JT's Scribblings

a.k.a. a blog of some description.

A little Grammar Rant

Sunday June 7th 2015, at 4:15 pm

Earlier today I tweeted this:

This is the longer version of that Tweet.

English grammar is one of those things where it's pretty much impossible to know everything. No matter how well you grasp the language, there's always bits of usage and little edge-cases that you don't understand. Also important to understand is that there is always someone who understands things better than you.

It's important to realise this when writing. So many times these days I see people using words or grammatical constructs they clearly don't understand, presumably because they believe they have to demonstrate their intelligence or intellectual prowess. The problem is, though, that they all too often get it wrong.

The problem with using language that you don't understand yourself is that when you do get it wrong (and trust me, you will), it instantly becomes blindingly obvious to anyone who does understand properly that you don't know what you're talking about. You're trying to come across as smart but you're trying too hard.

People tend to try and use fancy language because they think it will make them appear more intelligent. Leaving aside the fact that it makes you appear no more and no less than a fool when you get it wrong, it's an important thing to realise that it is in fact perfectly possible to be eloquent with the words and grammar of a ten-year-old. It's simply a matter of putting it together correctly.

So when you're writing — be it a blog post or a tweet or an email — just stick to what you know. There's no shame in that. What there is shame in, however, is trying too hard and making a fool of yourself. Don't just scatter semicolons around because you've seen The Clever People using them; understand them properly or don't use them at all. Don't use Big Words like “therefore” and “whereas” and “however” without knowing the nuances of when to do so. Don't use “utilize” or “whilst” simply as drop-in replacements for “use” and “while” because they're longer and must sound fancier. Don't include a single word in whatever you're writing if you don't actually know what it means. And for God's sake don't randomly replace “who” with “whom” unless you know it's right. Seriously, the number of times I've seen “whom” used wrongly recently because someone clearly thinks it's an Intellectual Word but has no idea what they're doing is alarming to say the least. On the note of “who” vs. “whom” it's particularly irritating because the rules really aren't that hard!

Those are just a few specific cases that have caught my attention recently and prompted me to write this. They're far from the only examples.

Always assume that whatever you're writing will be read by someone far cleverer than you, who has a much better understanding of the language (and subject matter as well, come to think of it) than you do. If you try to be clever then it will probably be obvious and you'll only make a fool of yourself. It's far better to express yourself well and correctly in simpler language (and often it will help you to make your point better anyway), than to aim too high and show yourself up as a fool who thinks they're being clever.