Grammar rules! And how to break them

Grammar rules! And how to break them

It’s the end of the day. You’re happy with what you’ve written and press publish or send. A chill runs down your back and your heart sinks. Another read through of your content reveals you’ve accidentally used the wrong its.

As the saying goes, ‘Easy reading is damn hard writing.’ The best communication seems effortless, but clean copy is often easier talked about than produced.

Here are a few common missteps to look out for.

Comma comma comma chameleon

Where or whether to put a comma in a sentence can cause a lot of confusion. When we are learning to write, we are often taught to think of commas like breaths, which dates to oral traditions. But when writing for an audience, there are a few more rules to follow to make your copy clear and concise.

One simple mistake to avoid is using a comma where you should use a full stop, conjunction or semicolon to separate sentences. Grammarians call this a ‘comma splice’. This is an easy mistake to make, you can run your eyes right over it when proofreading. For instance, an example of a splice is in the previous sentence.

Another common error is putting a comma before the verb, splitting the subject from the rest of the sentence and often changing its meaning. This often crops up when someone wants to put a special emphasis on the first part of the sentence. An example is ‘One integral element of communication, is how it tells a story.’ This should be, ‘One integral element of communication is how it tells a story.’

Tell me less

When choosing between fewer or less, the rule of thumb comes down to whether the sentence has countable or uncountable (also called mass) nouns. Countable nouns explain what they are on the tin; you can count them. So, dogs, masks and books are all examples of countable nouns. One book, two books, three books. With countable nouns, you use fewer, for example, ‘We sold fewer books this year than last year’.

If the noun can’t be counted, like butter or love, it’s an uncountable noun. In this instance, you use less: ‘Our profits from this year are less than last year.’

But not so fast! As with most of the English language, there are exceptions to every rule. You can use less to modify time, measurement and money, so it’s fine to say ‘less than three minutes’ or ‘less than $600 dollars’. There are also commonly used phrases that are accepted by most style guides that use less when technically they should use fewer, like ‘Six items or less’ or ‘25 words or less’.

They are single and ready to mingle

The most recent edition of the Australian Government Style Manual confirms that they can be used in the singular. This, in part, is more inclusive of trans and non-binary people, but it is also much cleaner copy! Previously, the clunky use of ‘he or she’ or ‘he/she’ as a placeholder in reference to one person of unknown gender was considered grammatically correct. For example, ‘In this situation, he or she needs to go to the HR department’.

One solution is to avoid pronouns, like ‘In this situation, an employee needs to go to the HR department’. However, most English language style guides have changed to include singular they to be more in line with current standards and spoken English (and if that doesn’t convince you, Jane Austen, William Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson all used singular they in their writing). So, feel free to write that they need to go to HR.

The passive voice is being used by me

Choosing between the active or passive voice is crucial to conveying the right energy and tone to your communications. Despite the chastising blue underline on your Word documents, there is a place for both active and passive voice. It all depends on goal of your writing.

Generally speaking, active voice makes your message as clear as possible to your audience. Active voice is best for marketing, editorial and plain English writing. Active voice highlights the subject of the sentence and is best served by simple sentences. Don’t be afraid of using lots of active verbs and full stops.

On the other hand, the passive voice can be useful in certain situations. The passive voice can be used when the subject of the sentence isn’t an important part of the sentence or if you don’t want to directly assign blame. For example, ‘A mistake was found in the report.’

Passive voice can also soften your message, particularly if you don’t want to come across as overly harsh or insensitive.

At the end of the day…

Standard English grammar is contextual. What will be right for one situation might be too formal or casual in tone for another. Grammar is also fluid; new rules are made, while old rules are made redundant. Grammar rules, like with any rules, are important to know, if only so you know how to break them!

Find more grammar tips in 47 here.