Gather ‘round today’s headline: “Do I really need to use correct grammar in all my business writing?” to which a professional writer like me would be expected to answer, “Of course!”
But I won’t.
In fact, there is a very strong case for NOT using correct grammar all the time. This statement will earn me free hate mail from English majors for years come and possibly a few pats on the back from advertising copywriters, but it might be a bit bewildering to other readers; so let me explain.
We should begin from a position that correct grammar is the best default position. While I will show you a number of reasons to break certain grammar rules, one should never break a rule without a good reason. Sloppy grammar won’t wear very well.
The same goes for punctuation, spelling, and capitalization. Write proper English, except when there is a good reason to break the rules.
So what would be a good reason to break the rules?
To sound “normal”. There are times when writing correct English will make people think you starched your pants. There are times when it is better to speak the language people are used to.
Please rewind and read that last sentence again: “There are times when it is better to speak the language people are used to.” Yes, I broke the never-end-a-sentence-in-a-preposition rule. The correct way to phrase that sentence would be “There are times when it is better to speak the language to which people are used.” Right. Starch in the pants.
For emphasis. Yes, I know that English majors will pick up pots, pans, rolling pins and chain saws when I say this, but sometimes you should break the rules of grammar to create an emphasis. When communicating with your customers, your goal is to create a connection, a bond. And sometimes that takes a sentence fragment.
Pop quiz. Can you find a sentence fragment in this article?
Another hint: Starch in the pants.
To create a specific ambiance. Depending on your product, your market, or the specific venue you are marketing in, you might want to give your business writing a certain ambiance. Perhaps you want readers to feel like you are writing as a foreigner. Or as a member of a subculture. Or as somebody who is overly excited or frustrated or angry or sleepy. If grammar rules need to be broken to create ambiance, then do so.
To fit into crawl spaces. We generally walk through the house, standing erect with our heads held high. But when going into a crawl space, we crawl. (You did see that coming, didn’t you?) There are times in business where very small spaces have to accommodate very large ideas. Billboards are a good example. In such instances, you might omit articles or other words.
The Golden Rule of Grammar Busting
There might be several other situations that call for breaking grammar rules, but they all share one thing in common: that it should never look like a rule was broken by accident. Why? Because a purposefully broken rule looks like you are saying what you mean to say. An accidentally broken rule simply looks like you’re clueless. And as a business person – even a plumber or a carpenter who technically might have no need to write proper English – nobody will trust their money to someone who appears to be “clueless”.
This is not just a rule with writing. In photography there is the rule of thirds. A photo with the primary subject in the exact center looks static. To give it life, you move the primary focus off-center. But never just a little off-center. You always move it enough off-center that it has clearly been done on purpose, typically about a third of the way from one of the edges.
In design, the same rule applies. If there is a line that needs to slant or to diverge from another line, always make sure the angle is large enough so that it does not look like an accident.
In short, don’t be shy to break the rules of grammar, if there is a good reason – if your writing will be more effective by doing so. The point of writing is to communicate as effectively as possible. The point of grammar is to give us a framework for better communication. If you sacrifice effective communication for correct grammar, you are missing the point. Just make sure that a broken grammar rule does not look like an accident; if it does, the only thing you will be communicating is cluelessness.
Image via Shutterstock