I’m running a couple of writing courses for the Henshall Centre this month and as I do this frequently I read books on writing. I may have a new favourite as Do I Make Myself Clear?: Why Writing Well Matters by Harold Evans has been accompanying me on a press trip.
Unlike so many other books on writing, this one makes the point that grammar is not the ultimate in clarity. This is right. Here’s why.
Technically grammatical, actually baloney
When I was at college one of my tutors had a favourite example. Most readers will on some level be aware that in grammar you generally have a subject, a verb and an object. You can expand that and say you have a subject, a verb and a predicate. The predicate is everything except the subject and verb.
So, “The man lifted the kettle” is clear subject (man) verb (lifted) and object (kettle). Change it to “The man lifted the kettle clumsily” and you have an adverb in there, hence the need for the word “predicate”, otherwise you’d have to list everything.
What, though, of the following sentence – the one that my tutor used to cite:
“The green dreams slept furiously.” We have subject, verb and predicate, all in a really simple order. It breaks down perfectly. The snag is that it’s utter drivel; dreams are intangible so it makes no sense to say they are green, they aren’t alive so they can’t sleep and nothing can sleep furiously anyway. OK, teenagers, but nothing else.
Evans doesn’t use this example but his point is equally valid. He says that making sense and being clear are generally more important than fretting about whether you should be using “which” or “that”, and unless you’re a sub-editor – whose job is to be a grammar hawk – he’s right.
So in a couple of weeks time I will be telling my clients that clarity is pretty much everything. I will aim to share some tools to make it easier to achieve.
Would you be interested in my sharper writing course? Contact the Henshall Centre to find out more.