Insights

There to be broken

06 July 2021 5 min read
Clive Weatherley image
Written by

Clive Weatherley

Clive Weatherley, Head of Copy, argues why some, and only some, laws of the English language can be happily ditched.

There’s a cliché in linguistic circles – and clichés are only clichés because they’re true – that language is an ever-changing flux. Any linguist or and folk historian can quote endless favourite examples of how certain words’ meanings have drifted, or even performed complete about-turns, over the years. ‘Terrible’ and ‘terrific’ both meant ‘horrifying’ a few hundred years ago: now they’ve lost any sense of terror and slid into synonyms for ‘good’ and ‘bad’. If you met a ‘glamorous’ woman in the 18th century she might enchant you literally, as she’d be a witch – now the glamorising is just figurative. And ‘girl’ once meant a child of either sex: as we head towards total gender neutrality, that one could be making a comeback.

When semantics undergo such a change, we have no option but to adapt and use words according to their current definitions. This is fine when the changes are historic but more problematic when a shift has happened more recently. Take ‘staycation’ for example which, when originally coined, meant forgoing a holiday, staying at home and possibly going out for day-trips. During the pandemic, however, it’s somehow morphed into meaning an actual holiday taken in your own country. And people are divided, often very passionately so, about what the word ‘should’ mean.

But putting vocabulary aside, the greatest minefield for linguistic flux is grammar, a system that, by its very nature, defines what’s right and wrong when we write and speak. We need that system: without it we wouldn’t understand one another. Alongside its prime function of achieving clarity and parity in communication, strict adherence to it has traditionally also denoted education, knowledge and even class, rightly or wrongly. Likewise, being ‘ungrammatical’ also invites assumptions and generalisations, again rightly or wrongly, about the speaker or writer. It’s obvious therefore that any brand would want ‘correct grammar’ in its guidelines and tone of voice, together with all the qualities it denotes. If only it were that simple…

In the grammar universe, correct and incorrect are not black and white. No-one gets every rule of grammar correct. And anyway, whose rules are we referring to? Just as with the definition examples above, points of grammar drift too, but here it’s an oscillation between whether a rule is considered necessary or not: valid and current – or archaic and dead. Take the last six words of the previous paragraph for example.

That little ‘were’ in there is a subjunctive. I know that, and would argue that it’s necessary, because I’m a language nut. Most people would write ‘was’. Are they wrong? Who’s to say? Gradual abandoning of the subjunctive is part of the drift, and every writer and speaker of English will cling on to an aspect of grammar law until they feel it’s breathed its last. We don’t do this consciously – or, at least non-linguists don’t. It’s all part of the natural development of language.

It may surprise some to hear that I too have relaxed my views on certain aspects of grammar, when practice outweighs theory. Take splitting the infinitive (‘to boldly go’, for example): without going into detail about why this was considered wrong, keeping the infinitive ‘unsplit’ often leads to the ugliest sentence constructions imaginable – so I’ve relented. ‘Whom’ is another: this time it’s not ugliness but pompousness that’s the problem – it’s difficult to imagine any contemporary tone of voice guide where ‘whom’ would sit comfortably. And then there’s the old chestnut about prepositions being something you shouldn’t end a sentence with. Churchill summed it up with typical tongue-in-cheek when he said that breaking that rule was something ‘up with which I will not put’.

So those are my concessions, along with any other creaky ‘rules’ that have had their day. But let’s remember that the bulk of grammar and accurate semantics are there for a reason. For example, it’s annoying and takes longer to understand a text or post that’s devoid of capitals and punctuation. We’ve all seen the meme about the difference between a company that knows its shit and a company that knows it’s shit. And as for helping Uncle Jack off a horse… These may be hilarious examples but they’re serious illustrations of what apostrophes and initial caps do.

Commercially it’s worth remembering this: break a grammatical ‘rule’ in your copy and you alienate any readers (potential clients!), however few, who still adhere to that rule. Write grammatically and you alienate no-one, maximising your ‘friendly’ audience and creating an impression that can only be positive for your brand. Ironically, I’d call that a no-brainer.