being flexible is better than being right

don't be a grammar jerk

Posted by casey on January 10, 2015

At my 90-day review at my first technical writing position, I got some feedback that ticked me off: ‘unleash your writing freedom’ or some other corny-sounding thing. What my boss was getting at was that I was too rigid about writing.

It’s true — I used to be a grammar and usage nazi. I ran around correcting people on the internet and making a big deal about split infinitives. I took a class in college where we diagrammed sentences all semester and I loved it (still do). I was incredibly inflexible with the rules — so much so that I would make a sentence technically ‘correct’ at the expense of it being easy to read. It was also really exhausting.

Anyway, I thought the feedback was total BS, because at the time I thought technical writing was more uptight than it actually is. I kept on being an inflexible grammar jerk and my writing suffered. I was reading some help articles one day and something clicked — who cares about commas as long as your message is understood? You need to write for your audience, so you might need to think about using ‘can’ where ‘may’ is technically correct. The rules aren’t immutable and if you go around correcting someone’s  usage you’re just gonna sound like a doddering asshole who is no fun to drink with.

The point is this: if it would make more sense to your intended audience if you broke a rule, break the rule. A good rule of thumb here: if you have to go out of your way to make something that is grammatically correct sound less awkward, just break the rule. But be consistent. If your obsession with grammar is making your writing difficult for your audience to understand, you really need to chill out. Breaking grammar rules isn’t going to cause chaos to rain down upon the land or anything.

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