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Why I hate grammar nazis

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Here’s a little tip for getting traction in the Twittersphere.

Tweet about grammar.

I did it this morning, asking why copywriters feel that “good grammar” matters so much.

Roughly eight milliseconds later my Twitter feed lit up.

I think I’m still catching flak for it now.

Here’s that Tweet:

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My punctuation was very careful – in fact I think punctuation is probably more important than grammar in clarifying one’s meaning.

By enclosing “good grammar” in speech marks I was commenting, clearly too elliptically, on how certain sections of the copywriting trade are obsessed with ridiculing others for their perceived problems with grammar.

Pedantry, in other words.

I was asked, “Isn’t is our job to set a good example? Otherwise, how will people learn to write well”.

Here’s the thing.

One, it begs the question, “Are copywriters responsible for teaching grammar”.

Two, which “people” are we talking about?

Let’s try and split people into one of three camps.

In the first camp, which I shall call “Camp One”, you have people whose grammar is good all the time and who don’t need to think about what they’re doing.

In the third camp, which I shall call “Camp Three”, you have people whose grammar is poor all or most of the time. They also don’t think about what they’re doing, either because they don’t know what good grammar is, or because they don’t care.

In the second camp, which I shall call, “Arthur Perkins”, you have the difficult customers. They manage to get grammar right much of the time, but they worry about it and feel insecure. In their efforts to manage their anxiety they spend time trying to attack other people for perceived infractions.

The denizens of Camps One and Two are beyond the meagre attempts of copywriters to improve things.

The former because they aren’t reading advertising for personal betterment – they’re right and they know it; the latter because it wouldn’t occur to them that there is a different or better way of expressing themselves in writing – they’re wrong and they don’t know it.

(For a really interesting talk on the idea of what it feels like to be right or wrong, check out Kathryn Schultz’s TED talk.)

But, the people in “Arthur Perkins” are hyper-vigilant about grammar. Armed with a small quiverful of sharpened darts, they fire at anyone breaching their anxiously-clutched “facts” about grammar.

Some of these pedantic souls attempt to bolster their self-esteem by calling themselves grammarnazi on social media.

I find this offensive for more than just linguistic reasons. It bespeaks a lack both of sensitivity and historical awareness to link a “passion” for syntax with Hitler and his evil bunch of cronies.

If we use “bad grammar” we will be setting a bad example goes the accusation. But the only people we will be setting a bad example for are the Perkinsites, and, apparently, they all know better than us anyway.

There is a larger question here.

Do we, as copywriters, owe it to society to teach “good grammar”?

I think we have a duty as people to respect other people’s human rights. I think we have an obligation as citizens/subjects not to break the law. And as craftspeople of the written word I think we have a responsibility to use it for good.

I don’t think it’s our job to teach grammar. It’s our job to achieve the goals our clients/employers/investors set us.

Another example.

I recently published an infographic about the uses of the apostrophe.

Nothing is more likely to get the Perkinsites frothing at the mouth than to venture into this punctuational minefield and start jumping up and down.

I stated that you can use apostrophes to form plurals where not to do so would lead to confusion.

Let’s say you want to ask a student to count the number of time the letters a, i and u occur in a passage of writing.

It is perfectly permissible to write:

How many a’s, i’s and u’s are there in the following passage?

It is also perfectly permissible, but not better grammar, to write:

How many as, is and us are there in the following passage?

The issue is one of punctuation, which is the first thing the Perkinsites get wrong.

The second failure is the serious confusion our reader undergoes in trying to decode the question.

And of course you could recast the question like this:

How many times do the letters a, i and u occur in the following passage?

It’s equally correct, but it is three words longer and scores 73.1% versus 81.8% on the Flesch Reading Ease score. So it pleases the pedant, who sees the world from a writercentric perspective, and is harder to understand for the reader.

In response to my infographic, one writer claimed it was a ‘fact’ that you never use apostrophes to form plurals.

But it isn’t a fact at all, merely an opinion.

The fact, as detailed in The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar, is that you CAN form unusual plurals with apostrophes.

It’s interesting how often the soi disant grammar experts fail to check their facts in publicly available reference books before launching their attacks.

What’s really going on here?

Most business writing is OK. Some is, frankly, shit, and a small proportion is genuinely wonderful.

But a tiny fraction contains actual grammar errors. So the hand-wringing over the pernicious effect of “all this bad grammar” looks a little overblown.

I love to argue about writing because it’s fun and occasionally enlightening. And I am a vocal enthusiast for good writing. I’m even concerned about good grammar.

But “good grammar”? That sounds suspiciously like bullying to me.

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PS All grammar errors in this post are mine and mine alone – I am sorry if I have let you down. Please flame me on social media and leave sarky remarks below.

Categories: Advertising copywriting, Business-to-business, Content marketing, Corporate copywriting, Email copywriting, Freelance life, Grammar, and Marketing Copywriting.

5 Responses to Why I hate grammar nazis

  • Honor
    October 17, 2014

    Our job is not to educate, it’s to make people laugh / buy / join / act. I really, really love grammar and punctuation but what I enjoy is the endless subtleties there are to play with. There ain’t no rule that ‘correct by culture’ can’t beat down.

    Everyone has their own grammar personality. I use too many em dashes but I have made my peace with that. I think it’s a rare copywriter that makes grammar ‘mistakes’ rather than grammar CHOICES you just happen to not agree with. (< Like this preposition here. How'd you feel about that then, huh? HUH?)

    LONG LIVE FREE GRAMMZ.

  • Andy Maslen
    October 17, 2014

    Hey Honor,

    Maybe we need to set up Camp Four – needs a cool name though 😉

    Andy

  • Honor
    October 17, 2014

    How about ‘The Camp Four’? Can only take four members though and we all have to wear lots of sparkles.

  • Andy Maslen
    October 17, 2014

    Do we get superhero names?

    I bags The Gerund

  • Honor
    October 17, 2014

    The Gerund sounds like George R. R. Martin making up quasi-Anglo honorifics. I’m certainly not going to be The Colon.

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