The Grumpy Grammarian

Grammar Police Won't Increase Revenue

You probably think these grammar police are being unnecessarily mean and nitpicky.

A 2016 University of Michigan study looked at how personality influences the way you react to grammar mistakes in written communication. The results? Grammar police are more often “disagreeable, close-minded, and conscientious introverts.”

They’re not jerks. They just don’t know better.

Mini grammar history lesson. Told by someone how wasn’t there.

The Greeks were the first to write about grammar. In the 1st century BC, Dionysus Thrax of Alexandria wrote The Art of Grammar. His goal was to preserve the purity of the Greek language so he examined texts and wrote rules based on terms of letters, syllables, and the eight parts of speech. Soon after, the Romans adopted Greek grammar and applied it to Latin, developing their own rules.

During the mid-13th to mid-14th century AD, The Modistae or speculative grammarians wanted to develop universal grammar. And between 1218-1229, their wish came true. John of Garland wrote Outline of Grammar and Book on Constructions. These books were the first published universal grammar rules.

Sometime after, John of Garland also invented the word “dictionary” and published the first Latin dictionary, Dictionarius.

That’s 300 years before Shakespeare was even born.

How Shakespeare helped language evolve by breaking grammar rules.

Typical grammar rules of his time insisted that a sentence be structured with the order – subject, verb, object. But in one of his most famous plays The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Shakespeare changed the order for the sake of poetic flow.

Grammarians would have taken the sentence, “Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended.” And rewrote it “Thou has much offended thy father Hamlet.”

That rewrite doesn’t even sound like Shakespeare. Those grammarians would’ve killed Shakespeare’s voice.

Dr. Jonathan Hope, from Strathclyde University, conducted a study of different playwrights during Shakespeare’s time and concluded that Shakespeare completely reinvented grammar.

Rule-breaking caveat:

What rules you break will depend on:

  • Your audience (use their language to speak like them), and
  • Your client’s voice (informal and conversational or formal).

Nobody likes reading awkward but grammatically correct copy unless the audience is a group of academics. Stodgy copy just doesn’t connect with your readers or persuade them to take action.

In 2013, Disruptive Communications surveyed 1,003 UK consumers about brand behaviors that annoy them the most. 42.5% indicated poor spelling or grammar. This group of people went as far as to say they wouldn’t buy from a brand that had typos or incorrect grammar.

But there was one notable exception: 18-24-year-olds didn’t care about spelling or grammar mistakes. They cared more about how frequently brands posted updates.

Considering this age group was projected to spend $1.4 trillion shopping in 2020 (that’s more than Boomers and Gen X), copywriters and digital marketers shouldn’t feel pressured into adhering to grammar rules.

In fact, they should be like Shakespeare and step away from traditional grammar. Because even in 2019, grammar is evolving. 

I know this isn’t something grammar police want to hear. But they can clutch their pearls and leave copywriters alone.