Let grammar know who’s boss

So Tuesday is National Grammar Day. The first time I heard of that celebration, I thought that Poynter's Vicki Krueger had said “National Grandma Day.”  I’m not sure it’s a good thing that grammar – especially in New England – sounds something like grandma. I prefer to remember that at one time in the history of the English language the words grammar and glamour were the same word! (That deserves an exclamation point, don’t you think?)

But even as we spend the day recognizing the importance of grammar, the question remains, “Which grammar?” Is it prescriptive grammar day, where we would mark people off for violations of standard English? Or is it descriptive grammar day, when linguists get all huffy about the ignorance and narrow-mindedness of the language scolds among us.

My inclination is to split the difference. If I had to place myself in a particular camp, mine would be rhetorical grammar.  As the name implies, I’m less interested in the rules than the effects of language use.

Let’s take a common language framework applied to writing: the difference between the active voice and the passive voice. As a refresher, if the subject of the sentence performs the action of the verb, we call that “active.” If subject receives the action, we call that “passive.”

I am suddenly reminded of a thought I had as a fifth-grader, when I first learned this distinction: "So what?”

So plenty. Active verbs require fewer words and reveal the players. That’s why a century of writing experts prefer the active. In other words, they prefer a kind of usage because of its effects on the audience: clarity, economy, directness, transparency. Too often, that leads to disparagement of the passive, which is a foolish and counter-productive mindset.

Yes, politicians use the passive to avoid responsibility as in “mistakes were made.”  Or to portray themselves as victims as in “I was blindsided.”

But active verbs can be used in support of corrupt intentions too: “The protesters got what they deserved.”

Think instead of how both active and passive can work for you and be expressed in vivid language. If you want to place attention on the receiver of an action – even a victim of it – the passive should be there on your workbench.

So please join our webinar, Tuesday, March 4, 2 p.m. ET, to learn more strategies of rhetorical grammar. Register here. At the end you will be able to say that grammar works for you, not the other way around.

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.


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