by Hannah Comerford, Scribe Contributor
Today is National Teacher Day, a day to celebrate our teachers and their hard work. What our teachers taught us in English class is now a part of our subconscious, and we use the rules we learned in our everyday lives. Whether you liked diagramming sentences or hated spelling bees, your early lessons laid a foundation for your business writing.
However, as we grew older, the rules started to change. “I before E, except after C” added the stipulation, “or when sounded as A, as in neighbor and weigh.” Before long we realized that this didn’t even cover everything, and we simply gave up on the mnemonic altogether (at least I did!). Perhaps you’ve noticed this shift with other elementary school grammar rules: they’re often broken in the adult professional world. Why is this?
Children need black and white rules because they can’t grasp gray areas or qualities. For instance, in our first years of school we learned that a noun is a person, place, or thing. Then, when we were older, we learned that a noun can also be an idea. We couldn’t comprehend this last category until our brains had developed more. Likewise, grammar rules have exceptions that younger children can’t quite comprehend yet. Adults, however, can and should be able to handle these nuances.
Understanding grammar’s nuances will bring your writing to a level beyond the elementary school basics. Below are just a few grade school rules and how grown-up writers can break them.
- Never end a sentence with a preposition. When Churchill’s editor rearranged a sentence to follow this rule, the prime minister wrote, “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.” As he demonstrated, sticking hard and fast to this rule can leave you with clumsy sentences. Who wants to read, “up with which I will not put”? While oftentimes you can rearrange your sentence so as not to end with a preposition, don’t do so if the finished product is an awkward wording.
- To form a possessive of a word ending in –s, use only an apostrophe. Two of the most popular style manuals, AP and Chicago, disagree on this matter. Chicago tells us to use an apostrophe and an –s (business’s statistics). AP, on the other hand, recommends leaving off the extra –s (business’ clients). Check the manual your business/field prefers.
- Never begin a sentence with “and.” Following this rule won’t necessarily hurt you, but occasionally breaking it can make your writing more interesting. Here’s the trick: don’t leave out the subject and verb. “The numbers are dropping. And quickly.” vs. “The numbers are dropping. And they’re dropping quickly.” While the first example may be excusable, the second one leaves no chance for confusion.
As you remember your teachers this week, you might take a moment to revisit old notebooks, your child’s homework, or Schoolhouse Rock and recall the basic rules of grammar. And when faced with a gray area in your business writing, ask yourself, “Does the rule impede understanding?” If the answer is yes, you may need to break it.
When you do purposefully break a rule, don’t be afraid to ask the opinion of a professional editor or knowledgeable writer. He or she will let you know if it works or if you should stick to the basics.