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When Wrong Grammar Is Right

January 25, 2011  

If you say "this is she" rather than "this is her," or "it must have been they" rather than "it must have been them," your high school English teacher would give you a gold star. But your customers? Not so much. The reason: Most people often don't use traditional grammatical rules in conversation, so you run the risk of sounding stilted—or even wrong—if you always stick to those rules.

That's why you might need to fudge some rules when you communicate with customers, whether on the phone or in your marketing copy. "I will confess that I sometimes make the technically wrong but conversationally right choice under these circumstances," writes Julia Rubiner at Editorial Emergency. "Because sometimes, the technically right choice—'It is I,' for instance, instead of 'It's me'— makes you sound like the Scarlet Pimpernel."

If you're nervous about using incorrect grammar, Rubiner cites feedback like this from Grammar Girl's Mignon Fogarty: "Most ... grammarians agree that unless you're answering the phone for the English department at the University of Chicago or responding to a Supreme Court judge, it's OK to use what sounds right rather than what's grammatically correct.


Like it or not, language is in flux. And while it can be downright painful for grammarians, going with the conversational flow might be what it takes to connect with your customers.

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  • by Mizzmonsoon Tue Jan 25, 2011 via web

    This is the problem with American culture in general. We keep dumbing down and dumbing down so that everyone will feel comfortable...pathetic.

  • by Jim Carroll Tue Jan 25, 2011 via web

    I could not disagree more with this article and completely concur with Mizzmonsoon's comments. Proper grammar is just that...PROPER. No need to dumb yourself down.

  • by Peter Altschuler Tue Jan 25, 2011 via web

    There will always be a place, one hopes, for proper grammar (and usage)... maybe even in marketing. But it can't be used to good effect if the writer... and reader... don't know what's correct. That's the real problem. What qualifies as a good education in America today won't endure comparison with earlier standards or with contemporary Asian cultures where competition requires the highest level of educational achievement.

  • by Jack G Hardy Tue Jan 25, 2011 via web

    On the contrary, the beauty of the English language is it's flexibility! Most romance languages are struggling to keep up with us. Just checkout the number of new words created in the last ten years. Yeah verily, maybe I somewhere else when we studied grammar. But, yes, I cherish the beauty of English when well spoken (and written) for clear communication.

  • by Mizzmonsoon Tue Jan 25, 2011 via web

    Jack, with all due respect, you are confusing the English lexicon with its grammar. There is no flexibility when it comes to the rules of grammar...that's why they're called "rules." Furthermore, I would argue that many of the "new" words that are now included in dictionaries only exist because so many people were misusing or mispronouncing a certain word that the mistake is now considered "legit." Again I say...another example of the dumbing down of America.

  • by Vanessa Tue Jan 25, 2011 via web

    It's really not about "dumbing down" anything. Plain and simply put, grammar rules aren't enforced and things have evolved because of that. You need to know who you're engaging with in order to be received, and I appreciate that about our culture. There's a time for formality and a time for informality and what I am most impressed with are the individuals that are wise enough to know when to apply which. That's a beautiful thing. So be as grammatically correct as you want to be, but if your goal is to engage and connect, then let the rules be rules and enjoy people for who they are and not the grammar rules they follow. Know thy audience; that's the rule that I stick with in life and in marketing. :)

  • by Mizzmonsoon Tue Jan 25, 2011 via web

    The rule I stick with in life...and in marketing...is not to strive for mediocrity.

  • by Vanessa Tue Jan 25, 2011 via web

    I applaud you for that Mizzmonsoon. And I'm sure you have a set of rules that skyrocket you out of the state of mediocrity. If that is what works best for you, then by all means to thine own self be true.

  • by Jay Tue Jan 25, 2011 via web

    Said best by Joseph Priestley, “The more elaborate our means of communication, the less we communicate.” And we also must remember to K.I.S.S. at all times. ;-)

  • by Mizzmonsoon Tue Jan 25, 2011 via web

    The point of using proper grammar isn't to create a more elaborate means of communication, it is to create a clear and understandable means by which to communicate. Another point of using proper grammar is to help yourself sound less like an uneducated nit wit.


  • by Jack G Hardy Tue Jan 25, 2011 via web

    Mizzmonsoon,
    I assume then that Mark Twain would not be on your recommended reading list? For lack of grammatical correctness?

  • by Mizzmonsoon Tue Jan 25, 2011 via web

    Jack, I assume you don't mean to assert that Mark Twain actually spoke like Huck Finn...

    Mr. Twain was someone who was able to employ his mastery of the English language which included--yes, the knowledge and application of the rules of English grammar, in order to create characters who utilized a more colorful and colloquial manner of speech.

    You must understand something in order to successfully bastardize it and show your true genius.

  • by Jack G Hardy Tue Jan 25, 2011 via web

    Okay, I yield to grammar - So please tell me how to correct this paragraph.
    Mark Twain put it cleverly: “Tomorrow is the yesterday of two days from now.” So, was it yesterday you first held a cell phone? Or is it now? When a smartphone is something no one can live without! Or, is tomorrow when we face the next game-changing technology: Applications for smartphones. Perhaps, “tomorrow” is already today!

  • by Mizzmonsoon Tue Jan 25, 2011 via mobile

    Jack, I'll one up you,
    "~ Marie, are you awake? Good. You look so beautiful and peaceful, you almost look dead. I'm glad because there is something that has always been very difficult for me to say. I slit the sheet, the sheet I slit, and on the slitted sheet I sit. I've never been relaxed enough around anyone to be able to say that. You give me confidence in myself. I know we've only known each other four weeks and three days, but to me it seems like nine weeks and five days. The first day seemed like a week and the second day seemed like five days and the third day seemed like a week again and the fourth day seemed like eight days and the fifth day you went to see your mother and that seemed just like a day and then you came back and later on the sixth day, in then evening, when we saw each other, that started seeming like two days, so in the evening it seemed like two days spilling over into the next day and that started seeming like four days, so at the end of the sixth day on into the seventh day, it seemed like a total of five days. And the sixth day seemed like a week and a half. I have it written down, but I can show it to you tomorrow if you want to see it. Anyway, I've decided that tomorrow, when the time is right, I'm going to ask you to marry me, if that's o.k. with you. Just don't say anything. You've made me very happy.~

  • by Mizzmonsoon Tue Jan 25, 2011 via mobile

    Oh, and I taught college grammar for years. :)

  • by Jay Tue Jan 25, 2011 via web

    Mizzmonsoon, the K.I.S.S. acronym was created for people just like you.You can write a book but can't connect with people. Your education precedes your common sense. Clearly commenting on blogs ALL day increases your self-esteem or lack thereof. Kudos for teaching "college grammar for years" ;) what is your profession now "Repugnant Blog Commenter?"

  • by Mizzmonsoon Tue Jan 25, 2011 via mobile

    Jay, the ad hominem argument...always a strong defense. Often the move of someone who can't actually argue a point, right? Oh, and it appears you're still blogging at this hour, so...

  • by Blake Alexander Hammerton Wed Jan 26, 2011 via web

    I don't think it's possible for me to disagree more with this article. Grammar, and moreover, proper use of the English language is falling apart in this country. Your customer may always be a little "dumber" than you are. Don't sell pretentious words to truckers, but don't dumb your language down to meet the needs of the "everyday texter."

    If we continue to drag proper spelling and grammar down to the bastardized 13-year-old-girl-on-Facebook version, we will be lost. Every time I see an advert with YOUR instead of YOU'RE, I want to burn it down.

    Look, if you need to dumb your language down to meet your customers, what are you really selling? Can you be seen as the "expert" in that field? Professionalism be damned? I say nay. Do your teachers proud. Use the language, and all its glory, correctly.

    Go boldly, my friends.

    @alexanderblake

  • by Vicky D. Wed Jan 26, 2011 via web

    This article made me cringe. Language does and should evolve, of course, but that is not the same as dumbing it down. And a good editor knows the difference.

  • by mnavarra Wed Jan 26, 2011 via web

    When Apple recently came out with an ad that claimed that the iPod touch was the "funnest" iPod yet, I cringed. This article gave me the same feeling. While I agree that proper grammar often sounds stuffy, I would rather sound stuffy than uneducated. The educated should lead by example, not dumb their language down for the sake of monetary gain!

  • by Tim Anderson Wed Jan 26, 2011 via web

    It is a slippery slope...those who don't know the proper use of the language chaulk it up to, "...we're just using the common reference..." its a just wrong. The next step is not just changing "me" for "I" or some other prepositional interchange...but the blantant misuse of the language such as the rampant misuse of the comparatives, "less" and "fewer". The scariest thing is I would observe that many of the young copywriters -- and their senior editors -- (read: advertisers/agencies/marketers) don't even know the correct usage of the language. Its not that they are just use common colloquialisms...they just don't know. What is the state of education?

  • by Sameer Thu Jan 27, 2011 via web

    This is all about grammar. What's your opinion about words coined for convenience?

    Pre-pone - antonym of postpone
    Uninstallation or uninstall - antonym of installation or install
    Eve-teasing - molestation
    Fresher - one who joins a job just after his/her education
    Reportee - one who reports to his/her manager/boss
    Joinee - one who joins a company

    Other words that are often wrongly spelt are:

    Speciality - specialty (correct)
    Tution - tuition (correct)
    Vaccum - vacuum (correct)

    These words have been generally accepted as they are...

    These are widely used words in Asia (specifically India). I don't think these are valid English words.

  • by Shawn Tue Feb 1, 2011 via web

    Lets all write our ad copy using the language of Shakespeare. After all, he was a literary genius and therefore used correct grammar. So it follows that the correct thing to do for our customers is to write like Shakespeare. Doing anything else would be dumbing down the real English language. Right?

  • by wintersun Mon Feb 14, 2011 via web

    Speciality is spelt speciality in World English

  • by Fred Wed Apr 6, 2011 via iphone app

    You want grammar errors? Look at all the improper uses of apostrophes to make plurals!

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