Grammar Rules (And When to Break Them)

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Do grammar rules matter anymore? Or have they gone the way of the three-piece suit, the “going steady” relationship status, and the handwritten letter—adored with nostalgia by the old folks but not necessary anymore?

The answer lies in knowing the answer to this question: Who is your audience?

If you’re writing a thesis for an academic publisher, a legal summary for a judge, or a longhand letter for your grammar-loving Aunt Gladys, then you absolutely should follow all of the standard grammar rules. Those readers expect it.

But readers of lifestyle copy have different expectations. They prefer a more conversational tone, as if the writer is sitting across from them in a coffee shop, casually chatting about the new service or improved product.

Readers perceive this conversational approach as more likable, more authentic, and more truthful. Writers who can write in their client’s voice and do it in this relaxed, familiar way will deliver better results.

Grammar Rules Do Matter

What’s the point of grammar anyway? Clarity. This popular example illustrates the importance of clarity:

Let’s eat, Grandma!

Let’s eat Grandma!

The comma in the first sentence is used to indicate direct address. We’re talking to Grandma. Removing it from the second sentence suggests family cannibalism. Poor Grandma.

The right word usage, the right sentence structure, and the right punctuation all help readers understand exactly what you are saying. That’s vitally important in any kind of communication.

If you’ve never learned grammar well, commit to improving. Without that all-important clarity, you risk making your client look silly—or worse – untrustworthy. So don’t say your when you mean you’re; don’t spell it supposably when the word is supposedly; don’t write could of when it should be could have. Aunt Gladys is right to correct you on these points.

If you need help in this area, bookmark Grammar Girl, and subscribe to her podcast, too. She can be your grammar tutor. The Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) is another useful resource for writers.

Grammar Rules You Can Break

So grammar is important and you shouldn’t abandon the rules entirely. But when can you ignore a rule or two? When doing so helps your clients speak more conversationally to their customers. Here are three examples.

Breakable Rule #1: Never end a sentence with a preposition.

Conversationally, we end sentences with prepositions all the time. It’s far more natural to ask Who are you going with? than With whom are you going? Same for What are you listening to? What are you going for? And What are you thinking about?

Breakable Rule #2: Don’t use sentence fragments.

When you’re chatting with a friend, you use sentence fragments a lot. Like this. And this. For occasional emphasis and voice authenticity, sentence fragments can be gold. But use them sparingly. Too many sentence fragments can sound silly or unprofessional.

Breakable Rule #3: Don’t start a sentence with the word And.

This is another rule we don’t adhere to in conversation, so you can break it when writing copy. When you’re moving your reader from one point to the next and you want to keep the momentum flowing, go ahead and break this rule. And do it with glee.

As a writer, whether you’re creating content that tells or copy that sells, you serve your clients well by knowing grammar rules and, perhaps more important, knowing when to ditch them.

Summary

Do you need to learn grammar rules anymore? It depends on your audience. Even if you want to break a grammar rule (or two), it's wise to know your rules first. When it comes to writing conversationally, breaking a rule or two will mean writing in a way that resonates better with your readers.

For more tips on writing, take a closer look at these articles and resources.

Image credit: https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/sanfrancisco-usa-january-18-2017-photo-558867952

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