Despite being an editor, I’ve never been a grammar Nazi. I don’t want to scream every time I see a typo, and I can in fact survive if someone sends me an email that mixes up it’s and its.
Even so, I do notice details that aren't quite right (or blatantly wrong) in written presentations. And when it’s a mistake that I’ve made, it rather drives me up the wall.
I also tend to get rather annoyed when I can’t easily make nouns and pronouns match up. This is why I’ve decided to largely set aside politically correct or gender-neutral language in my own personal writing.
First off, politically correct or gender-neutral language is a pain in the neck. Secondly, my femininity isn’t challenged by a masculine pronoun. And thirdly, half the time, it doesn’t word grammatically speaking.
“They” is not singular. End of discussion.
But is it really?
Twice in the last month, I’ve had to face up to the fact that there is something more important than my editorial pet peeves… That would be my readers’ ability to easily comprehend and engage with whatever I’ve written.
First and foremost, effective and honest communication should always be what we strive for. And if good grammar louses that up, then good grammar needs to go.
You know how we’re not supposed to put the cart before the horse? Well, we also shouldn’t put the rule before the desired effect.
It’s just silly – even downright stupid – to obey the letter of the law over the spirit of it. Self-righteousness doesn’t get anyone anywhere good.
Here’s one example of what I mean. As I was putting together copy for my quarterly e-letter, The Genuine Writer Insider, I found myself writing the following lines:
I’ll be perfectly honest here... That’s not always the kind of editor I want. But it is the kind of editor I often need considering how character-focused I am as a writer, describing their motivations and mental processes with careful attention to detail.
Now, when it comes to that last sentence, “character” is singular, whereas the following connected pronoun, “their,” is plural. They don’t match.
I could have changed it to “But it is the kind of editor I often need considering how character-focused I am as a writer, describing each one’s motivations and mental processes…” However, I had already used “each one” in the previous paragraph, and unnecessary repetition is a big no-no in my writing world.
Was there another way to change the error of my ways? What should I do?
Fortunately, the answer was right there in front of me.
Here’s the thing. Nobody cares that much about good grammar. And neither should you.
The whole point of good grammar should be to present a clear path of communication. If it doesn’t serve that purpose, it’s useless at best and confusing at worst.
When poorly applied, it can actually take readers' attention away from the intended effect.
This means that when it comes to every noun and pronoun pair matching up perfectly, it’s okay to flout the rule now and again.
This isn’t about readers being stupider than writers or enjoying the ability to get away with mistakes when nobody’s going to know. It’s only about presenting a message that works with your audience.
If you do that, then grammar doesn’t matter quite so much – good, bad or ugly.