Let’s eat, grandad: Making the case for good grammar and punctuation

Today, March 4, is World Grammar Day. When you ask around you may find a lack of clarity over what, exactly, grammar is. The terms grammar and punctuation are often used interchangeably, but while both are needed to communicate ideas to readers, they are not the same thing.

Grammar is the structure of language. You can think of it as the words you choose and the order in which you put them. This is a large part of what establishes meaning: “The dog bit the man” is clearly not the same as “The man bit the dog.”

Punctuation (along with things like spelling and capitalisation) is a convention of written English; a courtesy that makes writing easier to read. You can think of question marks, exclamation points and full stops/periods as road signs for the reader.

Grammar is the vehicle that transports meaning; punctuation is what keeps it on the road.

When we write, we want our readers to be immersed in the writing, to enjoy the smooth flow of words from start to finish. Errors in grammar and punctuation are bumps in the road and, in the worst cases, leave readers struggling to decipher what the writer meant. Using correct grammar and punctuation is a subtle but powerful way to keep readers engaged. It allows us to separate ideas into sentences, shows us where to pause, where to place emphasis on particular words, and so clarifies the meaning of written language.

Choose your words with care

Word choice can shape meaning in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Consider the possible word-choice variations on “The dog bit the man.” Without changing the essential action, we can alter the reader’s thoughts and emotional response by varying word choice. Compare these:

“The playful puppy nipped the brutal burglar.”

“The savage hound mauled the old-age pensioner.”

In both cases a canine is chomping on a human, but the sentences create starkly different mental images and very different sympathies. This is the essence of writing: to persuade and influence, which is exactly what marketing communications are meant to do.

Punctuation? Do we even need this stuff?

In an age of informal writing (think text message abbreviations and one-word emails), grammar, punctuation, usage and mechanics may feel like a needless stack of rules. Why do we need them? Can’t we just ditch these restrictions and write the way we want to?

Confusing or pedantic though the rules may seem, they exist for good reason: to bring clarity. A misplaced comma may seem trivial, but it can change the meaning of a sentence. Not convinced? Compare and contrast:

“Let’s eat, grandad” and “Let’s eat grandad”.

That comma is the difference between a prompt for conventional mealtime arrangements and a suggestion of intra-familial cannibalism.

In more serious cases, ambiguous sentences that are hard to decipher can be misinterpreted. This, potentially, puts lives at risk. For example, unclear instructions on the use of mechanical equipment, or on medication packaging, could lead to fatal errors.

RSK writers and editors understand what you are trying to say, even if it’s technical and very complicated. We can help you structure and polish your marketing message, smooth out the bumps on the road and keep your meaning and your readers on track.