While shopping, a sign jolted me. Its grammar was so jarring, I read it twice: “We require that all supplements are third-party tested to contain what they claim.”
Shouldn’t it read “that all supplements be tested?”
Fifty years ago, I’d have firmly answered, “Of course.” Today, “Maybe not.” Times ain’t what they used to was.
As PR pros know, language changes. The Internet now is the internet, as Gretchen McCulloch explains in Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language.
Careful writers, in and out of PR, have long relied on language conventions. They help distinguish one meaning from another. Those of a certain age rely on grammar (be tested vs. are tested), punctuation (eats, shoots, and leaves vs. eats shoots and leaves), spelling (forego vs. forgo) and usage (bimonthly vs. semimonthly).
We also rely on concordance—the agreement of verb form, structure, or grammatical number and person: “I’m one of those people who like their coffee black,” not “I’m one of those people who likes my coffee black.”
To us, these rules are more than useful; they’re vital. Remove them, and careful readers will be lost in Wonderland, where a phrase means whatever the writer wants.
But in the internet age, some time-honored rules carry a strange, new risk: If we apply them, we’ll look not careful but careless. Ignorant. Or worse. Ask any parent who, when their teen texted “Do you forgive me?” texted back “Sure,” followed by (gasp!) a period.
I’m not a pedant
Look: I agree with many PR writers who have bid good riddance to archaic rules, like “Always say, ‘It’s I,’ not ‘It’s me.’” And archaic usage; decimate once meant “to kill one in ten,” but that ship has sailed. And baseless rules, like “Don’t begin a sentence with But or end it with a preposition.”
I’ve known scores of careful writers and none would honor that ‘rule.’ (I know, you’re wondering, why didn’t he write, “none is so foolish to honor that ‘rule’?” Because most of you regard “none is” as ungrammatical.)
Welcome to my Hell. And, I’m sure, the Hell of many whose charge is writing clear, succinct messages for those you represent.
- If I begin a sentence with Doubtless, will readers think, “Shouldn’t it be Doubtlessly?”
- If I write “Rather than leave,” they’ll wonder, “Shouldn’t it be ‘Rather than leaving’?”
- If I write “appendixes,” they’ll wonder, “Shouldn’t it be appendices?”
So, we thread the needle, anxiously averting fanciful errors. And that’s no way to write.
Yet here we are.
What’s a careful writer to do?
If you’re a careful writer, can you assume your audience members are not careful readers? Will rules that once worked for you might now work against you?
Stop shouting into the wind. Follow these tips to make your words connect:
- Accept that the rules change.
- Tell the truth—even if that requires that you write less precisely. When referring to Ford’s iconic logo, call it an oval. I know: it’s an ellipse. But when normal people picture it, which word do they think of?
- Expand your balancing act. As a PR pro and careful writer, you always balance your words. Start balancing old against new—your wish for precise meaning (“We require that all supplements be tested”) against your readers’ wish for a relaxed tone (“that all supplements are tested”).
Fine. But when should new rules tip the scales? There are two schools of thought:
- Hold the course until you’re the outlier. That’s the path advised by the most revered stylist of our age, Bryan A. Garner. He rates how far a linguistic change has evolved along five stages.
I used to wait until a change reached Stage 5, “fully accepted.” Now I get on board at Stage 4, “virtually universal but opposed on cogent grounds by a few linguistic stalwarts (die-hard snoots).”
- Go with the flow. Once a linguistic change becomes inevitable, grammarian McCulloch feels obliged to help the change along, “opting for the more innovative direction wherever” there’s a choice.
McCulloch also looks up “which [spelling choices] are more common in the Corpus of Global Web-Based English and tweets by ordinary people [email, healthcare] rather than which choices are favored by usage manuals [e-mail, health care].
If it’s important that your writing look fresh in 20 years, follow McCulloch’s lead. (Grammarly just nudged me to write “that your writing looks fresh”)
- Think like an advertiser. As Christopher Johnson advises, “Go forth and break rules, if it sounds right.” Eat fresh (Subway). Let’s do amazing (HP).
“The test of good usage,” writes Garner, “... has more to do with what works for today’s readership, distracting as few readers as possible…Good usage reflects how a careful writer of today approaches linguistic questions.”
Which is why, more and more, this Boomer looks at usage through the lens of a millennial.
I’m enjoying it #bigly.