Grammar: Rules vs. Style

When facing a deadline, arrant pedantry is something up with which you should not put!*

The deadline is upon you. You’ve reviewed the draft a couple of times already. You just need to confirm a technical change was made. Giving your approval is, literally, moments away.

Then, you see it. A comma. 

Was it there before? 

Does it belong there?

As you anguish over the possibly errant punctuation mark, something else catches your eye. A preposition at the end of a sentence. 

Isn’t that illegal in your state? 

Didn’t that cost you a perfect score on an essay test in 7th grade?

When such grammar goblins creep up, they can create anxiety, distract you from the task at hand and even cause missed deadlines.

I recall one time, early in my career, I was asked to prepare a one-page brief defending a certain sentence construction we’d used in a benefits enrollment guide. We were at deadline, just awaiting approval so we could go to press. But, a reviewer at the client insisted the sentence was “wrong.” That debate become a vortex, sucking in my prior firm’s practice leader and legal department. On the client’s side, it went all the way up to the executive level. I recall winning that semantic dust-up, but the deadline was missed and it took undue effort, stress and cost to get things back on track.

Some people have strong opinions about grammar. But, in my experience, these disputes are too often rooted in a dogmatic adherence to rules rather than a dogged pursuit of clarity.

Prescriptive and Descriptive Grammar

I find people fall into two schools of thought about grammar: the prescriptive and the descriptive.

Prescriptive grammar is about how some people think language should be used. Descriptive grammar is about how language is actually used. 

Let’s take a famous phrase from one of my favorite TV shows: “To boldly go where no one has gone before.”

To a prescriptive grammarian, this phrase is wrong because it includes a split infinitive (“boldly” is splitting the infinitive “to go”). 

To a descriptive grammarian, the phrase is understandable and, therefore, fine. (Imagine that a persnickety proofreader had gotten a hold of this script. It would’ve read: “To go boldly where no one has gone before.” Compare the rhythm and emphasis in your head. Which version do you think works better?)

When it comes to communicating with employees or customers, I think we have to strike a balance between these two schools of thought. There are some conventions that are so widely accepted that straying from them would be awkward, self-conscious or confusing.

For example, everyone expects one space after a period. That’s right. EVERYONE expects just ONE space. Two spaces is just brazenly wrong. #petpeeve 

But, would Apple’s tagline have been as effective had it been: Think Differently?

It’s Mostly a Matter of Style

Many of the rules we get hung up on are not really rules at all; they are matters of style. (Should I have used that semicolon or broken up that one sentence into two?) After all, there’s a reason there’s no such thing as the Associated Press Rule Book or Chicago Manual of Rules.

A well-defined style is a bit like a verbal uniform. It offers some practical benefits, such as:

  1. Settling debates for the organization about right and wrong.
  2. Promoting consistency, which reduces confusion.
  3. Describing a personality for your organization’s verbal communication. 

To achieve these objectives, your style guide should address:

  • Common but tricky matters of style, such as serial commas and whether to punctuate bullet lists
  • Terminology specific to your organization, including formal benefit plan names, company products and use of capitalization
  • Guidelines about voice and tone to uphold your identity across content and communications

Clarity Is King

Even a good style book won’t capture every possible usage. I think the final arbiter has to be clarity.

Here’s an example taken from the title of a well-known punctuation primer

A panda eats shoots and leaves.

That sentence tells you about the diet of a certain kind of animal.

Now, with a single comma, we can turn our hungry panda into a killer.

A panda eats, shoots and leaves.

Ultimately, the desired meaning determines whether that comma is wrong or right.

As I recall from watching The Electric Company in my childhood … 

Electric Company – Punctuation

Punctuation. Punc, punc, punc, punctuation.

They are the little marks that use their influence

To help a sentence make more sense. 

I couldn’t say it any better, though writing “punc, punc, punc” probably violates Smith’s style guide.

Final Note

*You might recognize my subtitle (“arrant pedantry is something up with which you should not put!”) as a paraphrase of a comment often attributed to Winston Churchill. In one version of the story, Churchill wrote this on a draft to admonish an editor who had revised a quote from Churchill so it wouldn’t end with a preposition. There’s no conclusive evidence Churchill ever said or wrote this, but it has to be the greatest grammar comeback ever.

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