Like it or not, we all end up getting thrown into arguments about whether something we’ve written is ‘correct’.
This could be a colleague picking you up on your apostrophes. Or it might be a subtle point of style that your manager crosses out with angry red pen. It may just be a snide Facebook comment from someone who sees correcting the grammar of strangers as the highest good in earthly existence.
Seemingly minor disputes like this can blow up into major arguments and tetchy, defensive disputes. And while some people can devote over forty thousand words to debating capitalisation after a colon, for most of us this isn’t the best use of our time.
So how do you settle an argument over what’s right and wrong as quickly as possible?
Seeking the Authority
The easiest thing would be to check against the correct usage in the book that says what counts as ‘correct’ English.
But here’s the thing: there is no such book. Nor is there any individual person. There is nobody, at all, on the planet, whom you can ask for the definitive answer on whether or not a particular piece of usage is absolutely correct.
But surely this is too much? Don’t some things stay the same?
Not really. In language, very little is safe from change. Practically every area of English has changed in some way: from fundamental aspects of grammar right down to the meaning of words.
For example, the word ‘December’ originally meant ‘the tenth month of the year’. So you might want to think twice about inviting pedants to Christmas dinner – unless you want someone turning up with mince pies in October.
Where does this leave us?
We’re all passengers on a ship without a captain. But don’t worry, it’s fine: we don’t need one.
We don’t need a gold standard, just a set of conventions that most people agree on – especially in professional contexts.
To draw an analogy: there’s no single authority to tell you that showing up to a job interview at a consulting firm in board shorts and a tank top is the wrong thing to do. And maybe in fifty years surfer chic will be de rigeur for any aspiring professional. But for the moment we’re happy to call this wrong.
This is all very interesting, but how does it help you when you need to check which conventions to obey? And which ones to ignore? Here’s a rundown of three ports of call when you’re in the midst of an office argument:
We recommend picking a good dictionary to use across your organisation. For example, at Emphasis we use Collins English Dictionary. This allows us to spell and hyphenate words consistently. Rather than spending time debating whether or not to write coordinate or co-ordinate, we just use their first preferred variant.
Grammar and punctuation rules
So many of the arguments we see professionals have are based on half-remembered superstitions from school.
But it’s best to skip this act of strained remembrance and go directly to the best available information. Some of the best ports of call here are books written by linguists who’ve looked into these matters in detail, and offer facts instead of conjecture.
For example, Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style, which contains extremely in-depth analysis of dozens of grammar rules (or supposed rules). If someone is bringing out grammatical artillery during your discussion, Pinker is an excellent guide through the confusion.
A lot of other arguments come from an over-reliance on rules of thumb about good writing (such as the ‘golden rule’ that you should never use the passive voice). When you come across this kind of debate, we recommend Joseph Williams’ Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace and his nuanced, up-to-date analysis of what precisely makes good writing.
But what if your argumentative friend continues to disagree with professors of linguistics on the matter? You may have just spotted either a lost cause, or an argument that is threatening to take up too much of your time.
Points of style
Some questions will never be ultimately decided. For example, the capitalisation of job titles varies considerably across organisations and contexts. So there’s flexibility on this point when choosing a style for yourself or your organisation.
Making decisions about these sorts of questions every time you encounter them is a big waste of time and a recipe for inconsistency across your organisation. One of the best ways round this is to get into the habit of checking style guides.
Good examples are the style guides of The Economist and the Guardian. They’ve already done the work of looking into questions about grammar and usage, and tend to offer much more succinct recommendations than you’ll find if you trawl through the internet looking for answers.
And our own style guide, The Write Stuff, is designed specifically to help you with the questions you face most in your day-to-day writing. These include questions like how to capitalise job titles or how to write common abbreviations like CEO. You’ll find all the answers in one place – and you can download your free copy here. (We’ll be talking more about the ways style guides can help you at work next week.)
Beware rabbit holes
Above all, make sure that the time you spend looking into these questions is time well spent. The main problem with looking things up is it can work too well. You can easily end up spending hours reading about the tiniest points of usage and style.
For example, here are over 20 blog posts, written by reasonable, informed users of English, on the differences between ‘that’ and ‘which’. This is just too much information when you’re trying to solve an argument quickly.
Instead, we recommend taking one of the three routes above for solving each question, ending your disputes, and getting on with your life.
Don’t forget: if you’d like a handy reference for resolving some of those office-based style matters, you can download a free PDF of our guide The Write Stuff here. And if you’d like our help with developing a style guide for your company, get in touch.
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