous example, as most native speakers would say, “I don’t end sentences with a preposition.” However silly the example, the “rule” itself is equally silly. It’s been known as a fake rule by grammarians since the 19th century, yet it’s still commonly taught in classrooms, even at the college level, which is how you end up with secondary teachers still teaching it. They are simply teaching as they were taught, believing it to be true. Again, a fake rule perpetuated by genuinely well-meaning people. True, it tends sound best in formal writing to not place a preposition at the end, but in some circumstances it’s required to be placed at the end, even in formal writing. And remember: formal writing is not inherently superior to informal writing. Blogging is a great example of this, because it is imperative that your language be as naturalistic as possible. Which sentence would you rather read: “I don’t know any men that I’m attracted to,” or “I don’t know any men to whom I am attracted”? If you picked the first one, it’s safe to say you’re in the overwhelming majority.
And Another Thing…
This isn’t just a phrase that inevitably enters your approximately thirty minutes after an argument ends, but it’s a perfectly grammatical way to begin a sentence. The use of conjunctions (such as and and but) at the beginning of a sentence dates back to at least the 900’s. Long before even Shakespeare came about. Hell, it predates Modern English entirely. (Shakespeare wrote in Early Modern English, but the way.) But don’t overuse this phrasing, as too much of it can make your writing really boring really fast. Then again, starting too many sentences with “I” is also boring, not to mention self-centered sounding, but no one would ever argue against beginning any sentences ever with “I”.
Ain’t Ain’t a Word so I Ain’t Gonna Say It
Total bullshit. Ain’t is in fact a word, because it’s in frequent use by native English speakers in several dialects, perhaps most notably Cockney and African American Vernacular English. Keep that in mind before you judge use of ain’t as a sign of unintelligence; this prejudice is inseparable from racism and classism. And that? Well that just ain’t right. That said, much as I would love to, I can’t in good faith recommend the use of ain’t in your brand writing, at least not frequently. This word is so judged, so looked down on, that using it carries consequences.
How to Know What Rules to Break and When
I chose to end my list of dumb rules with ain’t for a reason: it puts the question “How do I know what rules I can get away with breaking?” into the spotlight. The simple answer is that there is no simple answer. Just as there’s a wide variety of English dialects, there’s a wide variety of circumstances that specify when to break a rule. So how do you know what grammar rules are best for your brand? Like with any branding decision, you speak directly to your ideal reader. I have a whole post plus a workbook detailing the process of creating what I like to call a brand dialect. In the exercise, you find your ideal client or customer (an actual person) on social media and harvest the language they use. Then, you synthesis it with your own voice & the vibes you want associated with your brand, and voila! you have a unique brand dialect to go with your visual style guide. You’re now equipped to speak directly to your dream clients on their terms, using their language.
So grammar? Ain’t half bad after all.