Grammar: what rules matter?

Andy puts forward the argument for human centred communication in a world of strict grammar rules.

Comic-book style illustration of a ruler being snapped.

I’m 36, degree educated and a published author who writes for a living. But, I have no idea about grammar.

I couldn’t confidently tell you what a noun is. And certainly not a dangling preposition, or why it’s bad form to start a sentence with “and”.

And I don’t think it matters. It might even be a strength.

What is grammar?

First, it’s important to establish what we mean by “grammar”. Immediately, we can do away with the idea of a single, all-encompassing grammar law.

Instead, there are four distinct types of grammar:

Functional - describing words according to the function they fulfil. Verbs, nouns etc.

Pedagogic - describing standard practices in order to help teach/learn a language.

Prescriptive - a series of rules that should/must be followed, with judgement on what is right and what is wrong.

Descriptive - a series of rules that tend to be followed, without imposing judgements of ‘correctness’.

For our purposes, it’s enough to focus on prescriptive and descriptive.

As any Copywriter, UX Writer, or Content Strategist worth their salt instinctively knows: the context of your words determines which type of grammar you need to prioritise.

Clarity over ‘correctness’ in UX writing

There’s a big difference between what is technically ‘right’ and what is right in any particular instance. And, it is here that the skills of a talented UX Writer or Content Designer are invaluable.

The creative science and discipline of UX writing, is this process of establishing what ‘right’ is given a myriad of variables. These include the voice and tone of the organisation, the goals of both the organisation mixed with who the audience is, what their knowledge is and even their own context of use.

Given the amount of variables, it would be impractical (and likely damaging) to try and impose strict rules to cover all scenarios. Which explains why numerous UX writing guides, such as this from Mindsea, specifically state, “Don’t prioritise grammar over effectiveness - UX writing doesn’t always follow grammar rules perfectly; your product’s copy should read more like a conversation than a textbook. Using a colloquial approach creates an effective and engaging dialogue.”

In her article ‘Everyone is a copywriter’, Clare Barry emphasises this point further stating descriptive grammar users, “don’t particularly care when the rules are violated if it enhances understanding or clarity. Prescriptivist grammar users often desperately hang on to the ‘rules’ taught to them in school ‘til their dying day, killing any sense of fun or creativity by creating adverts that read like a terms and conditions section.”

One example of how this works in practice is the creation of paragraphs far shorter than the norm - sometimes even just a single sentence long - in order to aid readability on a screen.

Sound human, not inhuman

The difference between how we sound on paper and how we actually communicate with each other in our day-to-day lives is a vital thing to consider when you’re trying to give your organisation a consistent, human voice and tone.

Written text that conforms strictly to prescriptive grammar rules is difficult to make sound human or natural. This is because the initial, introspective creation of grammar rules was based entirely on written text.

The Open University describe the problems this can cause, “In the past, because written grammar was used to judge speech, common features of speech were judged as errors because they do not occur in the more planned environment of written text.” Such are the differences between the English we speak and the English we write, they could almost be classed as two separate languages, so it makes no sense to try and impose the same grammatical restrictions on them.

For example, when we worked with an entertainment company on creating a ‘Tone of Voice and Style Guide’ to help ensure consistency across their range of venues, they told us:

We want our customers to enjoy a consistent experience of our brand across all channels. Whether they are visiting the box office in person at one of our venues or browsing our offerings online, our voice remains the same. We speak in the manner of a friendly box office worker who is expert, honest and charming. We always try to always write in the same way that we would speak.

Here you can explicitly see that they wanted their digital communications to sound like somebody talking to you face-to-face and, as such, the make-up of sentences and types of words being used needed to reflect the less formal structure of natural speech, rather than the traditional written word.

Making the experience sound more human is not only important for brand consistency. Your ‘humanity’ can also have implications on how your organisation is perceived, including whether or not you can be trusted.

It’s not enough to say “you can trust us”, in fact doing so is probably going to have the reverse effect on how people perceive you. This means brands need to find a way to demonstrate their trustworthiness through the way they communicate. Often, the best way to do this is by sounding like an actual human.

Research with a leading estate agent encapsulated what the shift to a more conversational, human, style is trying to achieve:

When I engage with my clients, I need to find ways to understand the detail of their personal situations to gain their trust. And, at times, I need to act like a counsellor… When meeting clients, I need to be able to make a good impression, so that they see me as capable of helping them.

You need to be seen as someone who understands and is empathetic to people’s needs in order to be trusted. In other words, you need to display human characteristics, not cold, clinical robotic ones.

The emotional power of the right words at the right time in order to establish a human connection with someone, was also reflected in our work with Petplan, where we needed to create an emotional connection with pet owners and build engagement with Petplan's premium services.

To do this, we ran qualitative research to intimately understand the motivations of pet owners by listening to calls in the Petplan office. This gave us insight into the personality, expertise and emotional connection Petplan had with customers when dealing with insurance and cover plan enquiries. This would act as our reference point.

We then crafted copy to ensure that trust was built early on. This ensured all prompts to sign up to free cover across SMS and email were personalised and delivered with the right tone to encourage conversions and reassure owners that their pet would have access to the best treatment.

With all these examples, the context is key and the best solution was copy that was empathetic and concise, or friendly and approachable, rather than strictly grammatically correct.

We can distill this into a couple of key principles:

Grammar guides, not rules

As people who break a lot of rules like to say, “rules are there to be broken”. But that’s not to say we should disregard them entirely.

Instead, rather than ensuring we tick every dot and cross every t in the prescriptive grammar rule book, we should allow ourselves the freedom to concentrate our copy crafting efforts on creating communication clarity. Human sounding - human centred.

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