Writing, writing tips, writing myths

Five grammar and writing myths

You’ll have learned a lot about putting pen to paper at school but there are a lot of grammar and writing myths around. It’s useful to get some of these out of the way before they start impeding you in your business writing.

A good, useful rule is one that helps your work remain comprehensible. This short article is about some of the others:

Writing myths 1: I before E except after C

When I was at primary school a teacher tried to moderate this rule by saying “and when the sound’s ‘ee'”, so that he could allow words like receipt. Unfortunately there are also words like “science” and “conscience”. In fact here’s a Wiktionary page with 96 “e before i” words. It looks to me as though this rule has so many exceptions and needs so many extensions to work, it’s useless.

Writing myths 2: Never split an infinitive

The infinitive is the “to do” part of a verb. So the infinitive of “write” is “to write”. And if you want to write clearly, then you won’t split the infinitive up, so that was “if you want to write clearly” and not “if you want to clearly write”. However, any self-respecting Star Trek fan will tell you that “To boldly go…” is perfectly comprehensible.

I’m indebted to the Grammar Girl website that confirms this was never intended as a hard and fast rule anyway. Basically if something sounds clear, it probably is.

Writing myths 3: Never start a sentence with a conjunction

The basic function of a conjunction is to join two sentences together. Two of the most common are “and” and “but”. So I might write: I had a cheese sandwich. I had coffee. Or I could use a conjunction to make that into “I had a cheese sandwich and I had coffee”. I can write really boring sentences when the mood takes me.

So in principle, ideally, you don’t begin a sentence with these – only, I did when making point 2 above, twice. Look at the second and third sentences: one begins with “so” and the other with “and”. They do work, so as long as you don’t use a conjunction to start everything you should be OK.

Writing myths 4: “ize” is an American construction

I first picked this up from an old episode of “Inspector Morse”, in which the old grouch accuses Lewis of illiteracy when he’s using “ise” at the end of a word, I forget which one. In Morse’s view, “ize” is British English. On checking the Concise Oxford English Dictionary I find he was right. You can Anglicize something and keep the “z” perfectly happily, in fact it gives the “z” as its first preference.

Only….

Writing myths 5: Your client will listen to this stuff

And here’s the rub. In business writing you can get too hung up on grammar and the rules, as I hope I’ve shown. What you need to understand is that the client, or your employer, pays the bills. Very few clients, I find, will listen to me on point 4; their house style says “ise” and that’s the last they want to know of it. Likewise they don’t want an “and” at the beginning of a sentence and if they don’t like split infinitives they’ll strike them out.

It’s all about getting the job done and this generally involves subsuming your creative writing instinct and doing what the client wants unless it’s just silly. I had one of those once. The client insisted that her company’s house style was to put a “www” in front of every website. I referred to “http://news.bbc.co.uk” and she said it didn’t work. I said it did, if you took the “www” she’d inserted (http://www.news.bbc.co.uk doesn’t work). She insisted that her company’s policy was to put a www in every time. The fact that the universe appeared not to be wired this way wasn’t an issue for her.

I grant you I could simply have changed it to www.bbc.co.uk/news and on reflection I think I did so – but since there were other examples she clearly wasn’t going to allow, I walked shortly afterwards.

Do you or your team need help with writing skills? I can help – either email me by clicking here or fill in the form below and we’ll sort something out.

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