by Barbara McNichol
When it comes to English grammar, disagreements show up in writing and editing all the time – and mainstream media has blurred the lines along the way.
I can hear you saying, “Fine, but why does it matter?”
Well, precision in language is important, because an exception on one platform – a printed newspaper article or spoken news broadcast, for example – will have different repercussions than an exception in an academic paper, a technical manual, or a formal business document.
If you’re creating content on one platform that doesn’t adhere to basic English grammar rules and suddenly find yourself in a situation, at work or in university, where you’re expected to follow them to the letter you’ll be at a disadvantage.
By following the basic rules of English grammar at all times you will establish yourself as an authoritative, clear, and precise communicator. And there are some simple ways to stay on the right side of grammar rules, but first…
What does the media have to do with it?
As I mentioned, mainstream media has influenced English grammar.
The Associated Press (AP) Stylebook gave writers the green light to use one disagreement: the plural pronoun “they” as a singular noun. This change came about because of issues surrounding gender identity, and it’s a worthy endeavour to represent people more accurately.
AP’s solution to this shift is to substitute:
- He or she with “they”
- His or hers with “theirs”
- Him or her with “them”
The Stylebook suggests that writers use the person’s name wherever possible if they’ve asked to not be identified by gender. Further, when using the plural pronoun in place of the singular pronoun, to be sure the reader understands you’re talking about one person, not several.
In theory, this leaves less room for ambiguity on the reader’s part when he or she is taking meaning away from a news item.
Grammar experts are asking themselves…
Why is this necessary?
It’s a fair question.
Isn’t it more important to follow English grammar norms – especially when there are easy fixes to some common problems?
Here are some common examples of noun/pronoun disagreement, and the simple solution:
- “We want the school board to do their job.”
Problem? It’s one school board, not several. Here are two potential fixes for this grammatical error:
“We want the school board to do its job.”
“We want the school board members to do their job.”
- “Your reader can peruse your book at their leisure.”
Problem? There’s only one reader, not several. Here are grammatically correct alternatives:
“Your readers can peruse your book at their leisure.”
“Your reader can peruse the book at his or her leisure.”
In order to keep agreements in place – to not switch between singular and plural – when dealing with gender identity, you can use these writing tips:
- Use the person’s name instead of a pronoun.
- If you don’t know the gender (or preference) of the person you’re citing, use “his or her”, “he or she” or even “s/he” – they’re all grammatically correct.
- Alternate between masculine and feminine pronouns – I edited a book for an author writing about raising a baby who did this seamlessly.
Just because it’s old…
You could argue that it’s not relevant to hang on to the “old” English grammar rules and it’s true that they have flexed and changed slightly over time. But it’s wise to hang onto those basic rules, and there are ways to adapt your message to current communication standards without abandoning the basics.
I’ve got a handy Pronoun Chart you can use if you’re in doubt – request one here.
Finally, I’d like to know what you think. Given our ever-changing language, would you side with the exceptions the AP Stylebook offers, or do you prefer to put accuracy above all in your writing?
Did you enjoy this article? Here are three more you might find useful:
by Kathleen Watson (guest blogger)
Did you as a child ever say, “Me and Billy wanna go for a bike ride!” and have your mom admonish: “Billy and I.”
What about, “Can me and Suzie have a popsicle?” and your mom corrected you, “Suzie and I.”
Mom no doubt was trying to teach you the courtesy of mentioning the other child’s name first, but your brain might have been imprinted to avoid me.
No wonder so many of us steer clear of me in places where it truly is the correct choice. The problem: We’re supposed to know better by the time we grow up and communicate with adults in the business world. These tips will help you get it right.
Subjects and Objects
Let’s start with a brief definition of two terms: subject and object
A subject is the doer of the action in a sentence:
I | she | he | they
An object is the receiver of the action in a sentence:
me | her | him | them
I hear him. She sees them. He called me.
Me and I have another grammatical role: They are pronouns. They refer to and stand in for the name of someone or something mentioned previously. Other pronouns are you, he, she, we, him, her, us, they, them and it.
Me vs. I
The following examples show how difficult it can be to choose the right pronoun when the choice is me or I:
My boss (subject) is taking Sarah (object) and I (oops: subject) to lunch.
My boss (subject) is taking Sarah (object) and me (object) to lunch.
She (subject) demonstrated the new software to Rob (object) and I (oops: subject).
She (subject) demonstrated the new software to Rob (object) and me (object).
The easiest way to choose the right pronoun is to eliminate Sarah or Rob. Your ear will help you decide what sounds right:
no: My boss is taking I to lunch.
yes: My boss is taking me to lunch.
no: She demonstrated the new software to I.
yes: She demonstrated the new software to me.
In the above sets of examples, my boss and she are the subjects, the doers of the action; me is the object, the receiver of action.
There are other cases where choosing between me and I can be difficult. Which is correct in these examples?
Jeff likes ice cream more than I.
Jeff likes ice cream more than me.
Does the writer mean:
Jeff likes ice cream more than I [like ice cream], or Jeff likes ice cream more than [he likes] me?
Simply adding the implied “do” makes it clear:
Jeff likes ice cream more than I [do].
Some grammarians consider either me or I acceptable in this kind of sentence construction. I’m not one of them, because I believe using me can leave room for misinterpretation.
She knows Steve better than me.
(She knows Steve better than she knows me?)
(She knows Steve better than I know Steve?)
She knows Steve better than I [do].
He loves baseball more than me.
(He loves baseball more than he loves me?)
(He loves baseball more than I love baseball?)
He loves baseball more than I [do].
Me vs. Myself
Have you ever received messages like these:
Call Ryan or myself if you have questions.
Thank you for notifying Claire and myself about the incident.
Myself and my team are meeting his afternoon.
Myself is a reflexive pronoun belonging to a category of words that end in self or selves. Reflexive pronouns often are used when the subject and object of a sentence are the same. They also help create emphasis.
I myself would never take an unnecessary sick day.
She allowed herself the luxury of a pedicure.
We ourselves performed the entire symphony.
You yourself will have to decide.
I bought myself a latte.
Here are the correct versions of the first set of reflexive pronoun examples:
Call Ryan or myself me if you have questions.
Thank you for notifying Claire and myself me about the incident.
My team and myself I are meeting this afternoon.
Using I when it should be me and improperly using myself show that frequent misuse can make erroneous grammar almost sound right.
Don’t fall into the “But everyone says it that way” trap. Know your grammar and adhere to standards that reflect positively on your communication competence.
Want to polish your grammar skills? Kathleen’s book Grammar for People Who Hate Rules is excellent. More info at https://ruthlesseditor.com/grammarbook/
by Barbara McNichol
When polishing your sentences, pay attention to the nuances of word order. Yes, it matters!
Here’s a simple example from a recent book I edited:
“He was well respected and loved in the academic community.”
I changed it to:
“He was loved and well respected in the academic community.”
Because “loved” is 5 letters and “well respected” is 13, it makes for a smoother read if the longer phrase follows the shorter word. See if you agree.
“Good leaders don’t waste time, effort, financial resources, or opportunities.”
“Good leaders don’t waste time, effort, opportunities, or financial resources.” This shift creates a tidy parade of words from short to long.
Word Order in Lists
In addition, a list is visually easier to follow when the line length goes from short to long. This example is from a leadership newsletter:
It would be counterproductive if you:
- Take the time to plan your day, but you don’t follow the plan.
- Hire people to do a job but don’t take time training them to do that job.
- Have slow-moving products in your inventory that generate low margins.
- Conduct an employee engagement survey and do nothing with the results.
- Attend a trade show to network with customers but spend your time on the phone.
To get a feel for how adjectives line up best in a sentence, this blog post summarizes it beautifully: http://barbaramcnichol.com/2017/11/02/order-place-adjectives-sentence-explained/
For even more tips, go to http://barbaramcnichol.com/2016/03/06/5-writing-tips-to-improve-your-readability/
Key message: Better writing means paying attention to the best use of word order!
by Barbara McNichol
Incremental learning makes a difference when you set any goal for yourself, including becoming a better writer.
Why would you desire to have better writing? To get hired or promoted, to attract more clients, to build your reputation and boost your book sales–to name only a few benefits.
Your action item: To reap these benefits, set aside time for 18 days to improve your writing, whether it’s for book chapters, reports, or sensitive emails.
In each of those days, you would study one of these easy, effective tips to hone your writing craft. Using them habitually, you’ll find you get better results and your confidence will grow. Any time you might spend in a writing WordShop (including those I offer) is reinforced by the ideas in this e-guide.
Your assurance: These practical, immediately usable tips have been compiled over years of editing nonfiction books and conducting business writing classes. You can feel assured writers have tested them thoroughly!
Your goal: Make a point of integrating a fresh tip into your writing every day. You’ll see how perfecting the communication loop through improved writing benefits your readers, your coworkers, you clients, and ultimately your career.
Your Key to Better Writing
This e-guide can be purchased for only $14.95. Click here to order. Use code 18DAYS to receive a $4.95 discount! Any questions? Contact me at email@example.com
Have you already worked with this e-guide? If so, please leave your comments here. How did it help you? Inquiring minds want to know!
by Barbara McNichol
In wanting to cover many aspects of a topic, business writers sometimes throw down so many variables that readers have no way to gauge the importance of each. They feel weighed down trying!
Look at these examples in business writing:
- The professor included and provided a methodology for continuing the effort.
- The state and local leaders developed and drafted numerous statutes.
- We need to appreciate and understand the factors affecting the time and place.
The “Pick One” Principle
You can lighten your readers’ load by applying the “pick one” principle. You’ll find it works for all kinds of business writing—emails, reports, manuscripts, and more.
The “pick one” principle asks: “Which word better describes what you want to say—the word before or after the and?” Then pick the one that adds more emphasis and accuracy to your meaning.
In Example 1, which word better conveys the meaning—included or provided? In this context, provided can cover the meaning for both—that is, if something is provided, we can assume it’s included. Pick one: provided.
The professor provided a methodology for continuing the effort.
Example 2 has the word and in two places, making the sentence long-winded. For developed and drafted, the more apt word is drafted because something can’t be drafted without being developed first. Pick one: drafted.
“Pick one” also applies to making a single-word substitution. For example, state and local could be changed to government without altering the meaning in this context.
The government leaders drafted numerous statutes.
In Example 3, because appreciate and understand are so close in meaning, using both is like saying it twice. “Pick one” to streamline the writing. For time and place, we could substitute a single word: situation.
We need to understand the factors affecting the situation.
Rule of Thumb in Business Writing
When you reread anything you’ve written, find all the places you’ve used and, then apply the “pick one” principle wherever possible. That way, you won’t dilute the meaning of your message or needlessly weigh down your readers.
Give them a break. Pick one!
Want more tips like this to hone your writing skills? You’ll find 18 Days to Become a Better Writer an easy-to-use e-guide. Start your journey today by clicking here. Use code 18DAYS at checkout for a discount.
Share examples of “pick one” from your own writing here.
In the ’60s, a movement started to encourage people to share in conscious expressions of Gratitude on one day of the year. World Gratitude Day was born. How can you celebrate World Gratitude Day this September 21st?
I suggest setting aside time to express appreciation for your family, your community, your friends, your business associates, and anyone or anything that makes your life better—even animals and technologies.
Express gratitude to people who source, prepare, and serve your food and deliver your mail. Thank community leaders and employees who imagined, built, and continue to provide the systems that serve you. Thank those customers who put money in your pocket so you can live well. What would you add that’s specific to your life?
I am grateful for opportunities to spread light, love, and kindness every day. And I’m especially grateful to you for allowing me to help you make your dreams stronger through better writing.
Happy Gratitude Day.
P.S. Don’t forget to celebrate National Punctuation Day on September 24th!
by Dianna Booher (reprinted with permission)
Tim, a friend of mine back in college, had the weird habit of setting his alarm to go off at 7:00 am on Saturdays when he had no intention of getting out of bed early. “Why?” I asked him one day when we were complaining about studying late for exams and getting up early for class during the week.
“Oh, I don’t get up at 7:00! I just love the feeling of slapping off the alarm and knowing that I can roll over and go back to sleep for another 3 hours.”
Often, during the last three decades as I’ve coached, consulted, trained, and keynoted throughout organizations across myriad industries, I hear a similar sentiment. It’s just worded a little differently: “That department sends so much paperwork and nags us for so much information. It feels good just to ignore them.”
You have an essential mission, of course. And certainly you need to recruit, develop, and retain top talent to accomplish your goals. That involves educating your team about budget, resources, regulations, and compliance matters. Yet it’s not uncommon to hear complaints like these:
- “They’re nonresponsive; they move too slowly.”
- “Getting pre-approval just muddies the water.”
- “They’ll tie your hands. They’re not risk-takers. It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission.”
Could better—but fewer—emails close the gap between those negative perceptions and your essential mission?
Stated another way: Do you say too much, . . . about too little, . . . too often? And does this habit bury critical communication your team needs to hear?
The Stats About Overload
Wherever we go, most of us are still tapping away. At the airport. At the gym. At the beach. From a hospital bed. At sunrise. Over lunch. During dinner. Chances are, email habits drain you and your employees, both mentally and emotionally. That spells lost productivity for your organization, stress for you and them, and ultimately the need to tune out periodically.
We were told more than two decades ago that email would revolutionize the way we work and save us an enormous amount of time. While email has many benefits, it has also engulfed us and created other productivity drains.
My organization, Booher Research Institute, recently commissioned a survey of email communication habits and productivity from the Social Research Lab at the University of Northern Colorado. Here’s what a representative sampling of knowledge workers across multiple industries reported about their email habits:
–42 percent spend 3 hours or more per day reading and writing email
–55 percent check email either hourly or multiple times per hour
–34 percent say the email they get is redundant (meaning they receive duplicate copies) or irrelevant to their needs
Send Fewer Emails to Get Quicker Action
When you send multiple emails regarding the same issue (reminders and follow-ups), people start to tune out—to that specific message and others you send. In essence, you are “training” readers to ignore “first editions.” As with those who hit the snooze button on their alarm clocks multiple times, people become accustomed to ignoring required action until they get several email reminders.
Many conference planners have communicated through this typical “cycle” and learned this principle the hard way. For example, their annual convention ends in August. They began sending periodic emails: “Sign up now for next year to get a big discount.” Then to speakers, they start a different email series: “Propose to speak.” Then, it’s “The proposal deadline is coming.” Then, “The deadline is about to close.” Then, “We’re extending the deadline to give you longer to propose.”
Then the next series starts: “Submit your materials by X date. Then, “This is a reminder to submit your materials by X date.” Then, “This is your last reminder to submit your materials by X date.” Then, “We’re extending the submission deadline.” Then, “We’ve changed the date for you to submit materials to give you adequate time. The new date is Y.”
You get the idea. Such communication habits sound like a parent’s saying to the four-year-old, “This is the last time I’m going to tell you this last time to pick up your toys.”
Lighten your load and stress: Don’t train your employees to ignore you.
Engage Fewer People to Get More Responses
Culling your distribution lists for emails you send will likely increase engagement on important projects. As with meetings, the larger the group, the lower the individual participation. When you’re emailing a group for input (for example, a group of engineers about their training needs for the new year), the same principle applies: When you copy a large list, people feel anonymous, and fewer feel obligated to respond.
If you want/need input, cut your list, and you’ll increase response—not to mention clearing inboxes for the uninterested.
Clarify and Adapt to Standard Response Times
Eighty percent of the participants in the UNC survey said typically expect readers to respond to “important” outside emails within four hours or less; 24 percent expect a response within an hour or less.
What’s the expected response time in the culture of the team you’re serving? Four hours? Twenty-four hours? Should you adapt to it? Are there exceptions to these standards? If so, what? If you don’t know, find out from the organizational leader. (If you are the leader, communicate that standard to your team.) Protect your organizational brand and your personal brand by living up to the expectations.
Slow responses suggest many things—most of them negative.
- You’re overwhelmed and can’t keep up with the pace.
- You’re puzzled by the decision or action required.
- Your system of handling daily inquiries is ineffective.
- You have a staffing problem.
- The situation, decision, or project is unimportant to you.
- You need to gather more information or input before replying.
- You need time to deliberate before responding.
Can you routinely afford to be considered the bottleneck?
Email can be an enormous time saver–unless poor communication practices diminish its benefits and create an untamed monster. To tame the beast and reclaim your time, send fewer but better emails to engage team members to act on the essential.
Learn more ways to tame the email monster in Faster, Fewer, Better Emails: Manage the Volume, Reduce the Stress, Love the Results. Click here for details.
How would Dianna’s advice–send fewer but better emails–make a difference in your world? Share your comments here.