Principles, not rules: confessions of a recovering grammar snob

Grammar principles

Once upon a time, I was a raging grammar snob

When I first started out in copywriting, it was a huge thing for me to make sure that everything in my sphere of influence was 100% grammatically (and otherwise) correct.  I figured that if I didn’t get every comma in exactly the right place, every capital and hyphen exactly correct in everything I wrote, I wasn’t doing my job properly.

More annoyingly, though, I made it my self-appointed mission to let everyone else know if something was amiss in their writing.  Oh, I tried to do it in the nicest possible way.  And I tried to come from the best possible motivation (“I really want to help this person appear more professional”)

But it still led to me “sticking my beak in” and giving grammar advice where it hadn’t been asked for.  Which was, I have to admit, every bit as popular as you’d imagine.

And, I quickly discovered, “proper grammar” didn’t always make my writing better.

Now, I try to work from the basis of four core principles instead

I’m not sure where the turning point was for me.  I think I was already well on my path of “principles, not rules” when I came across Stephen Fry’s awesome video on Language.  That was the moment that sealed it for me though.

I realised that expecting other people to use grammar and punctuation exactly the way I was taught it was pretty damn arrogant.  I also discovered that some of the traditional darlings of the grammar world (like not splitting an infinitive, or not ending on a preposition) were completely arbitrary.  Basically, they were made up by a group of academics who suffered from Latin-envy, and thought that English didn’t have enough rules.

And I realised that writing that’s 100% grammatically correct can still be dry, boring, and totally ineffective at doing what it’s meant to do.

So rather than attempt to shoehorn my writing into a set of capricious, haphazard rules, I figured I’d try to work to a set of general principles instead.  Here’s a quick rundown of each one for you.


Principle #1: No-one died and made me the keeper of the English language

The first thing I try to remember is that, no, really, I don’t have a badge that says “Global Protector of English”.  It’s not my job to ensure that everyone else uses language correctly (especially since “correctly” is a subjective term – see Principle #2)

So unless someone actively asks me my opinion, there really is no reason for me to offer it. Well, other than to make myself sound – or just feel – smarter or more educated than they are.  So unless someone asks, I keep my thoughts to myself. And even if they do, I rarely give them a one-size-fits-all answer.  Here’s why…


Principle #2: Grammar and punctuation rules aren’t absolute

Long before I saw Stephen Fry’s video, a good English-teaching friend of mine introduced me to the idea that grammar and punctuation rules are subjective.  “In most cases, you can’t say a given sentence is correct or incorrect”, my friend said. “The best you can say is that it’s not correct according to a given style manual.”

Many folks who think of English grammar as universal and unchanging were brought up on Strunk & White’s “Elements of Style”. And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with most of Strunk & White, even it never claimed it was the last and only word in grammar.

Don’t believe me?  Here are just 10 of the commonly accepted style guides in use right now.  The “right” grammar and punctuation often depends on which style guide you consult.  Who am I to say which guide someone else should be using?


Principle #3: The only “right language” is the one your audience speaks

This principle ties into my previous post about copywriting and fashion advice.  Different people use language in different ways.  And even the same people use language differently in different situations.

Formal language is appropriate in some settings (e.g. applying for a job or submitting an academic article), but inappropriate in others (e.g. writing an email or a sales page).  The same is true of jargon, contractions, sentence fragments and even swearing.

When it comes to writing online, it’s far more important that you speak the same language your reader does than that you stick to a specific style guide.  Otherwise you risk having a beautifully correct piece of writing that still confuses your reader, or otherwise completely turns them off.


Principle #4: Clarity and flow are far more important than strict correctness (with consistency as a close second)

Even once I’ve ensured I’m speaking the same language as my reader, sticking to a specific style guide is still not my most important consideration. Instead, I ask myself two questions:

  • Is what I’ve written 100% clear – is there any possible ambiguity or point of confusion?
  • Does it flow smoothly and easily when I read it aloud?

I try to keep the “rules” I use consistent (e.g. capitalising or using Oxford commas consistently) too where I can.  But, as Ralph Waldo Emerson so famously said “Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

So any time being 100% consistent would muddy my meaning or make something read awkwardly?  I’ll always choose in favour of clarity and flow.  After all, the clearer and smoother a piece of writing is, the less time my reader has to spend “figuring it out”.

And that’s what I tend to recommend to folks who ask for my opinion too.

How about you? Are you more comfortable with principles or rules?

I know that my focus on principles, rather than rules, won’t work for everyone (especially folks who’ve been brought up believing in “the one true form of grammar”)  That’s OK: there are plenty of copywriters out there who are more rule-based who’d be a better fit for them.

I’ll stand by my statement though: a piece of writing doesn’t have to be 100% grammatically correct to be clear and compelling.  And just because it is correct doesn’t mean it’s powerful.

So if, like me, you’re more about the principles than rule, I’m curious.  Which principles are most important to you? And how do you make sure your writing incorporates them?

PS: if you’re not sure either way, and just want to make sure your writing resonates with your perfect readers, I can help.  

I have 2 “Make Your Message Crystal Clear” discovery sessions available in mid-May.

Click here to make one of them yours

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