Why grammar matters

by Tom Albrighton 30 April 2013 Copywriting, Tone of voice

I recently enjoyed Chris West’s interesting take on OFSTED’s crusade against bad grammar. In fact, I had so much to say that my comment had to be turned into this post. My piece will make more sense if you read Chris’ first.

The grammar sticklers stand accused of killing creativity with pedantry, which is a charge I’ve faced before. Chris says:

I want good grammar. But I’m not going to go crazy if someone writes beautifully, evocatively, memorably, and they include an Oxford comma.

I’m not going to go crazy either, but I’d still have a problem with it. I may be in the minority, but I find even the slightest slip distracting. It’s like a protruding paving stone, or a drink going down the wrong way. It harshes my flow – or, to put it another way, it impairs my engagement with the text.

someecards-GrammarFor example, at the moment I’m reading Andrew Keen’s Digital Vertigo. The book has not been particularly well edited, and there is a minor mistake about every two pages or so. As a former book editor, I find that both disappointing and vaguely insulting. As Chris observes, ‘bad grammar breaks the first tenet of the contract of writing: show respect for the reader’. I agree.

In your face

But maybe it’s OK on page 37 of a paperback. What’s harder to forgive is when a seven-word communication, like an ad, gets it wrong. For example, take a look at my analysis of the errors in a recent campaign for Stella Artois. These were headline grammar crimes, emblazoned in colossal type on posters around the UK.

If you review the errors, you might argue that they were deliberate rule-bending. But if so, the result is way off the target tone, which in the case of this campaign is refined, knowing and rather arch. (If they’re genuine mistakes, the brand just looks stoopid.)

I agree that grammar is always evolving, but personally I don’t think high-profile copy is the place where its limits should be tested. Copy should follow language, not try to lead it. For example, when style calls for it, it can mirror everyday speech (or texting, or tweeting) and have more creative power as a result. As Chris says, ‘The purpose of writing isn’t to follow rules, it’s to engage other humans,’ and there are times when engagement is impossible unless rules are broken.

Position of knowledge

Is the ‘average reader’ (whoever they are) sensitive to all this? I believe so, even if only subliminally. We are all perpetual learners in producing meaning from language. Every text we read is understood in relation to all the other texts we’ve read in our lives. That holds true however numerous those texts have been, and whether we found them in the library or on our phone.

If you care about the sounds and shapes your words make in the reader’s mind, I’d say you want to think about everything, right down to the commas. And I’d also argue that you can only break the rules from a position of knowledge. ‘It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child,’ said Picasso, emphasising that effective rule-breaking, and true artistry, may lie on the far side of mere technique.

Byzantine labyrinth

For me, English grammar is like the rules of cricket, or the skill of gardening  – a huge, byzantine and perplexing body of knowledge that’s daunting to the newcomer but an unending delight to the initiate.

The complexity of our grammar mirrors the richness of our language, which in turn expresses the richness of our culture. To master it is to master a little piece of all the languages that have been thrown into the melting pot to make English what it is. It’s like being an archaeologist, or an astronomer – tracing the marks of the past in the present.

That makes it sound dry and academic. It’s purer than that; more emotional, more personal. I love teaching my daughter grammatical intricacies and telling her ‘that’s just the way it is’. No, it is not easy, or logical, or particularly practical. That’s the point; the idiosyncrasies are what makes English such an expressive language.

Rules for freedom

To study such things is good for the soul. As Buddhists say, ‘Although the teaching is limitless, we vow to learn it all’. Zen students don’t meditate for the sake of anything, or to gain anything, but simply because they should. By submitting to discipline, they find liberation.

Perfect freedom is not found without some rules. People, especially young people, think that freedom is to do just what they want, that in Zen there is no need for rules. But it is absolutely necessary for us to have some rules. But this does not mean always to be under control. As long as you have rules, you have a chance for freedom. To try to obtain freedom without being aware of the rules means nothing.
Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

In a way, I wish I could relax about grammar. Against all the odds, I’d rather be seen as a hip young copy gunslinger than some awful old curmudgeon. But although I might bring the snark when a big brand slips up, my motive isn’t really that negative or reductive, because getting stuff right ultimately improves creative work. For my money, the Stella errors couldn’t possibly help the campaign, but they could well hurt it.

We have the artists, and we have the technicians. They can be different people working together, or one person at different times. But to do really great work, we always need both.

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