In Defense of Grammar
By Scott Worden, Senior Director
I was recently part of a lively exchange of ideas on the topic of capitalization and when it’s needed or not, and a colleague remarked, “I think these rules are weird and rarely followed.”
I’ll admit this stung a bit. We all have our little gifts or talents, and for me it’s English grammar. Every professional job I’ve had has been based in writing and editing, and proper use of grammar has been an essential skill at every step. For this reason – and to honor the memory of Mr. Sam Hall, my middle-school English teacher, who made it his personal business to teach us English grammar in the most vigorous and memorable way – I offer a few thoughts on why every company needs to care about this strange and capricious art.
The value can be elusive, because no company will ever be rewarded for getting grammar and punctuation correct. But in today’s hyper-fast social media environment, a minor error posted on Facebook or Twitter can quickly go viral and be deeply embarrassing.
More on that later. First things first: I think calling them “rules” of grammar can be misleading, because it suggests there are two choices, a right one and a wrong one. It also leads to notions like the grammar police and being bullied or punished by them, which is not productive. The thing is, we are rarely faced with a clear-cut A or B choice, although in my observations that’s what people want: “Just tell me: do I need a comma there or not?”
The reality is, based on my experience, the rules of grammar provide guidelines, a structure within which the writer or editor still needs to assess what’s there and make a call on how to best present the words to the reader. Knowing the rules does not replace decision-making – it informs and guides decision-making.
We also should acknowledge that as PR practitioners we wrestle with two systems that sometimes conflict with each other: English grammar and AP Style. AP Style is shorthand for the Associated Press Stylebook – the Bible for writing that is followed closely by almost every major news organization. Sometimes AP Style conflicts with traditional English grammar because media organizations put a premium on speed of writing, clarity and saving space.
As public relations practitioners, we advise clients to follow AP Style, which means things like only capitalizing a title when it comes before the person’s name and other rules that clients often do not like. Why do we bother adhering to these conventions? The core reason is practical: we want the newspaper/website/etc. to cover our client and the news we are offering – after all, for many clients where media relations forms the core of our work, coverage and results mean everything. Therefore, written content that is punctuated correctly, is grammatically sound and conforms with AP Style means we are making it easy and seamless for a reporter or editor to use what we’ve sent them.
I do agree with my colleague about it feeling like grammar is applied with inconsistency. There’s a lot of sloppy work out there, and much of it can be found in the business world: needless capitalization, confusion around when and where to use commas, run-on or incomplete thoughts and sentences and business jargon designed to be marketing messages that don’t appeal to journalists. When a business or organization publishes content without prioritizing grammar, the flow can be confusing and readers won’t read – or buy what is being offered.
And sometimes, the consequences are far worse. Last month, the University of Michigan sent a letter to all students, staff and faculty that said the university must “renew our commitment” to “the advancement of anti-racism, anti-ableism, anti-Semitism, gender equity and building a climate resistant to sexual misconduct.”
Soon, screenshots of the letter went viral on Twitter. “They’re doing what now with anti-semitism?” Justin Joque asked in a tweet that was retweeted nearly 3,300 times.
The slipup led to news coverage by several Jewish and Israeli publications and forced the university to quickly issue a correction and an apology. University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that the use of the term was “clearly an error.”
It’s also worth noting that English, while for many of us is our native language and the one we know best, is not especially easy or straightforward. It’s loaded with irregular forms, words that sound alike, and exceptions to the rules. It’s also a very flexible language, where nouns can become verbs and meanings of words change over time. English is a living language, actively written and spoken by people worldwide. It therefore grows and changes, picking up new words and new ways of constructing meaning all the time.
So back to our original question: Why should we care about grammar? In the context of business communications and how it helps our clients achieve their business objectives, I would summarize the answer in four short statements:
- Correct grammar is essential to clearly and correctly represent an organization’s brand and values – and even a seemingly minor mistake can embarrass or even damage the organization’s reputation.
- Correct grammar shows quality and professionalism – our clients deserve nothing less!
- Correct grammar gets used by the news media – if you’ve ever thought about English grammar and wondered who cares, the answer is: professional journalists, they care. If you want to work with them and be successful, you should too.
- Perhaps above all else, correct grammar puts the reader and their needs first, because at the heart of grammar is clarity and understanding. As PR pros we want to provide info or education or entertainment to the reader in a way that is clear, unambiguous and easy to navigate.