Oct 08 2015
How to learn to stop worrying and love grammar

By Chris Mohr

"My grammar's really shaky." 

"I'd like to be able to write better sentences." 

"I always run my letters past my manager." 

"My emails get corrected, but I never understand why." 

Those are some of the things I regularly hear from any group of delegates at the start of a Grammar and punctuation at work training course. But as I listen to their woes, what I don't hear is a single ungrammatical sentence. So why are they all so worried about their grammar?

My guess is they probably weren't taught any. British schools started ditching formal grammar teaching in the 1960s - it was boring, it stifled creative writing, it was associated with unfashionable Latin and grammar schools. Fair enough. But did the education system throw the baby out with the bathwater?

For me, the answer lies in my relationship with cars (it's a leap, I know, but bear with me). I've been driving for ever and I'm a perfectly safe and competent driver. But - if the car develops a problem, I haven't a clue what to do. I panic. And my confidence plummets. Why? Because I don't know what goes on under the bonnet.

So what's the connection between cars and grammar? Simply this: grammar is under the bonnet of everything we say and write. Understanding the basics gives the writer more control. Educationalists have also now cottoned on to this, which is why primary-school children are getting regular lessons in Jolly Grammar. Lucky things - they won't need to come on this course when they grow up.

But that's not much consolation for anyone who did miss out at school and is suffering the consequences now. Well, take heart. You could spend years studying grammar, but there's no need to. In this case (with writing as with cars) a little knowledge is not a dangerous thing - it's a hugely empowering one. So here are five simple tips that can transform your relationship with grammar.

Five simple tips:

1. Remember: it's not your fault, and you're not alone. If you don't feel confident, it's because no-one ever showed you the ropes - you, and thousands of others (including that line-manager who corrects your emails).

2. If it sounds right, it almost certainly is right. The good news is that grammar is hard-wired into your brain - you already know it. Even six-year-olds have a firm grasp of grammar (the system and structure of a language) and syntax (word-order). So if in doubt, read it out loud.

3. Keep it short and simple. You don't have to write long and complex sentences in order to sound professional. Quite the opposite: short sentences are more readable; simple ones are clearer and punchier. That applies no matter who your reader is, whether prime minister or plumber.

4. Write it the way you'd say it. If you get a sentence in a twist, ask yourself: who or what is doing what? (For example: Jane chaired the meeting; or: The charity is launching an appeal.) Now start the sentence afresh with your answer. That's the order we use when we're talking, and it's how we prefer to process information. Look at any newspaper article - journalists write that way most of the time.

5. Relax about rules. Language is a living thing and it evolves - what was frowned on twenty years ago may be fine now. But don't be careless either. Get in the habit of using one or two trusted resources (see below) to check your writing, and you'll find you're building your skills and confidence at the same time.

Trusted resources

Free downloadable resources

The Plain English website provides user-friendly and reliable guides to topics on grammar and punctuation, as well as writing letters and emails, layout and other topics.

Style guides

The Guardian website has this authoritative A-Z guide to style and usage.

You can also follow the style guide on Twitter, and tweet them your questions. Authoritative and usually witty answers arrive within a couple of hours!

Interactive skill-building

Improve your writing provides explanations and interactive exercises on the main points of grammar.

Perfect English grammar is aimed at non-native English speakers, but useful for all, with clear explanations and interactive exercises on a range of topics.

Reference books

I’d recommend any good dictionary, such as The Concise Oxford English Dictionary or Collins English Dictionary, The Oxford A-Z of Grammar and Punctuation (John Seely, Oxford University Press 2013) and The Oxford Guide to Plain English (Martin Cutts, Oxford University Press, revised edition 2013)

Chris Mohr is a former broadcast journalist and radio and TV producer. She has been a media- and communications-skills trainer for over twelve years, helping individuals and organisations write more effectively.

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