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Fixing grammar

Here’s the irony: a month ago, Textio enthusiastically hosted a book signing by Gretchen McCulloch, the author of Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, and then we soon released an updated version of our inline grammar-checker feature. The two events were not at all related; in fact, Textio’s “new” grammar checker relies on all the “old” rules of language, as McCulloch would describe them. So what gives?

Grammar is a set of longstanding, mostly immutable rules taught early in school about how to write “properly.” If you learn and follow the rules, then you are deemed a good writer and communicator, and if you don’t … well, you’re just not. However, McCulloch believes that newer rules of online communication play a more social role:  “The old rules are about using language to demonstrate intellectual superiority, and the new rules are about using language to create connection between people.”

Grammar be bad?

According to Textio’s in-house literary enthusiast, Martin McClellan, early Greek and Latin manuscripts were written with all the words jammed together, with no spaces or punctuation to show where one word ended and another began. It wasn’t until hundreds of years later that text started to look anything like what we’re used to reading: consistent punctuation to separate clauses, capital letters to indicate a new sentence, line space between paragraphs, etc.

Eventually those guidelines evolved into what we think of today as good grammar. However, there are a bunch of exceptions where there is not wide agreement. (We’re looking at you, Oxford comma.) That’s because good grammar, like every other aspect of language and communication, is only a social contract. If enough people agree to amend the terms of that contract, then we just do it, regardless of what our grade school teacher scolded us for.

Say it ain’t so

The word ain't shows up in many dictionaries, but if you ask a strict grammarian, they might tell you it’s not a real word. The editors at Merriam-Webster tell us it's “widely disapproved as nonstandard, and more common in the habitual speech of the less educated.” But they also acknowledge today’s social reality: “Ain’t is flourishing in American English. It is used in both speech and writing to catch attention and to gain emphasis.”

That last bit seems key; aren’t attention and emphasis valuable tools for getting a message across successfully? Practically speaking, isn’t successful language more important than proper language? In business writing at least, the answer must be “Yes, please.” Still, it feels unlikely that a lot of people will start using ain't in business emails anytime soon.

Context is everything: you have to know your audience, know what will resonate with them, and write with that in mind. Today, it’s still mostly true in business that following the culturally ordained rules of grammar will keep you from embarrassing yourself. That’s why we will keep improving on Textio’s grammar-detection capabilities, as we did this month, even though statistically it has no impact on the performance of your job posts.

But what will happen when a new rule collides head-on with an old rule? So far, Textio’s language performance data hasn’t uncovered any situations where your language will be more effective despite being grammatically improper. However, it seems quite possible that one day, as language evolves, some popular colloquial phrase, deemed ungrammatical by the old rules, will prove to be statistically better at communicating, compared to the “corrected” version of itself.

When that day comes, it’s pretty clear what advice Textio will give about your improper—but more effective—grammar: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

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