3 min Read
September 22, 2010

Sweet Clarity

Usually, writers write for other writers. Designers design for other designers. We tend to make decisions that only other people who do what we do will notice or appreciate.

Maybe it’s a sign of age, but I find that, the longer I write for different audiences, the less I care about pleasing the writers out there. With the exception of a few grammarians, your participants, advocates, and donors don’t care one iota that I just used a serial (a.k.a. Oxford) comma in that list of three. But I did. Because I like serial commas. I also just wrote a fragment. On purpose. There’s another one.

Grammar exists because, most of the time, it helps to clarify your meaning. Missing punctuation or misplaced modifiers can have disastrous results. There’s a “grammar saves lives” group on Facebook that uses, “Let’s eat Grandpa vs. Let’s eat, Grandpa” as its prime example.

So yes, the rules of grammar exist to help you say what you mean without cannibalizing Grandpa.
Here’s the thing, though: it’s better to be clear than right.

First of all, being right when it comes to grammar is often debatable. Style guides disagree with each other. Rules that were drilled into tiny heads in middle school and high school turn out to be wrong (to occasionally split an infinitive breaks no official rule, as it turns out).

Plus, language and grammar rules evolve. One rule that’s becoming much more accepted is using a plural pronoun even if your antecedent is singular. English has no neuter pronoun, which can often lead to the awkward use of he or she or she or he or, worse yet, an exclusive he to represent both he and she. Believe it or not, grammarian nonprofiteers, some style guides have begun to recommend using they. An example: A doctor should take a vacation every year so that they don’t burn out.

The traditionalist in me would write around that sentence to make it doctors, plural, because it’s still difficult for me to break the “rule,” especially when I know that there are purists out there who will assume it’s wrong and judge me to be a terrible writer and therefore a terrible person.
I’d like to think I’m not a terrible person.

Strictly following–or not following–the rules of grammar might also be a “personality” decision. If you’ve taken the time to define your organization’s personality (you have, right?), whatever you write should be in the tone of that personality. If bold is one of your personality traits, maybe a hard-hitting fragment is just what your copy needs at one particular moment. On the other hand, if intellectual is one of your personality traits, being sticklers for all things AP Stylebook, Chicago Manual of Style, or Strunk & White may be a better way to go.

Ultimately, the important thing is that people understand you. Usually, proper grammar helps you write more clearly and, in general, I strongly recommend that you write well and correctly.
But hey, if the best way to be clear is to break a grammatical rule, go for it. You need to reach your audiences. Especially in this economy. And there’s another fragment.

If someone points out that what you’ve written is grammatically incorrect, take a look at it again. When you correct the grammar, is it still clear (and on personality)? If so, write it correctly. But if being wrong is indeed clearer and more effective, why should you be right?

Err on the side of clarity, nonprofiteers. I give you permission to be grammatically wrong if you have to be. And I write for a living, so feel free to blame me if you want to.

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