Unlike students today, most people who were schooled during the 80s and 90s were not taught the basic principles of grammar, as creativity in writing was considered far superior to boring things like structure. The result, says Gina Hollands, Head of Copywriting at marketing agency PMW, is a generation of people who are failing to do themselves — and their companies — justice.
While spoken grammatical structures may well be inherent to the native speaker, the same cannot be said of the written word. Where should you put capital letters; what’s a pronoun; where do you use a semicolon; and what’s a frontal adverbial? For a whole generation of Brits, it’s questions like these that bring on cold sweats.
And it’s not just a lack of understanding of grammatical terms. A survey by OnePoll revealed that four in 10 adults don’t know the difference between a semi-colon and a colon, and 62% are unsure where to place speech marks. Almost half are totally clueless about apostrophes, and one in 10 don’t know the difference between their, there and they’re.
So what? you may ask. Unless you’re an English teacher, why should you care about this stuff?
“There are many reasons why poor grammar gives cause for concern,” says Gina. “First and foremost, incorrect grammar can give a whole different meaning from the one intended. This can cause confusion, mistakes and even unintended offence — the request to ‘bare with me’ has a whole different meaning from ‘bear with me’! Also, your use of English is a direct reflection on you. Your clients may consider you less capable and careful if your written work is error-prone.”
So, what can be done?
“People can be embarrassed about their lack of grammatical knowledge,” continues Gina. “They might see it as a failing on their part, whereas it usually isn’t that at all — just a lack of opportunity to learn it. What they need is understanding and support.
“Some companies hire grammatical experts to help their teams improve their grammar. This can be a very wise investment as clients will inevitably judge a company on the level of its employees’ quality of communication. Improving staff’s grammatical abilities can therefore quickly result in a change of fortune.”
Here, Gina shares her top five tips to help improve grammatical prowess and avoid common mistakes.
- Use an apostrophe to show a missing letter.
It’s a lovely day (it is)
There’s no business like show business (There is)
Or to show belonging…
John’s book (the book belongs to John)
Claire’s new job sounds exciting (the new job belongs to Claire)
- Would have, should have, could have (never use ‘of’ instead of ‘have’).
E.g. She should have told us while she had the chance
E.g. It could have been worse.
- Many people confuse ‘brought’ and ‘bought’.
‘Brought’ is the past tense of ‘bring’.
‘Bought’ is the past tense of ‘buy’
The clue is to look for the absence or present ‘r’ and keep it consistent!
- People tend to think it is always correct to use ‘I’ instead of ‘me’ after ‘and’. Sometimes, however, this is just plain wrong.
Consider, ‘John is coming over to have dinner with Claire and I.’
This is wrong. The way to work it out? Try deleting ‘Claire and’ from the sentence. Does it still make sense? In this case, no. You wouldn’t say:
‘John is coming over to have dinner with I’ so why should the mention of Claire change anything? It doesn’t. The correct way to say and write this is:
‘John is coming over to have dinner with Claire and me.’
- The use of ‘may’ rather than ‘can/could’ is often seen as more polite. While this can be the case in some instances, using ‘may’ in others is incorrect.
‘May I make a suggestion?’ is perfectly fine, as you’re asking permission to do something.
‘May you please sign this form?’ is wrong, however, as permission doesn’t come into it.
‘Could you please sign this form?’ is correct here.