Thursday, March 4, 2010

Happy National Grammar Day!

Today is National Grammar Day in the United States of America.

I’m taking this opportunity to comment on the relationship between grammar and clarity.

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of grammar errors: (1) those that probably will reduce the clarity of your writing or speech and (2) those that probably will not. Let me demonstrate the difference by means of examples.

1. Ungrammatical and probably unclear

If you gratuitously switch grammatical person while referring to the same entity, you are using incorrect grammar and you will probably be unclear.

For example, a book publisher, referring to a bestseller his house had published, said:

“It was not a book where a whole house runs out and pushes like crazy, and you have to have success right away, because you spent all this money.”

Unless the listeners guessed that the third-person “house” and the second-person “you” referred to the same entity, the listeners were probably confused by this ungrammatical sentence. (For more detail on this example, go here.)

2. Ungrammatical but probably clear

If you say “he don't” instead of “he doesn't,” you are using incorrect grammar. But your meaning is clear; that is to say, any fluent speaker of English probably would recognize your meaning immediately.

If you use fun as an adjective (as in “a fun day”), you are using informal Standard English. It would be incorrect in a keynote address, but correct in a conversation with your family. In either situation, your meaning probably would be clear.

The Takeaway: On this blog, we generally discuss only those grammar errors that reduce clarity. However, even grammar errors that don’t reduce clarity can have other unwanted effects; for example, they may lead your readers to wonder if you are ill-educated or irresponsible. Unfortunately, people often judge us (sometimes unfairly) by our grammar; fortunately, there are hundreds of websites and blogs to help you improve your grammar. Just Google “grammar” or “grammatically correct” and select one that suits you.

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