By Sara Wolfson
Yes, I am that twerp who corrects people when they mistake “its” for “it’s” or write “affect” when they mean “effect.” My eye twitches when someone writes the numeral 9 when they really should write out the word “nine.” I am ashamed to say that I went on a mad rampage recently because everyone kept adding an extra “l” when adding a suffix to words with an unstressed l (model, initial, equal, travel, cancel, etc.) and holy moley, you heathens, THAT IS THE BRITISH SPELLING.
I also regret making this flowchart and emailing it to everyone. That was an obnoxious move.
Listen, grammar is really important. Rules are important, and conveying meaning understandably: that’s important. However, a lot of the so-called “rules” that most grammar snobs sniff about are actually not rules at all, assuming that grammar snobs even have the rules right in the first place. (Often we snobs are dead wrong – I guess we get caught up in the thrill of superiority and don’t fact-check the rules we half-remember from middle school.) Grammar is a way of setting guidelines. You should understand them, and you should feel ZERO GUILT about breaking them when it suits your purposes.
The other thing is, traditional grammar rules apply even less to the kinds of online writing we do in channels like blogs, email and social media. In that context, using formal language is like posting up a sign in big red letters: I Do Not Understand Communicating On The Internet.
If you are a rule-lover like me, I’m proposing some new rules for us to follow:
#1: And yes, if you want to, you can start a sentence with a conjunction.
You may have learned in elementary school that you should never start a sentence with “and” or “but” or “because.”
HA. I laugh in the face of this absurdity.
Your teacher taught you this so you would stop writing sentence fragments like “Because you’re wrong.” (We’ll get to that in a second.) In online writing, a conjunction at the beginning of your sentence may be the fastest, clearest way to transition between topics.
#2: Sentence fragments? The best!
Here’s what the delightfully snarky folks at the Chicago Manual of Style have to say about that:
“Q. Is it grammatically correct to start a sentence with the word because?
A. Yes, it’s correct. It’s correct in formal prose when because is the beginning of a complete sentence, e.g.,
Because of the wind, it felt colder.
Because I was late, they towed my car.
Sticklers object to the use of because because it sometimes introduces a sentence fragment, and they think that sentence fragments are not allowed in writing. But they are wrong—sentence fragments are found in the very best of classic English prose. Because they work.”
#3: A voice that is passive is the worst!
Here’s a fun game: when you’re looking at something you’ve written, highlight all the verbs.
If your verbs are all complicated and involve some variant of “to be” in various tenses, you’ve got to edit that.
Why? It’s because verbs should be powering everything you write. Your verbs should engage, and thrill, and motivate. And that is not what is is doing. Verbs should be interesting, active, strong. (Confessional aside: I have a hard time with this because I have a childish and rather unfortunate dependence on adjectives. Shame. Shaaaaame.)
#4: Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Online readers are skimmers, really. That’s not my way of sounding the alarm about how “oh noes all this Snapchatting and Pinteresting and tumblring has killed our ability to read! The internet age is making us stupider and now it’s like our whole society is Flowers for Algernon!!!”
Online readers skim: it’s just a fact, and it’s one that you as a writer need to accommodate. Even celebrate.
When you have an important point to make, you can’t trust that it was fully absorbed the first time you said it. Repetition is a great tool for lodging your point into the heads of your half-distracted readers. Repetition is a classy way of telling your readers: “THIS. This is the thing you should pay attention to. See? Here it is again.” That’s key, because most of us are absurdly terrible at absorbing information on the first go-around.
(Sometimes repetition is just plain boring. You have to know how to wield it skillfully.)
#5: Repeat! Just kidding. New rule #5 is: Be concise.
I suck at this.
#6: Comma splices are great, I love them so much.
Comma splices are when two independent clauses are joined by a comma. In formal grammar, this is a big no-no. Independent clauses should be separate sentences, or they should have a conjunction, or they should be separated by a semi-colon.
I wouldn’t suggest using comma splices if you’re a formal organization, but if you’re not, comma splices are a great way to create a breathless, racing effect – very helpful if you’re trying to convey urgency. (And uh. You mostly should be!)
Just remember: the rules are there to help you communicate clearly. Break the rules when it’s the right thing to do – when breaking them helps you communicate effectively. Because sometimes, you gotta.
If a goody two-shoes like me can do it, you can too.
Further reading for the real grammar nerds: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/aug/15/steven-pinker-10-grammar-rules-break
Further listening: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Gv0H-vPoDc [And yes, everyone sent this to me when it came out. Everyone.]
M+R Strategic Services staff are joining the Voices for Healthy Kids All Grantee Meeting to help us build our movement! Thanks for M &R for allowing us to share some of their amazing blog posts in this issue. For this post and other great content visit us here.