The rules of any language exist for one primary purpose: so we can make sense of what is being said. Despite how it might feel sometimes, they aren’t there just to confuse us. Rules also weren’t invented to give your English teacher or your co-workers an excuse to comb through your writing looking for humiliating mistakes. We have them because if readers and writers don’t agree on what our words and punctuation mean there’s no hope that we’ll be able to communicate clearly. The first priority for any writer (and we’re all writers these days, whether it’s in our job title or not) should be to make it as easy as possible for their readers to understand what they have to say. So it’s critical that we follow some shared guidelines.
But you might be surprised to learn that many of what we think of as the “rules” of written English aren’t real rules at all. And some of them actually get in the way of allowing us to say what we mean. These are the “rules” you should break whenever it helps your writing make sense.
Part of the reason that English can be such a bewildering language, even for native speakers, is that there’s no one authority on how it should be written. Unlike French, which has the Académie Française, there is no governing body to write the laws of English and police its usage. And the fact that English has been widely spoken around the world for hundreds of years means there are distinct versions in the UK, the US, Australia, and India. (Also, some would argue, Texas). Not having an “official” set of rules means that it’s often difficult to understand how the language should work.
There are plenty of places you can get advice about English, but the trick is trying to get these sources to agree. You can consult dictionaries, grammar guides, or journalists’ style books for help, but it’s still possible to come away confused by different opinions. For years The New York Times wrote the plurals of CD and DVD as CD’s and DVD’s, while The Wall Street Journal used CDs and DVDs. How are amateurs like us supposed to figure this out when the country’s two most important newspapers can’t agree? Personally, I prefer CDs because it looks less like a possessive, but I wouldn’t object to either version. (Still, there’s no excuse for CDies, as I’ve seen written in an airport shop).
The truth is, the “rules” most of us learned in school aren’t nearly as firm as we were told. Many of them are simply ideas transplanted from Latin and other languages by people who wanted to impose a little order on the chaos of English. Some, like not splitting an infinitive, should be treated as conventions rather than hard and fast rules. We only need to be bound by them as long as they help make our writing clearer.
As a former English teacher myself, I’d like to empower you to jettison any grammar and punctuation rules that actually get in the way of clear and efficient writing. You’ll find some of the most commonly abused rules below, and I’ll add more in future posts.
Never end a sentence with a preposition:
Whether or not Winston Churchill ever actually responded to an editor who had “corrected” his writing, “This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put,” the line provides an excellent illustration of how ridiculous it can be to blindly follow the rules.
What would be the “correct” version of a question like “What did you sit on?” Don’t try to tell me that I should ask “On what did you sit?” because no human I’ve ever met would say that. The only reason I can imagine creating a sentence like that is if you are writing dialogue for a robot or the aristocrats on Downton Abbey.
Which leads us to my own first rule of grammar: if following the “rules” makes your words sound awkward or alien, please break the rules.
Don’t use “I”
At some point during our educations, many of us were told we should avoid using “I” and “me” in business and formal writing. I think the idea was supposed to be that referring to yourself is narcissistic and undermines a sense of objectivity. But what usually happens when you avoid mentioning yourself is that you wind up twisting sentences into unmanageable shapes to avoid pronouns. Besides, writing from your own perspective draws in readers by creating a more personal sense that you’re addressing them directly. So go ahead and use “I.” Just don’t make yourself the subject of every single sentence. It’s possible to have too much of a good thing.
Sentences must include a verb
The vast majority of sentences should have a verb, but they don’t always need one. One-word questions, for example, are often useful for breaking up the rhythm of sentences or drawing attention to important ideas. As always, make sure that you have a good reason for breaking the rules. And that what you mean is clear from the context of your other sentences.
Never use passive voice
Some editors will unsheathe their red pens to mark up every single sentence that uses the passive voice. Which is a shame, because sometimes the passive is helpful or even necessary. Why would I tell you anything other than “My car was stolen,” if I didn’t know who took it? “Someone stole my car,” isn’t any better.
But the real power of the passive voice comes into play when you want to conceal who is responsible for an action. Try using this sentence structure if you find yourself in an awkward situation.
- The baby’s haircut was mangled
- The entire pie was eaten
- Her collection of Justin Bieber CDs was destroyed
You can’t start a sentence with and, but, or because
And what will happen if I do? Because I do it all the time.
Stringing sentences together with one of these connecting words can be a very effective way to keep your ideas flowing smoothly and lend them immediacy. Just be careful that they make sense in context. If you use “but,” what you say next has to be opposed to what you said in the previous sentence in some way.
Spell out numbers less than 100
I’ve talked to several people who were indoctrinated in high school journalism classes to write out every number up to 100 instead of using numerals. This has never made sense to me, especially for newspapers, because it’s much easier for our eyes to look for numerals when scanning for important information than it is to read the names of numbers. Besides, using numerals helps you avoid all those messy hyphens in numbers like “thirty-four.”
You really only need to spell out single-digit numbers (one through nine). Even then, using numerals is hardly a major offense. I just feel as though a single number like “7” looks naked and lonely sitting by itself. “Seven” looks much happier.
However you deal with numbers, just make sure you’re consistent with your choices.
Always use “a” before a word that starts with a consonant and “an” before a word that begins with a vowel
I get annoyed every time I hear a TV news reader describe something as “an historic event” (especially when they’re talking about something ridiculous like a new record for the most Doritos Locos tacos consumed in one sitting). I always want to send them an email explaining that it’s the way you pronounce the word that matters, not the way it’s spelled. You only use “an” in front of a vowel sound. So here in San Francisco, which is often referred to as SF, we’d say “Dungeness crab is an SF (ess-eff) tradition for the holidays.”
The only instance in which it is ever okay to say “an historical” is if you don’t pronounce the “h.” So if you have a cockney accent, go crazy saying “an ‘istorical” all you want. But never “an historical.”
What other grammar rules seem made to be broken?
The scandal surrounding the NSA’s surveillance program broke while I was on vacation last week, and it’s pretty shocking. I mean, have you seen these slides? The colors used by their designer(s) are awful, the way they’ve placed objects on the background makes them look confused and cluttered, and they’ve made some really bad choices with fonts and typography. Worst of all, some of their illustrations just don’t make sense.
When I first saw these slides they reminded me of the exercises I used to lead students through when I started teaching PowerPoint in 1997. In order to train people on all of PowerPoint’s features we’d have them draw random shapes, fill them with colors and text, create charts and animation. We’d use every tool in the toolkit whether we needed it or not. Looking at the images of these NSA slides, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that they had been created so that each element flew in accompanied by a zooming car sound.
But we probably shouldn’t be surprised by the quality of these slides. Most of the millions of PowerPoint presentations cranked out every day are ugly and poorly planned. I think the difference is that we assume that the government, and especially our spy agencies, have the resources they need to do a better job. If they can squeeze all those cool gadgets into James Bond’s Aston Martin, can’t they hire a designer who knows they should never use yellow and green as a color scheme?
The great thing about other peoples’ mistakes is that we can learn from them. Understandably, most presenters don’t want to share examples of their bad presentations, so it can be difficult to find useful examples to critique. But now that we have these wonderful, ugly, formerly top secret slides available, let’s see what they can teach us. (For bigger versions, click on each slide).
Why not start with the title slide? White can be a fine background choice (it’s certainly better than bright colors or distracting textures), but you have to limit the other colors you use on a white background. Light colors are very hard to read when you project slides against white, so the yellow, light blue, and even the red “Top Secret” stamp will likely wash out. So the slides’ overall design is questionable from the very beginning. The audience might not even be able to see some of the most important information.
Then there are the company logos splashed across the top. Why do they need to be included on every slide? Why not just give them their own slide listing the participants? Flinging them across the screen like this looks messy and makes everything hard to read–especially since the logos themselves are in so many different colors and fonts. The effect is a kind of logo soup. Bad design choices aside, I’m curious if they even have permission to use the logos of these companies. I highly doubt it, but someone must have figured that it didn’t matter if all of this was top secret.
And a couple of other things from this one slide:
- More logos: The “Special Source Operations” logo is unattractive enough, but the “PRISM” logo is ridiculous. Why does every program and initiative need a logo these days? And couldn’t they find one that doesn’t look like a misshapen reject for a Batman (the 60’s TV version) villain?
- Why does this presentation need two different titles (indicated by the “or”)?
- Why is the second title (“The SIGAD Used Most in NSA Reporting”) in italics? Why does it sound vaguely like an advertisement for sugar-free gum?
Here’s our second slide, and it’s as bad as the first one. The first thing I’d like to point out is that it really should be two slides–one about when each company joined the program, and another about its costs. There’s just no imaginable reason to include both here. Every slide in your presentations should represent just one main idea. Your goal should be to make your ideas as clear as possible, not to cram information on the screen. PowerPoint slides are pretty much a limitless resource, so go ahead and create as many as you need.
Other things to notice:
- The effect of having all those logos and a title at the top of the screen is really noticeable here. Combined, they take up a third of the slide and leave little room for what really matters.
- The colors. There used to be a house in my neighborhood that was painted these colors, and everyone called it the lemon-lime house. It’s a tasteless color combo anywhere, but it’s also bound to be very difficult to read whether this slide is projected or printed. And that pinkish “Program Cost” bubble? Ugh.
- The chart. What’s called for here is a timeline. So why do the yellow bubbles and green background rise as time goes on? What does that have to do with time? And why are there two separate green objects behind the yellow bubbles? Did they need to bend the line so it wouldn’t crash into the ugly PRISM logo (which it almost does anyway)?
Our third slide has more pink, but less yellow! Again, this should probably be two different slides, one with the text in the box and another with the diagram explaining network traffic. Putting them both on the same slide makes them hard to read. My image here isn’t the best quality, but I think the diagram would be hard to read on all but the biggest projector screens. Maybe I’m just getting old… Also:
- It looks like “U.S. as World’s Telecommunications Backbone” is italicized here, except for the initial “U”. That’s just sloppy, and the italics don’t really make sense anyway.
- “Cheapest” and “not the most physically direct” are both bolded and underlined, which is completely unnecessary and just makes it harder to read. If your computer lets you bold your text there’s rarely a reason to also underline it. (Indicating a hyperlink is one).
The fourth slide suffers from problems that should be familiar at this point. Notice again how everything has to be crammed onto the slide. There’s not nearly enough white space and the green arrow intrudes on both text boxes. The easy solution would be to get rid of the list of providers since we already know who they are. Why repeat them here? Also:
- There’s a note above the purple box that indicates that the information collected “varies by provider”. That makes me wonder how accurate any of this information is anyway, and why they’d wanted to list all of the providers here. Why not just say, “these are the things we typically collect”?
- This slide has text boxes in entirely different colors than we’ve seen before. Is the designer trying to make each slide novel? Only 5 of the 41 slides in this presentation have been published, but I’m starting to wonder if each one has its own color scheme.
See how much fun we can have analyzing other peoples’ presentations? Just imagine if we had all the rest of the slides from this deck! I thought about taking the next logical step and redesigning the slides myself, but after finding that others had already beat me to it I decided that the world didn’t need my own version of the NSA’s work. But it’s an exercise I wholeheartedly recommend if you’re interested in learning how to improve bad presentations.
These days I read more business books than fiction, and the novels I do read are usually in Spanish. I like to pretend that reading Spanish will someday flip a switch in my brain so that I’ll actually be able to speak it, despite the fact that it hasn’t happened after all these years. But I just finished reading Lauren Graham’s Someday, Someday, Maybe and totally enjoyed it. To be honest, I only picked up the novel because Graham is one of the guests at the always amazing Notes and Words benefit for Oakland’s Children’s Hospital this Saturday. But it turned out to be a completely enjoyable use of my time.
I’ve always felt that a novel is a success if it alters your mood–whether that’s to make you laugh, swoon, or so depressed that you can’t imagine ever leaving the house again. So it was a good sign when I caught myself whistling aloud in the cafe where I hang out in the morning after racing through the last couple chapters.
Someday, Someday, Maybe is the story of Franny, a young actress in New York struggling to find success before she hits her self-imposed deadline and has to move back to where she grew up, marry her old boyfriend, and start a “normal” life. I know that we’re not supposed to conflate authors with their characters, but if you know Graham from her roles on Gilmore Girls or Parenthood it’s easy to imagine her as Franny since they are both smart, beautiful, funny women who seem like they’d be great people to hang out with. The book includes some hilarious show-business situations, Franny and her friends are charming characters, and the central romance–though predictable–turns out to be totally satisfying entertainment.
But there’s more to this novel than that. We also get to share in some of the wisdom that Franny picks up once her acting career starts taking off. Even though I have zero acting experience outside of one Tom Stoppard scene (what a place to start!) I had to perform with classmates in a literature class, I’ve been interested in the connection between acting and delivering presentations for a long time. Because they aren’t trained as professional speakers, most presenters tend to get nervous and neglect the performance part of their talks in favor of just trying to get out the words. The effect is often the same as if actors in a play got up on stage and read from a script while standing in one place the whole time. It’s not very satisfying. You’d ask for your money back if you’d paid for a ticket.
So it’s useful that much of what Franny learns applies to presenters as well. I especially like the bit she hears from her agent, Barney Sparks, a character who is a throwback to an earlier showbiz era. After telling her that there’s no secret, no one thing that is going to make an acting career easy (good advice for almost any goal!), Barney offers her the advice that his father “the great Broadway director Irving Sparks” always gave to his actors: “Remember, kids. Faster, funnier, louder.”
At first she’s disappointed. Franny has heard this saying before and taken it as a joke. But Barney explains:
“FASTER–don’t talk down to the audience, take us for a spin, don’t spell everything out for us, we’re as smart as you–assume we can keep up; FUNNIER–entertain us, help us see how ridiculous and beautiful life can be, give us a reason to feel better about our flaws; LOUDER–deliver the story in appropriate size, DON’T be indulgent or keep it to yourself, be generous–you’re there to reach us.”
This is great advice for any performer, including presenters. Translating slightly so that it works just as well for the lectern as it does the stage might look like this:
Faster–Know you audience. Target your message at their needs and their experience. Challenge them a little–audiences love to be given something to figure out. Respect them and their time by keeping your talk as short as possible.
Funnier–If they’re not listening to you, you’re not accomplishing anything. Entertain your audience to keep their attention. People are best won over to your cause by stories, new ideas, and enthusiasm. But this doesn’t mean to be fake. Audiences respond to insincerity they same way they do to a bad actor.
Louder–Share something of yourself with your audience. Make them like you, feel they have something in common with you, and they are much more likely to come over to your way of thinking. Be clear about what you want to accomplish. People resent presentations that feel like mysteries–they start to wonder why they are there in the first place. Give them next steps so they know how they can get started on your agenda.
Try thinking of your presentations as performances if you want to give more successful talks. If you’ve done something like join Toastmasters in the past, think about taking an acting class to polish your skills. It can’t hurt, right?