Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Good night, Mrs. Grimsdyke, wherever you are.

You remember Mrs. Grimsdyke, right? She was the sixth-grade English teacher who hammered into you all you ever needed to know about grammar and punctuation. And she spoke with the infallibility of the Pope. The Grimsdyke way was the only way.

Mrs. Grimsdyke was like that founder* of the Jesuits, who may have claimed that indoctrinating a child for his first seven years was enough to win him for life. I've worn one of my hats -- corporate communicator -- for thirty years. And it constantly amazes me that senior managers, lords and ladies of their profession, can peruse a draft of some communication that may be of earth-shattering significance to the future of their business, and yet the only comment I'll get is "I was always taught not to begin a sentence with a conjunction." (Oh yeah? Try reading Chapter 1 of Genesis some time.)

When I'm hired to work on a project for a client, I make it clear that my ultimate loyalty is to the reader. I'm getting paid to make the materials I write as clear, as concise, and as friendly as possible. An informal, conversational tone promotes understanding, which saves the rampant cost of misunderstanding. At a more subtle level, it also diminishes the distance between the (supposed) author and the reader, enhancing the credibility of the message. It's my job to convince the client -- well, the client's lawyer -- that "It is imperative that the employee submit his/her claim for any loss in a timely fashion" doesn't change its meaning when it becomes "Don't wait too long to send in your claim." Never mind that it has a contraction and seems to be in the second person.

I had a client pay me to work my magic on a complete range of informational materials for his company's employees. And then the same client paid me all over again to remove every contraction -- every "don't" became a "do not," every "you're" a "you are"  -- simply because the CEO "had always believed" that contractions were incorrect in a business letter. Protests that I wasn't writing a business letter fell on deaf ears. So I apply the Beechey doctrine. I try to persuade them twice to do things my way. And then I do it their way with a clean conscience.

Language is a moving target. What's right versus what's wrong can often be what's new versus what's old. Although neither of these should be confused with what's good versus what's bad.

That doesn't imply an anything-goes free-for-all, embracing every faddish abbreviation or misspelling with uncritical glee. (To the end of my days, I will spell "all right" as two words, even if "alright" makes it into a dictionary.) Writers should know grammar backwards and forwards, just as they should know the ins and outs of their word processing program. These are the tools of the trade, and it's ludicrous for any professional to take pride in, say, scattering commas by guesswork or "where they feel right."

But an exploration of the basics quickly leads you into the current areas of controversy. And you discover that there are nuances, shades of gray, competing rules -- a world beyond the unbending grammatical celibacy of the Grimsdykes.

Maybe formal writing hasn't actually changed that much. Maybe what's changed is that excessive formality is now marginalized. I remember those ancient rules about whether to use "yours sincerely" or "yours faithfully" to sign off a business letter. But I never use either these days -- it's usually "best wishes" or even "love." I mean, why not?

So take a stand on the controversies. Stick to your position. Draw a line in the sand and be prepared to defend it. Just equip yourself with a better argument than "that's what I was taught in grade school."

*I've seen this apocryphal quote variously attributed to Ignatius Loyola or to his disciple and co-founder of the Society of Jesus, Francis Xavier. I once saw the "incorruptible" remains of Francis Xavier in a church in Goa, India. Or at least the bits that weren't collected by souvenir hunters -- his forearm's in Rome and another arm-bone is in Macau.

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