Grammar Rules Worth Breaking? You Decide

couple_disagree_grammarA former colleague sent me a link to Grammar Rules You Should Break in Business by Steve Yastrow. I agree with some of Yastrow’s suggestions and disagree with others.

What do you think?

Where We Agree, Disagree

Yastrow begins, “A language works according to a shared set of understood rules, which change over time as language evolves.”

I agree that language evolves, but as a ruthless editor, I would use that, not which in this introductory statement: A language works according to a shared set of understood rules that (not which) change over time as language evolves.

He continues, “Linguists seek to understand this, recognizing that ‘correct’ is a temporary state, which can change quickly any time the community of speakers starts using the language differently.”

Again, I believe most grammarians would prefer, “… recognizing that ‘correct’ is a temporary state that (not which) can change quickly …”

The reason: Using ‘which’ and a comma indicates that what follows is not integral to the meaning of a sentence. In both of these cases, what follows is indeed an important element.

Rules to Break?

Zastrow’s first example of a grammar rule you should not break at work cites casual language that he believes might prevail in your social circle:

“Me and her went to the concert.”

If used at work, this ungrammatical construction (me and her) might elicit “a questioning look from the CEO,” Zastrow claims, “after which you can’t really respond by saying, ‘Don’t judge me. Linguists say language evolves, and using me and her as subjects of a sentence is now accepted.’”

But I ask: If using me and her as subjects is unacceptable in a work setting, why get into the habit of using that speech pattern with friends? Does either “She and I went to the concert” or “Erin and I went to the concert” sound too stuffy, too proper to your friends?

If so, maybe you need to expand your social connections.

Another Zastrow ‘Please Don’t’

Again using the workplace as an example, Zastrow suggests avoiding verbiage like this:

Just between you and I, me and him can’t go to the movie.

The correct construction is: Just between you and me, he and I can’t go to the movie.

I again ask: If you shouldn’t utter such an ungrammatical statement at work, why would you say it among friends?

Zastrow’s “Go ahead, break these rules” examples are:

Yes! Split that infinitive! (I agree!)

An infinitive is a verb form that generally includes to: to close, to believe, to wrap, to smile, to gaze. When you split an infinitive, you insert a word between to and the verb that follows:

  1. to quickly close the door versus to close quickly the door
  2. to truly believe his story versus to believe truly his story
  3. to tightly wrap the present versus to wrap tightly the present
  4. to sweetly smile at the child versus to smile sweetly at the child
  5. to intently gaze at the horizon versus to gaze intently at the horizon

Yes, there are times a statement sounds better with a split infinitive. The first three of these five examples support Zastrow’s claim.

Dangle that Preposition (I somewhat agree.)

Prepositions are words that often indicate when, where and how something happens. Many grammar enthusiasts believe that you should not end a sentence with a preposition (or leave it dangling, as Zastrow describes).

Zastrow suggests it probably is OK in this example:

Who are you going to the airport with?

I don’t consider it a sin to end a sentence with a preposition, but I’d more likely say:

With whom are you going to the airport?”

If “with whom” sounds too formal, consider tucking the preposition in the middle:

Who’s going with you to the airport?

Here are Zastrow examples that end with a preposition and my suggestion for rephrasing each to achieve grammatical integrity.

Where are you going to? | Where are you going?
Where are you coming from? | You’re coming from where?
What are you thinking about? | What are your thoughts?

It’s not the end of the world if you occasionally leave a preposition dangling at the end of a sentence. Even I might ask, “What’s the story about?” Spoken grammar often is more casual than written grammar.

Unite! They and Them are One! (I disagree!)

Zastrow recalls struggling with pairing a singular subject (your customer) with a singular pronoun (he/she) when he was writing his first book:

“If your customer expresses a need, it is important to show that you know what he or she wants.”

With our evolving heightened gender sensitivity, some sources claim it’s now grammatically OK to substitute they, even though they is plural and your customer is singular.

I strongly disagree with this new approach. There are very few times a sentence cannot be restructured to keep a noun and pronoun in agreement. I offer this rewrite for Zastrow’s example:

When your customers express a need, it is important to show that you know what they want.

Chapter 16 of my book provides multiple other examples, as does this blog.

Although Zastrow concludes, “Yes, you can now ask a singular customer what they want,” here’s my take: Just because some sources now say you can use a mismatched noun and pronoun doesn’t mean your should.

Try rewriting the sentence. Your customer might appreciate knowing that you have a mastery of grammar and don’t take shortcuts.

Other Points of Agreement

Zastrow made some suggestions with which I agree. (Now that wasn’t so hard, was it … avoiding ending a sentence using the preposition with?)

Don’t capitalize words you don’t need to capitalize

Zastrow provides this example for his cautionary note about capitalization:

“Our company has a strong focus on our Customers, and we back this up with dedicated Customer Service team members. This is a key focus of our Marketing department.”

He points out, “Capitalizing words needlessly is a sure sign that you’re trying extra hard to look impressive … and it’s backfiring.”

Both my blog and my book offer numerous examples of what to — and what not to — capitalize.

Don’t make up words unless your name is Shakespeare

Zastrow points out that renowned poet and playwright William Shakespeare coined about 1,500 new words. But you’re not Shakespeare, Zastrow points out, so don’t take literary license. He recently has seen or heard these “new” words:

aggreance | disingenuine | distinguishment

My recommendation: Stick to Standard English

Standard English reflects the way educated people speak and write. If you take liberties with words and punctuation, or if you get creative with made-up words, you might experience less-than-optimal consequences.

Care about how you’re judged at work — and beyond? Follow my blog or buy my book. Both will help you decide which grammar guidelines are firm and which are flexible.

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Kathy Watson

Kathy Watson has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. A self-proclaimed ruthless editor, she prefers standard usage guidelines of The Associated Press Stylebook. Her easy-to-use Grammar for People Who Hate Rules helps people write and speak with authority and confidence. She encourages and welcomes questions and comments. (Email)

2 thoughts on “Grammar Rules Worth Breaking? You Decide

  1. AvatarCharles Myhill

    I agree the best course is to stick with Standard English. You might think not doing so is clever and creative —ften it is not.

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