The business of grammar

Friday, September 8, 2017
Marie Alafaci

Marie Alafaci
Marie Alafaci

Author and writing specialist Marie Alafaci talks snobbery, workplace communication, and reference guides. 

Both writers and non-writers often find grammar and punctuation intimidating. Why do you think they feel that way?

I blame grammar snobs.

When I was a child, we were taught a very small amount of grammar and punctuation; however, this was soon considered unfashionable and the focus moved to a more ‘communication’ model, as opposed to a ‘correct English’ one.

There’s a lot to be said for allowing free expression and not correcting people’s work with big red pens, but what happened when we abandoned teaching grammar and punctuation was that we created people who had to guess why something was right, and never quite knew when something very similar wasn’t.

Enter the grammar snobs. These are people who learnt some grammar and punctuation at an early stage in their education and now feel that they are somehow superior to people who haven’t. You know the type – they’re the ones who love to smirk when people make mistakes during a wedding speech; they carry felt pens so that they can correct signs in greengrocer’s shops and generally look down their noses at others who can’t quite get their head around ‘who’ and ‘whom’.

Grammar snobs hoard knowledge as if it’s something only they have access to, as if it’s theirs to dispense when, and only if, they choose to. Grammar snobs gain a sense of power by making others feel ignorant and powerless. I despise grammar snobs.

When I teach grammar and punctuation, I try to show people how they are tools for understanding how English works. Sometimes I use the analogy of grammar and punctuation rules being like a jigsaw or a cryptic crossword. Once you realise there’s a puzzle to be solved, and that there are some basic rules to help you, the fear drops away and you open up a whole world of understanding. You probably won’t ever love it as much as I do, but at least you’ll know it’s not something to be feared.

You’ve taught and worked in both the creative and corporate spheres. Do you find that grammar is different in a business context?

No matter what you’re writing, your message needs to be clear. In terms of grammar and punctuation, there’s no difference between writing a novel and a procedure. In both cases, you don’t want the words to get in the way of the communication and you need to know what rules you’re breaking when you choose to break them.

Perhaps the one thing that business writers try to do more than creative types is to use what they think is correct grammar and appear more formal than they need to be. Hence the misuse of ‘I’ when the perfectly good pronoun ‘me’ would do.

Because of the busy pace of the business world, there’s also a tendency to cut information from a range of documents and paste it into others to save time. This isn’t a problem per se, but if you don’t know how to make that process seamless, or can’t spot grammar and punctuation errors that this can create, you can end up producing something that makes no sense at all, or makes you and your organisation look unprofessional.

What are some of the grammar basics that everyone should know?

Hmm, that’s a hard one.

The best advice I could give is that if you can work out what the subject of a sentence is (the person or thing doing the action), you can probably solve most grammar and punctuation questions. I spend quite a bit of time on this in my grammar and punctuation classes.

This isn’t really a grammar rule, but if you find yourself having written a sentence that sounds odd, but you just can’t work out why it’s odd, rewrite the sentence to eliminate the issue. I know that’s cheating, but the aim is to be understood, not to win prizes for your parsing.

Do you think it’s important to know theory and rules for grammar and punctuation, or is it enough to have a working knowledge?

For most face-to-face business situations, having a working knowledge of English is fine; however, once you start writing things down or giving formal presentations, you need to be pretty sure that what you think you’re communicating is what you are actually communicating. In addition, if you work with contracts or other formal agreements, you need to know your English is 100% correct. Companies have lost millions of dollars over misplaced commas.

I’d also suggest that you find a reputable reference book, such as the easily accessible 'Oxford A – Z of Grammar & Punctuation' or Margaret McKenzie’s terrific 'Handbook for Writers and Editors' and use them as guides. There’s no person alive who knows everything there is to know about the English language, so there’s no shame in finding a good reference book and using it.

I’ll leave discussions around theories of grammar and punctuation to the linguists – long may they argue about obscure and esoteric matters!

About Marie Alafaci

Marie Alafaci has publications in biography, environmental science and speculative fiction; taught Professional Writing & Editing at Holmesglen TAFE; worked for the Australian Society of Authors; reviewed books; written features and run a manuscript assessment service. She has been a business writing trainer, and written and edited scores of corporate documents. She also teaches short courses in grammar and punctuation for RMIT, and tutors and assesses manuscripts for Writers Victoria. She believes that everyone wants to be understood when they write a business document and that this course will help participants along the road to creating lively, uncluttered and, most importantly, effective documents.

Marie will be teaching a Business Writing workshop on Grammar for Business on Friday 20 October.