Debating grammar

Why a good grammar discussion is valuable for business writing

Oh I do I like a debate. Well, a nice, civil one without any cursing or swearing.

I especially like a debate where I actually learn something, rather than feeling like I’m being hammered into the ground by the ‘opposition’. When I was younger I didn’t realise this particular value of a debate – maybe because I’d spent too much time listening to my father sermonise at the dinner table about his particular views. In my experience, you had a view, you stuck to it, and woe betide anyone who contradicted you.

Here are some viewpoints I held throughout my childhood and (dare I say) into my early twenties, without much factual grounding.

1. Tories = bad
2. Ofsted = bad
3. Anywhere south of Yorkshire = bad

In fact it wasn’t until relatively recently that I started to learn the value of listening to and taking on board other people’s opinions. Nowadays, having learnt from a ‘heated’ debate or two, I pretty much won’t enter into a debate about anything that I hold a strong view on. And that’s partly because I don’t want to have some sort of vaguely irrational emotional response to what the other person is saying, but also because I’m much more likely to enjoy a debate if I’m going to learn something from it, and not leave it feeling it like my entire value system has been undermined. As an example I have recently enjoyed debates on:

1. Nuclear power
2. Private education
3. The usefulness (or not) of support pants

But the most enjoyable of all my recent debates has to have been a good old discussion about grammar.

Grammar is an excellent subject to enter into a debate on, because it’s one of those rare topics where you can quickly and easily find lots of supporting arguments, and you can actually learn something.

I’m not saying that there won’t be a little bit of mud slinging, because in its own weird way grammar is actually quite an emotive topic.  For many people their ability to use correct grammar (not to be confused with writing well) is a point of very serious pride. If you challenge them on it, then you’re likely to be met with quite a chilly response.

For other people, grammar may have been a lifelong struggle, with any criticism tapping into all sorts of residual hang-ups engendered by damning school reports and low English grades.

So beware: the grammar debate isn’t necessarily neutral territory and you need to tread carefully as you go.

How to approach the grammar debate for business writing

In my experience, grammar debates almost always start because someone doesn’t like a piece of writing. Typically, the ‘criticiser’ is a client and the person whose text is being criticised, is me.

That’s why I can tell you quite confidently that making bold assertions about ‘poor English’ or things being ‘badly written’ won’t go down well. Remember that your perception comes from an opinion and that opinion may not be correct in the way that you think it is. Bear in mind that something may have been written in a certain way to achieve a particular effect, or for a specific audience, and that will affect the style.

However, if you’re in my shoes and it’s your copy that’s being pulled apart, then work hard at not taking it personally. People do feel strongly about grammar and that’s something you have to bear in mind.

Both sides should use it as a learning experience and be prepared to listen to the other’s point-of-view.

There’s a difference between debatable and ‘set-in-stone’ grammar

Some things are without a doubt, grammatically incorrect. For example, if I wrote ‘that experience really effected me’ then I would be using the wrong form of effect/affect. No debate.

Or if I wrote ‘its a lovely day today’ then again, I would undoubtedly be missing an apostrophe. That’s not up for debate. So let’s not get silly here and start entering into debates about ‘standard’ and ‘non-standard English’: it’s entirely irrelevant to a sensible discussion about grammar in business writing. Leave that for the linguists and academics.

What I’m saying is, be sure your grammar topic is actually a subject for a useful debate before you enter into it. If you’re being challenged on something that’s wrong, then don’t embarrass yourself by arguing the toss on it.

What is more interesting and, dare I say it, fun, is to enter into discussions on the use of contractions and conjunctions and the best place for a semi-colon. These greyer areas are fascinating and I absolutely guarantee that you’ll learn something from them, providing you do a bit of research and see what the wider world has to say about it.

Getting ad copy, or web copy, or brochure copy right, is all about understanding how you’re using language, so it’s worth opening your mind and seeing what you can discover.

My final word on it

I feel strongly about grammar, simple as that. And not because I want everything to be exactly by the book; in fact largely because I don't. I still have a lot to learn about grammar and in some small measure I’m learning every day.   

I don’t know all the rules, or all the right words (blame a 1980s education where grammar was a dirty word), but I’m willing to learn. I just hope you are too.

The author - Rosie Heptonstall

Rosie is the marketing manager for Clever Business Websites. She feels that she's learnt more about writing since getting a job than she ever did at university. That may not be an uncontroversial view, but she's sticking to it.