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Writing better English

Updated: Oct 3, 2021

I've held writing jobs for most of my adult life, so my friends like to joke that I spend a big chunk of my day googling synonyms. This is not a joke I enjoy at all because it is true.

But I also google other things, like whether recognize is spelt with an 's' or if I should use a hyphen even if the style guide I'm using says don't even THINK about it, Sarah.

English leaves us with so many questions because it's the only major language without a regulator to govern its use. While basic style and grammar rules guide us through forming words and sentences, more complex matters are often left open for debate. Italian, Polish and other fancy languages have regulators that decide what does and does not fly.

No one can definitively say what is and what is not 'English.'

That means English dictionaries, style guides, and the like, are not wholesome truth bibles but for-profit commercial entities that are all in competition with each other. Although it's hard to pick a fight with Oxford or Merriam-Webster, anything written in such a publication does not automatically make it true. They have only as much authority as we, the readers, give them.

The lack of regulation makes English flexible and easy to use. That's why it's the de facto language of international business and spoken by one out of every four people on earth.

In the business writing world, there are general rules that we've collectively opted into, but we still argue about grey areas all the timeyes, even the Oxford comma. Some examples:

Correct (how I write):

  • Editor in Chief

  • eBook

  • FBI

  • 99

  • Less

Also correct (but how I would never):

  • editor-in-chief

  • e-book

  • F.B.I.

  • Ninety nine

  • Fewer

I wish it were all so trivial, but words are only the tip of the iceberg. If you weren't very nice and had too much time on your hands, you could argue every sentence I've written here.

Of course I acknowledge that some people really don’t care about grammar, or words, or the remarkable way the two work together to construct meaning for you and me. Some people don’t care about showering either. Or paying taxes. “They are just stupid rules,” they say. Those people end up smelly or in jail.

A good example of someone who is totally uninterested in the rules is a former colleague of mine who capitalizes words like Conference Call and Payment. It’s so easy to not do that.

My view is that even if rules are “fake,” or “random,” or evolving over time, they are useful because they provide us with a sense of order, which we all need to function (at least well). 

Using the loopholes to communicate effectively and convincingly

What I believe Mr. Bradshaw is suggesting: Learn and follow what's black and white in English grammar and then build on it in a purposeful way. At worst, your writing will be accepted; At best, it will carry intention and meaning behind every word. Seems very worth it.

As a living entity that changes over time, words and writing styles will continue to come into English and change as the world does. While I don't have the solution to (or is it solution for) all your grammar frustrations, I think understanding why they exist is a good start.

What does above-average business writing look like? Check out some of my work here.

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