Do semicolons terrorise you? Have you forgotten your primary school lessons on comma use? Do you feel guilty when others point out your punctuation errors? You are not alone. Grammar purists pummeled U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2009 Inaugural Address because of a minor grammatical error. If even Obama falls victim to the grammar police, what hope is there for those of us who do not have an army of speechwriters. How do you write even a simple email without being terrified of making a grammatical error. How do you overcome the grammar guilt and fear?
Complicating the issue is that in this internet age, the measure of a person is, in part, taken by assessing his or her knowledge of good grammar. One CEO wrote in the Harvard Business Review: “In blog posts, on Facebook statuses, in e-mails, and on company websites, your words are all you have. They are a projection of you in your physical absence. And, for better or worse, people judge you if you can’t tell the difference between their, there, and they’re.”
Our advice is to first relax, then get the basics right and do your best on the rest. The basics are what we call the six Cs of grammar and punctuation – commas, colons, capitalization and clauses together with being concise and checking your document. Beyond that, if you are unsure remember to always be consistent in how you apply a rule. Consistently right or wrong is much better than erratic usage.
Anyone’s written English can be improved. In Obama’s 2008 Inaugural speech he failed to accord the noun ‘spirit’ (written incorrectly in the singular) with the verb “giving our all’ (which is plural). But when you are asking people to give of themselves, a minor grammatical error should not diminish the power of the call to action. “What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition on the part of every American that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world; duties that we do not grudgingly accept, but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task.”