Why bother with grammar?

“Why can’t we let people write the way they want to?” someone challenged me in a training session last week. Like many others, he had never been taught grammar at school and didn’t see why he should start now. And he cited his heroes – Jack Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson, William Burroughs – as examples of writers who broke the rules to terrific effect.

He had a point. Are the old rules still relevant in the age of texting, tweeting and instant messaging? Some people think those platforms encourage dumbing down, but aren’t they also full of genuine creativity? So why can’t we be a bit less rigid about grammar and spelling in other written communications as well?

Then I went back to those beat writers, and guess what? Their spelling is conventional. Their grammar is impeccable, unless they choose otherwise. And their punctuation is perfect. Which may explain why my challenger, despite his self-confessed ignorance, understood instinctively how to use commas.

You need to know and understand the rules before you can start breaking them.

Stone the cows

After listening to Radio 4’s day of gripping readings from the King James Bible on Sunday, I feel like taking a potshot at one of today’s sacred cows: plain English.

Here’s the essayist Joseph Addison, writing three hundred years ago in the Spectator about a visit to the Royal Exchange: “This grand Scene of Business gives me an infinite Variety of solid and substantial Entertainments. As I am a great Lover of Mankind, my Heart naturally overflows with Pleasure at the sight of a prosperous and happy Multitude, insomuch that at many publick Solemnities I canot forbear expressing my Joy with Tears that have stoln down my Cheeks.”

This is a vivid description, conjuring up place, atmosphere and the writer’s emotions. And all those capital letters – did you notice how they give every noun a starring role, and provide visual signposting for easier reading?

But it wouldn’t get past the plain English police. Too many adjectives; lots of long Latinate words; redundant phrases; and a 43-word sentence.

Perhaps we promoters of plain English could relax a little, even in business writing. Or perhaps the great writer Addison is the exception that proves the rule.

The helpful hyphen

Lynne Truss is sadly confused about hyphens. In her book Eats, Shoots and Leaves, the nation’s favourite punctuation stickler throws up her hands and declares that

“hyphen usage is just a big bloody mess and is likely to get messier.”

We will have no truck with this kind of defeatism at Clarity. We insist that all that matters is whether a hyphen is helpful or not. If I want to illustrate the importance of hyphens, I ask people to hyphenate the words “black cab drivers”. Of course it all depends whether you wish to talk about cab drivers who might suffer racist abuse from BNP supporters (black cab-drivers) or whether you simply mean drivers of black cabs (black-cab drivers).

The principle is a simple one: when two words are being used as a single adjective or a single noun, they should be hyphenated.

So “rate of return regulation” makes you wonder what return regulation might be, whereas “rate-of-return regulation” is clearly about regulation related to rates of return. Similarly, we make “energy intensive corn based process” much clearer by simply adding a couple of hyphens and, ideally, a comma, so that the reader is instantly aware that we are talking about “an energy-intensive, corn-based process”.

What could be simpler than that?

Punctuation: why do we need it anyway?

[This entry originally appeared on Clare Lynch’s blog, goodcopybadcopy]

Today, I’m delighted to feature a guest post by fellow copywriter Sarah Turner. As you’ll see, she’s a definitely a woman after my own heart . . . Continue reading “Punctuation: why do we need it anyway?”

Apostrophe rule: 100s or 100’s?

[This entry originally appeared on Clare Lynch’s blog, goodcopybadcopy]

This addendum to my previous blog entry on apostrophes is dedicated to the graphic designer friend of mine who recently posted a cry for help on Facebook, asking which was correct: 100’s or 100s.

Naturally, her writer friends told her to ditch the apostrophe, which she did. Sorry to distress any literate people out there, but I have to inform you that she has since revealed that she was told to put them all back in. Continue reading “Apostrophe rule: 100s or 100’s?”

Grammar brush-up: Rules for indicating possession with an apostrophe

[This entry originally appeared on Clare Lynch’s blog, goodcopybadcopy]

Having worked with more than my share of tiresome subs who clearly quite enjoy getting their knickers in a twist about other people’s apostrophe crimes, I don’t want to get too snarky about the rights and wrongs of this important little punctuation mark.

After all, you can’t blame people for not knowing how to punctuate if they’ve never been taught how to do it. (I tend to agree with the journalism teacher who once told me she could tell a student’s age from their punctuation. Few people under forty have a clue, because they had the misfortune to go to school after it was decided that grammar was too elitist to teach).

But if you care about your business you need to know that you will be judged if you get it wrong. Continue reading “Grammar brush-up: Rules for indicating possession with an apostrophe”

St Thomas’ Hospital or St Thomas’s Hospital?

[This entry originally appeared on Clare Lynch’s blog, goodcopybadcopy]

In the comments to a previous post, reader katypea asks the following:

“St. Thomas’ Hospital” (as per the directional signage around Waterloo) or “St. Thomas’s Hospital” (as per my sheer editorial common sense). Please tell me i won the arguement with The Boyfriend last night…?

It’s an apostrophe question many people struggle with, so I thought my answer warranted a post of its own. Continue reading “St Thomas’ Hospital or St Thomas’s Hospital?”

A good reason not to pay your Council Tax

[This entry originally appeared on Clare Lynch’s blog, goodcopybadcopy]

Thanks to reader Blake Evans for alerting me to this story about Birmingham City Council banning the apostrophe in its road signs.

A tad worrying that the head of the city’s transport scrutiny committee, Councillor Martin Mullaney, seems to think that a basic grasp of the apostrophe is an advanced level skill.

Don’t know what the schools are like in Birmingham, Martin, but I had mastered it before the age of ten.