Does Grammar Even Matter Any More?

The short answer: I can haz cheezburger.

The long answer: yes, more than ever. Let’s see why.

Old-skool rulez

Many of the people who argue against the web’s flaky-seeming attitude to grammar were taught language via traditional means at school—and excelled in it.

They understand the rules and they like to apply them. They feel that decent English is a reflection on the individual who produces it, and shows a respect for the person who hears or reads it. And often, but not always, they are particularly enamoured by print media.

These are the writers who argue that you can’t start a sentence with “and” or “but”; that serial commas are either the holy grail or the devil’s work; that contractions are for face-to-face conversation, not business writing.

Are they right?

New media constraints

Of course they’re right—those are (some of) the rules of English usage.

However, new media presents new constraints on language—constraints for which some flexibility is required.

And the success of sites like icanhazcheezburger indicate that flexibility can pay off in terms of user engagement and audience growth.

Constraint #1: technology

It’s more difficult to read and comprehend digital text than print text. There, I said it.

This is one key reason why I think language has become less formal online. Since communication’s more difficult in this medium, content creators have tried to make communicating as simple as possible.

Constraint #2: Low barriers to entry

The web has much lower barriers to entry than traditional media.

This is a major advantage for those of us with something to sell—or tell—but also, it’s another reason why the web’s less formal than traditional media.

Constraint #3: User interaction

The web’s interactive, and gives us far more information about how effective our communication is than traditional media ever could.

So, for example, we all know that web users scan, and if we’re building content for them to use, we need to consider that.

But the web also entails a broader spectrum of communication than traditional media.

These factors affect everything from whether we use a sales video, to whether we use a semi-colon in the text that invites people to view it.

Striking a compromise

You only have to look at a few lolcats to realise that the web is a place where pretty much anything goes, language-wise.

Does that mean “proper” English is dead?

Well, that depends on one thing: your brand. Your brand has values—hopefully some that correlate with those of its target audience. It has a corresponding tone of voice, and that tone is communicated through your use of language.

If you choose to adhere to the strictest grammar rules, you can be sure that you’ll alienate some users. If you choose to compose your website in lolcats language, you can expect the same result (unless of course your business is a lolcats site).

The right compromise lies in the territory that exists between your brand and its customers. Speak to your audience using the aspects of their language that align with your brand and its values.

Camera Awesome home

Each of us alters the way we talk depending on who we’re speaking to—and it’s that, not the medium, that should dictate how closely you stick to the English usage rules, as well as which ones you stick to, in your web copy and content.

Gawker home headlines

In this context, it’s the people who know the rules of grammar, punctuation, and spelling inside-out—and therefore know when and how to break them—that are able to pitch their online message to greatest effect.

But hang on. You’re not a grammarian: you’re a developer, or a CEO, or a founder. Where does this leave you?

We’ll answer that question next week, as we look at user testing your copy to see if it’s hitting the mark.

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  • http://nosnetrom.com Nosnetrom

    Sure, you have to write for your audience and your brand. Like any of the fine arts though, you have to know the rules before you can effectively break them.

    • Georgina

      Glad we agree on that, Nosnetrom!

  • Steve

    I did not understand this sentence: “So, for example, we all know that web users scan, and if we’re building content for them to use, we need to consider that.”

    I don’t know anything about lolcats, so was this article written for me?

    • ralph.m

      “I did not understand this sentence.”

      I think the point is that readers scan a page to see if there’s anything interesting, so make sure to break content up with plenty of headings, bullet lists etc.

  • Zerowing

    Crappy grammar on a news site is inexcusable in my book. Professional journalists should know basic grammar and punctuation, or at least hire a damn copy editor. And I’m not just being a grammar nazi because often I have to re-read sentences multiple times to figure out what they’re saying when they don’t punctuate correctly.

    So, Georgina, what are your thoughts on the Oxford comma?

    • Georgina

      Hmmm Zerowing, my thoughts are pretty mundane: if the style guide I’m working to calls for an Oxford comma, I use it. Takes all kinds of commas to make the world go round ;)

    • Christian

      “And I’m not just being a grammar nazi because often I have to re-read sentences multiple times to figure out what they’re saying when they don’t punctuate correctly.”

      Exactly. Someone else here understands the real reason for good grammar and punctuation. Very refreshing. When I try to explain to people what good grammar is actually for they often say, “No, it’s not about communicating well. It’s just about you wanting to appear superior.” Nope, that’s still not it. But with the way societal trends are headed pretty soon we’ll all just be barking at each other. Heck, it works for dogs.

      BTW, I have seen grammar becoming deplorable even in professional publications in the last couple years. And I do mean deplorable. One of the things happening now is everyone (and I do mean everyone) thinking that EVERY single word that ends with an ‘s’ is supposed to have an apostrophe before that ‘s.’ Examples:

      * “Enjoyed some taco’s last night with my friend’s.”
      * “Who get’s to take out the trash?”
      * “Does anyone know where Jame’s went?” (yes, I have seen people do this)
      * “Here’s an opportunity to work for one of the best company’s around.” (literally just saw this a few minutes ago)
      * “We deliver fresh pizza’s.” (seen on a delivery van not far from where I live.

      This particular error is becoming so rampant that it is about to become an institutionalized mistake. Don’t even get me started on 99% of all humankind now spelling “lose” as “loose.” How did this all of a sudden happen in the last three years? I’m all for creativity influencing the use of language. On the other hand, I’m scared of stupidity influencing it.

  • Peter Leslie

    Thank you Georgina. This is a refreshing approach to the grammar issue and I agree that the key is the target audience. However, it is very rarely acceptable to use incorrect punctuation or grammar on business websites. There will always be differences of opinion on the finer points but many of the common errors will definitely lower visitors’ opinions of the business – first impressions do count and there’s no getting away from that fact.

  • http://jokeyrhy.me/ Ron

    There’s a school of thought that prefers the study of linguistics over the teaching of traditional grammar, partly because its more pragmatic.

    I personally wish more people were taught grammar, if only so that they’d have a decent base to start with before thoughtfully departing from it.

  • justsaying

    “But” you started your sentence with the “but” :)

  • http://www.craigkiessling.com Craig Kiessling

    Although there are those rules of grammar that are frequently misunderstood and applied incorrectly, there are some “basic” rules as well. I don’t think being a “grammar nazi” is really worth the effort unless your audience would appreciate it. That being said, however, I do think going into “I can haz” type of language – when NOT used for comedy – is completely the wrong approach.

    Should we also say “Oh it don’t matter no how – there is spelled over their theyre way – but we noe wat dey mean cuz were awl smart like dat”?

    No thank you.

  • Christian

    “Since communication’s more difficult in this medium, content creators have tried to make communicating as simple as possible.”

    Good grammar is not about complexity, it’s not about communicating so ornately that your listener or reader can’t comprehend what you are saying. It IS about using the power of the language and the rules of grammar to convey your message simply and meaningfully.

    “If you choose to adhere to the strictest grammar rules, you can be sure that you’ll alienate some users.”

    100% totally incorrect… and I mean that in the politest way possible. If you choose to adhere to the strictest grammar rules what actually happens is that your user literally does not even know that you have done it; they simply read what you wrote and they comprehend it without having to spend extra time trying to discern what you really meant. Here’s the important point: good grammar is about *communicating well*. But somehow, since the advent of the Internet, and even more in the last five years, people got this inexplicably bizarre idea that the sole purpose of good grammar was so that you could appear snooty and superior to others. The corollary growing out of this was the idea that to appear down to earth and genuine you had to use poor grammar, you had to not care if you were actually communicating your ideas well.

    Yes, language is dynamic and, yes, language can be used creatively, and, YES, sometimes u can haz cheezburger and, yes, rules can be bent. And that’s a wonderful thing. But to actively promote dumbing things down and using poor grammar so that you won’t alienate people or because you have the mistaken idea that good grammar is for snobs (it’s for clear communication for everyone, not for creating a caste system) is a frightening thing.

    • Georgina

      Christian, great comments. Thanks for adding to the discussion. I agree with what you’ve said here—as I mention in the piece, grammar matters more now than ever for exactly the reasons you point out.

      As to the point you make about my mention of “adhering to the strictest grammar rules”, that includes the old chestnut of not starting sentences with and or but … which I note you’ve done in your comment, to make a point. That’s pretty much exactly what I’m advocating here: not “dumbing down”, but writing for your audience. No need to be frightened!

      • Christian

        *fears start to subside*

        I actually did see a blog entry before specifically telling people to use poor grammar so that they wouldn’t appear snobby. I feel better knowing that’s not the case here.

  • Anony

    Good article :)