The Role of Grammar in Effective Communication - Help Your Uncle Jack
To say that I love language – the English language, in particular – and literature, is akin to stating without any further qualification or explanation that the sun is hot. My second son’s middle name is an homage to Thomas Hardy’s Gabriel Oak, whom I believe I might have been inclined to pursue with some fervour, had I been born 120 years earlier and he an actual, live person. But I digress…
The thing about language, though, and specifically English, is that it is as fluid and constantly changing as the digital communications industry is. And I think that that is perhaps why it’s so easy to butcher. That and the fact that, as is so often pointed out, there are probably more exceptions than there are rules in English.
Still, as someone who has spent many years helping others craft the messages they wanted to express, I can’t help cringing when I see improper use of language. A bit presumptuous, given that I’m no Kipling, but there it is. And, sadly, the improper use of language, even in very formal and corporate situations is becoming increasingly common – accepted, even.
Now, I understand that languages evolve over time, borrowing and eventually incorporating words and phrases from other languages; words commonly misspelled or pronounced are lexically adapted in order to accommodate their wider, colloquial use. (Case in point: The phrase “with regards to” has managed to worm its way into accepted everyday use due to being used twice as frequently as the proper “with regard to”.)
I get it, I really do. It’s much easier to relate to the guy who’s talking to you like he knows you than to muddle along, trying to figure out what la-de-dah rubbish some plank you’ve never met is spewing in an attempt to sound important, isn’t it?
And yet, in just the past week or two, since I started trying to figure out what I was going to write this post on, I’ve come across several extremely common but unforgivable misuses of words and phrases – things that set off enough nervous tics that you could mistake me for a Tourette’s patient:
This one always gets my goat! The word “equally” already indicates the comparison, so when you tell me that you love reading Hemingway but you think Twain is “equally as” good, you sound like an illiterate buffoon and I judge you, harshly.
“May you please…?”
No. When you ask me for anything this way, I want to hurt you because, while I know what you mean, the word “may” is used in the first person when asking for permission. When requesting something of someone, the correct word to use is “will”, as in “Will you please bring me a cup of tea?”, to which I may (because it is my prerogative) reply, “Yes, I will put the kettle on.” Or not.
Just sit down. Seriously. When you say this, what you’re telling people is that you expect them to show up early and then serve others. “First-come, first-served”, on the other hand, means that he who is the first to have come will also be the first to be served.
Using “woman” instead of “women”
When speaking in plural Which woman? Have I met her? Does she have a name? It’s one woman, many women. The same way your father is one man of the many generations of men from whom you are descended and all of who probably know the difference between the singular and the plural form of these simple nouns.
“Thing’s” that awaken the grammar Nazi in me
An apostrophe is used to indicate where letters have been omitted to create a contraction of two words, as in, “Won’t you be a dear and promise me you will not use an apostrophe to pluralise words anymore?” An apostrophe is also used to indicate possession: “Mr. Jones’ cat”; “You must be Julie’s friend”. It is NOT used to pluralise anything besides single, capital letters. “There’s a conference of M.D’s getting drunk in the bar, singing rude songs.” When people put apostrophes in the wrong places, I wish I could join them.
People who don’t know when to use capital letters (or who simply don’t bother to use them at all) are infuriating! I don’t care if I sound like your granny – there are specific instances where capital letters are not negotiable. Here are the main ones:
- At the beginning of a sentence.
- In the title of a book, except for “and”, articles, prepositions, and “the”, unless it’s the first word in the title.
- For proper nouns and the pronoun “I”.
Not convinced? Okay, try writing the sentence, “Yesterday, I helped my Uncle Jack off his horse,” without any capital letters…
Changes the meaning completely, doesn’t it? And that is what it really comes down to. In a world where communication is everything, knowing how to say what you really mean is vital.
Language is arguably the single most powerful tool anyone possesses. The more adept you are at using it, the more certain you can be that others will understand and accept what you choose to communicate.