4 min Read
December 26, 2012

What Your English Teachers Forgot to Mention: A Grammar Lesson

Katherine Lindstedt

I’m a big fan of breaking the rules. (If you don’t believe me, just ask my mother for some stories from my adolescence.)

I don’t mean purely in the sense of using a dictionary during Scrabble or taking a late night stroll through a park that closes early. I mean breaking the law, writing-style. Yep, there comes a day when every good writer needs to break the rules.

It’s not that your English teacher was lying the whole time. It’s just that the best writing doesn’t always have much in common with the right grammar. In fact, sometimes breaking grammar rules can greatly improve your writing–especially when you’re writing for a variety of audiences, or when you’re writing something that’s intended to be spoken, like an elevator pitch. Here’s my take on the grammar rules that nonprofiteers should consider breaking.

1. Let your prepositions dangle.

Technically speaking, it’s true: sentences really shouldn’t end in a preposition. But there’s nothing natural-sounding about something like, “It is behavior up with which I will not put,” grammatically sound though it may be.

This fall, the New York Times tackled grammar rules in an edition of Room for Debate. When reading it, I stumbled upon this lovely quote: “So many millions of writers have needlessly contorted their prose to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition.”

So true! And when we contort our sentences to avoid leaving a pesky preposition at the end, they sound, well, contorted. And that’s no good.

2. Beware the wicked which.

Okay, so, in which, when, and where are all relative pronouns. When and where are reserved for when you’re referring to a time or a place, respectively. But sometimes we need to talk about things that are neither a time nor a place–television episodes, hypothetical or imagined worlds, for instance. And when that happens we’re supposed to go with the good ‘ole in which construction, which tends to make you sentences a bit clunky.

I’m about to go on a tangent here, because this one actually comes up a lot in the world of nonprofit communications. At Big Duck, we approach vision statements as a description of the better world you’re building. The only thing is that a hypothetical, imagined, distant world is neither a time nor a place, meaning that–once again, technically speaking–you should really be talking about a world in which great things happen, not a world where everyone is healthy and happy.

An organization’s vision is a public statement. It’s a great way to connect with your audiences. If you’re mostly trying to reach a less technical crowd, this might be a good place to deepen the connection by flouting the rules.

Top Nonprofits has a list of 30 exemplary vision statements, and many of them are great, but–surprise, surprise–grammatically incorrect:

“A world where everyone has a decent place to live.” –Habitat for Humanity

“We envision a world where all people–even if the most remote areas of the globe–hold the power to create opportunity for themselves and others.” –Kiva

On the other hand, if you’re writing primarily for funders or technical audiences, or if you work in a field that has you under the reign of the grammar police, it might be best to opt for some grammatically pristine, law-abiding language. (A rebel I may be, but I’ve still got respect for your audiences.)

3. It’s okay to split.

Sometimes verbs are complicated. There are few things in the English language as contentious as the split infinitive, which we’re all familiar with, thanks to Star Trek. Yep, many grammar specialists take issue with the “to boldly go” in “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” “Whatever,” says me.

4. Embrace the third-person.

That we don’t have a gender-neutral first-person pronoun in the English language is the bane of my writerly existence. This makes it rather difficult to deal with something along the lines of “Each student is responsible for turning in his/her/their/one’s homework.” As a subject, each student is singular, so we’re not supposed to use their.

But when I step back to think about how we usually talk in, you know, real life–“I called my coworker.” “What did they say?”–disobeying the grammar police and going with the third-person just seems inevitable. Even Jane Austen seems to agree with me on this one:

“Every body was punctual, every body in their best looks: not a tear, and hardly a long face to be seen.” —Emma

As usual, this really depends on how grammar-fussy your peeps are. By peeps, I mean, of course, your audiences.

So, now that I’ve gone on and on, I want to hear from you. What grammar rules do you like to break for the sake of some good writing? Share your thoughts in the comments!