I’ve just come back from running a couple of days of tone of voice training. And the conversations we had on the course reminded me of the quirks of English grammar and some of the odd things we learned at school.
The rules of grammar aren’t simple – if they were, no one would argue about them. But I try to encourage people to not get so tied up in them that it strangles their writing and stops them being clear.
The biggest difference between school and life is that we’re writing for a completely different audience.
Rules that aren’t rules
When we’re running writing workshops, we regularly bump into rules that people hold dear. Some of the most popular include:
You can’t start a sentence with “and” or “but”.
You can only use “it’s” and “it isn’t” if you are quoting people’s speech. You have to write “it is” and “it is not” out in full.
You can’t use adjectives in business writing.
You’ve got to put the “th” (or the “st” or “nd” or “rd”) after the date.
You should use the longest words you can.
And some of the more obscure:
You can’t write “I” and “we” in the same document.
You can’t leave a gap at the end of a letter.
Challenge these beliefs head on, and you’ll soon get yourself into an argument. We were taught them at school so they must be right, right?
But if you ask a group which ones they were taught, you’ll find out that everyone leaves education with a slightly different collection of rules. It’s fascinating when people exchange their stories.
We’ve all been taught to follow these rules, because if you don’t, people might think:
your writing isn’t important.
When you challenge people’s deeply buried rules on how to behave, it’s as if the solid ground has collapsed beneath them. So then you have to help them to build a new platform.
You can have some interesting moments when you ask people,
‘Do you think that the writers at The Economist are lazy and stupid?’
‘No,’ they say.
‘But here’s a whole bunch of sentences they’ve started with “but”, so how do you feel about them now?’
Then sit back and let them work it out for themselves. It usually ends in a good laugh.
It’s all about style
The thing is, many of these things aren’t rules of grammar, but choices of style. And styles change.
Writing for new reasons
At school, we learned how to write to pass tests and get qualifications. We were showing that we’d listened and learned. Our readers then were experts in their subjects and they were marking us. It’s hard to get that out of our heads, but if you want to be a good writer in real life, you have to let it go.
Writing for business is different
In business, your readers aren’t going to decide whether you pass or fail. They’re not being paid to read all the way to the end with a red pen in their hands. They can give up if they want and just shove your writing into the recycling bin, or just click and make your writing disappear while they check on their eBay bids.
In life, you need your readers to be interested in what you’re writing about. You don’t want to distract them, bore them or confuse them by writing to impress.
So yes, it’s important to not make sloppy schoolboy errors with your grammar, spelling and punctuation, but that’s just being considerate, like using your indicators when you’re driving. It makes it easier for people to understand what you mean. It also makes your writing easier to read, which helps you to get your point across.
And that saves time too, both yours and theirs.
But don’t be too hung up on the grammar ‘rules’
It’s fine to write it’s.
And you can start a sentence with “and”. But only if you want to.
It’s absolutely fine to use adverbs in business writing.
When you read 2 June 2017, you know when that is, don’t you?
I can tell you right now that we use “I” and “we” all over the place.
You can leave a gap wherever you like.
Discuss in 500 words. To be handed in by the end of term.