With such an emphasis on great content these days, companies may be keen to tighten up their use of grammar. But before pledging allegiance to every grammatical rule going, it’s worth thinking about the ways in which you use language for a given effect.
I think we can all agree that we need grammar. If words are the building blocks we use to construct our meaning, grammar is what glues these together.
However, the trouble is that often when we talk about grammar, we become overly strict about its uses – flinging around accusations of incorrectness, arguing over misplaced commas and other grammatical dubieties.
Language, then, becomes something scary. We write with fear, as if perched upon a tightrope of narrowly defined rules. One foul step and whoops, we descend into the realms of miseducation and embarrassment.
In case you haven’t already guessed, I side with Stephen Fry on the issue of grammar. I believe language is most fun when treated as a creative pursuit; if creativity is, by nature, about experimentation and doing things differently, doesn’t this mean we should feel compelled to treat words in the same way?
Don’t worry, this blog isn’t a plea to disregard all grammatical rules. Instead, I want to encourage a shift in our attitude from grammar being a rigid, frightening thing to something more open to invention and creativity.
Here be language
It is generally accepted that language has evolved over human history and will continue to do so. Social, economic and political changes demand new forms, along with colonisation, migration and all the other things that cause a shift in our way of living.
A few words from Chaucer on the subject:
Ye knowe ek that in forme of speeche is chaunge
Withinne a thousand yeer, and wordes tho
That hadden pris, now wonder nyce and straunge
Us thinketh hem, and yet thei spake hem so”
Even though changes in the English language have slowed down considerably in the last two centuries, there are still constant – if subtle – shifts in the way we express ourselves. We chop and splice words, make new arrangements, or even pluck new forms from the linguistic heavens.
The internet has filled our vocabularies with all sorts of bizarre terms. More than ever, nouns are being used as verbs, such as Googling, emailing and actioning. (Yet, Shakespeare also loved a good gerund, which are found throughout his plays, so this is certainly no new deviation.)
Terror of the new
Despite our general acceptance that language changes, newness can be a terrifying prospect. And perhaps at times it should be – we want to keep hold of certain grammatical rules if they help us make our meaning clear.
Some classic examples:
Our friend, the hyphen:
Black-taxi driver (the driver has a black taxi)
Black taxi-driver (the black driver has a taxi)
Ah there you are, restful comma:
Eats shoots and leaves (the panda has a diet of shoots and leaves)
Eats, shoots and leaves (the panda goes on killing spree after nice meal)
In turn, there’s a difference between change resulting from laziness or misunderstanding, and change from invention and adaption.
For example, today’s English features a greater number of contractions such as I’ve and less formalised versions such as could’ve. These innovations help us to quicken the pace of our communication without inhibiting the meaning (we all know that I’ve is the contracted version of I have).
In the same way, the 20th century saw an increasing number of acronyms circulating the globe. Lengthy names and phrases were shortened to nice little word-packages: self-contained underwater breathing apparatus became Scuba, International Criminal Police Organisation became Interpol, and so forth.
Grammar rules on the chopping block
There are certain grammatical rules that are slowly being phased out. Perhaps there is cause for keeping some of these, others have little obvious function. Often it will be partly subjective and dependent on context, which I shall discuss in a minute.
Whom versus who
Particularly when used in speech, whom can sound a bit stiff. For the amount of effort it can take to work out whether to use who or whom, the word does little to aid understanding. However, there may be times when it lends a certain gravity to a sentence.
Rebel without a clause
You could say ‘This is a cake that I baked’. But ‘This is a cake I baked’ works too. Perhaps we should all get less hung up on restrictive clauses.
But goes first
It’s drilled into many of us from a young age not to start sentences with conjunctions such as And, But and However. According to English teachers across the land, these should appear in the middle of a sentence, not shamefully flaunted at its beginning. But (mm hmm) they can make for punchy sentence openings and helpfully break up long, flagging sentences.
Double negative for double fun
When Pink Floyd sung, ‘We Don’t Need No Education’ the double negative became a cry for rebellion against the rigidity of the schooling system. A knowing use of this faux pas can make for an impactful statement.
Context and convention, we salute you
Grammar is less about correctness per se, and more about context. Each medium will have its own conventions. A formal letter to a prospective employer will be written using different language and grammar to, say, a text message to Bob (whoever Bob is).
Twitter has spawned its own new and creative ways of writing.
With only 140 characters to play with, writers use all manner of contractions, abbreviations and condensed wording.
The world of brands and advertising has hailed a new age of brevity in language. Words and meaning must be squashed into punchy sayings, slogans and copy on the side of teeny tiny packaging. Single-word sentences have made an appearance, while grammatical rules have been put through the wringer.
Impossible is nothing – Adidas
Be More Dog – O2
Think Different – Apple
Eat Fresh – Subway
Should we give this up? Stamp out these grammatical misdemeanours? I vote that they stay.
The bottom line
Ultimately, it’s about being understood. When faced with a question of grammar, we must ask ourselves: how can I best communicate my point? For meaning and communication can be a tricky beast; we must use grammar as a tool to provide the strongest glue possible to construct the stepping blocks of language. So let’s do this in a creative, intelligent fashion, considering the context and then deciding what works. And most of all, let’s have fun with language :-)
This blog was written as an offshoot to a larger piece, due to launch at the end of the year, ‘Finding your voice: how to shape and document a brand’s tone of voice’. To stay in the loop with our new content, sign up to our email list.