Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Midnight musings of grammar fans


I spent this past weekend with a couple of my favorite journalists. We stayed up late discussing politics and other current events, as well as the state of print and online journalism. Then, as Friday night became Saturday morning, our thoughts naturally turned to a topic near and dear to our hearts...grammar!

Yes, I know. We are geeks. It is true. And, as long as I am coming clean here, we think proper sentence structure and   correct word usage are both necessary components of clear communication.

People need to understand what they are reading, especially if they read quickly. In the case of newspaper or newsletter writing, incorrect grammar slows the reader down, muddles the message, and undermines the credibility of the writer and/or news outlet. Good editors read stories with an eagle eye, a grammar handbook, their chosen stylebook, and a dictionary close at hand. If they do not (or if you do not use the same tools when self editing), your readers are forced to make sense of poor or fuzzy grammar, or guess which word you actually intended. And you may not really be saying what you mean, because even the best editor is not a mind reader. The resulting story or headline needs corrections, retractions, or some other form of cleaning up. We all have our favorite examples of this. With baseball's spring training upon us, I chuckle to recall my favorite sports headline from last season  (see photo above).

I urge my speakers to be careful about their grammar as well. Even if a speech has more latitude—say, structuring it with a few em dashes or ellipses, or using a more relaxed, even colloquial vocabulary—it still needs to adhere closely to the recognized standards. Too much "artistic license" and you lose your audience. When speaking, a listener can't flip back to find the antecedent of a given pronoun, or tease out a sentence to unearth the main clause. Sentences that are complete, short, and clear are best, whether you are at the podium or conference table. Speakers generally lack proofreaders and editors, so do the job yourself. Let your ears be that extra set of eyes as you read your speech out loud. If you find you need to read a sentence a few times to make sense of it, you probably should go back and check your grammar. And for goodness' sake, if you have any question about a word, look it up! The world certainly does not need any more amphibious pitchers.

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