Language constantly evolves, which makes it beautiful and fascinating to study. And with the advent of texting, instant messaging and social media, language is evolving even more quickly than normal. Since we now have the capacity for instant written communication, a huge historical shift happened -- we write as we speak. And now we’re beginning to speak as we write. Rather than only texting words like lol, jk, rofl, etc., people now speak them in everyday language. This fascinating back-and-forth flow of words from text to speech created another shift -- we now have a tendency to write informally most of the time.
Personally, I love this transition from very formal to informal, because it makes reading and writing fun. It also comes across as sincere, which is another reason people gravitate towards informality (especially younger generations who grew up with it). But it does have some down sides. First, writing informally isn’t always appropriate. For example, in an email to your CEO or president, you don’t want to start off by saying, “Hey!”, unless you’re on very friendly terms.
Second, just because writing is informal doesn’t mean you get a pass on grammar. Sure, in text messages to your sister or posts on Facebook, you can splice as many commas as you’d like. But in the workplace, for external facing content like marketing brochures or discussions in your community, you want sharp, correct grammar -- even if the tone is informal and friendly.
So, is grammar still important? The answer is: yes. Grammar is still important, especially in a virtual community where written communication is all you have.
When a conversation is stripped of facial expressions, body language and tone, words are what get your message across. Anything that gets in your way -- spelling mistakes, complicated syntax and improper punctuation -- will cloud your message, making you a less effective contributor. Correct grammar doesn’t mean you can’t express yourself authentically or need to change your tone/voice; still write the way you speak, if you want. It just means you pay attention to details so everyone will understand your point of view.
To help you keep your authentic voice while following grammar rules, I came up with a quick list you can keep in mind for the everyday stuff:
Commas save lives.
Spelling, grammar and syntax can totally change a sentence's meaning. Take this example from my 9th grade English teacher: “Let’s eat dad” and “Let’s eat, dad.” One little comma, one big difference, one life saved! Little details are important.
This also holds true for spelling. In English, quite a few words sound similar, have slightly different spelling, but have very different meanings. Accidentally swapping out one for the other can be confusing. Do you know the difference between ‘assure,’ ‘insure’ and ‘ensure’? ‘To assure’ means to make a promise: “I assure you we’re qualified.” ‘To insure’ refers to insurance: “I want to insure my new car.” And ‘to ensure’ means to make certain: “I’ll check my calendar to ensure I’m free.” Can you see how using the wrong word could confuse the reader?
Grammar was created so we would all follow the same rules. But we know the English language likes to break rules. English grammar is pretty consistent, but there are a few hotly contested principles. A big one is the infamous “Oxford comma” debate (otherwise known as the “serial comma”).
I’ll use examples to explain. Here’s an Oxford comma: “I bought apples, oranges, and pears.” Here’s an example without the Oxford comma: “I bought apples, oranges and pears.” Spot the difference? An Oxford comma is an extra comma between the last two items in a series.
Especially among grammar nerds, people are either strongly for it or strongly against it. Sometimes leaving out the Oxford comma changes the sentence (“I played with my sisters, Kate and Ashley” versus “I played with my sisters, Kate, and Ashley”) but it usually doesn’t. Therefore, it is optional. The key is to pick a side -- sorry, I know it’s tough -- and stick with it. You’re either in or you’re out.
An easy way to keep your grammar consistent is to choose a writing style, such as MLA, APA or Chicago. Which one does your organization use? They may even have an internal style guide to help you. There are subtle differences between each style, so picking one and using that as your resource will limit confusion. There are many online resources for each guide, so you’ll always have easy access to resources.
Know which rules to keep and to break.
One of the best parts of informal writing is that you can break *some* rules. The key with rule breaking is to make sure you don’t cloud the message. When deciding to break a rule, I ask myself, “Is this easier to read?” Rule breaking works for clarity. Not for confusion.
For example, I’ll often start sentences with a conjunction, like ‘and’ or ‘but.’ This isn’t grammatically correct. But if the sentences feels too long and wordy, breaking it up and starting a new sentence with the conjunction can help with clarity. Again, when deciding to start a sentence with ‘and,’ I ask myself, “Is this easier to read?” If not, then I won’t break the rule.
Technically another rule I often break is to use ‘they’ as a genderless, singular pronoun. Depending on who you talk to, this isn’t even a broken rule. The New York Times and the Washington Post added the singular ‘they’ to their style guides. Not only does it streamline your writing, but it makes it more inclusive. Why pick a gender if you don’t have to? With a singular ‘they,’ everyone across the gender spectrum feels included.
There are some rules you shouldn’t break. If the answer to the question, “Is this easier to read?” is “No,” then you shouldn’t break the rule. One example that is true across the board is a comma splice. It almost always adds confusion. A comma splice is when you use a comma when you should’ve used a period. Here’s an example: “I bike with my friend every weekend, we then go get coffee.” It’s written as one sentence, but grammatically, they’re two: “I bike with my friend every weekend. We then go get coffee.” Which sentence is easier to read? The one with the comma or with the period? That’s why it’s important to follow that rule.
Find a proofreader or use online tools (or both).
Actual, human proofreaders are invaluable, no matter how seasoned a writer you are. If you’re writing something really important -- even just an email -- it pays to have a second pair of eyes look it over.
If you don’t have a proofreader, there are several helpful online tools. One is called Grammarly, which is an app or a Google Chrome extension. It’s a very robust tool that catches spelling and grammar mistakes and is more effective than whatever comes on your computer. Another handy tool to know about is Hemingway. Ernest Hemingway was known for being short and to the point. This app identifies areas that need clarification so you can rework those sentences.
Remembering which word to use when or where to insert a comma can be hard. There isn’t one set way to figure it out -- what are your learning styles? Get in the habit of reading grammar blogs like Quick and Dirty Tips, or create flash cards if there are a few words or comma rules that continually trip you up.
I also constantly look up word spellings or grammar rules. We all have our own writing quirks -- habits we don’t even think about (like my incessant use of em-dashes) -- and those can be your achilles heel. Purdue University’s Purdue Online Writing Lab is my go-to place for grammar checks.
Finally, it’s important to have fun with your writing and not get too hung up on mistakes -- your own or others’. We all write things in a hurry and mess up occasionally. Writing is a constant work in progress. Practice doesn’t make perfect, but it makes it easier and more natural.
What are some of your grammar tips and tricks?