You might not be an editor, but you can probably spot the difference between a good piece of writing and one that’s lousy. High-quality writing pulls readers along without them realizing it — it’s approachable, interesting, and crisp.
Writing can be weak for many reasons besides obvious grammar missteps. It could lack focus, supporting details, or actionable points of advice. Maybe it speaks to the wrong audience or the tone doesn’t match the company’s branding. There’s a lot that can go wrong in your content beyond using “effect” instead of “affect” or opting for a comma when you actually need a semicolon.
Without a background in language studies, it can be difficult to explain exactly what you like or dislike about a piece of writing. At Content Equals Money, we deliver grammatically perfect content to clients in many different industries. When there’s a revision request, it’s usually an issue of style or usage — not an issue with grammar itself.
The Differences Among Style, Grammar, and Usage
Grammar, style, and usage are three different facets of writing — and writers and editors alike often confuse them. I usually hear style advice touted as grammar advice, when referring to a piece of writing that’s grammatically pristine.
When you say “grammar,” you’re (knowingly or unknowingly) referring to the entire system and structure of a language that governs how words should generally be combined to make sense to the listener (or in our case, the reader).
There are many different ways to study grammar. There’s comparative grammar, descriptive grammar, generative grammar, mental grammar, transformational grammar (my personal favorite), and more that stretch way beyond the scope of this blog.
When you think of grammar, however, you likely think of traditional grammar, the prescriptive rules — many of which are archaic and have no place in content marketing — that focus on a distinction between what is supposedly right or wrong.
Many of the traditional grammar rules we use today – especially those that regulate writing – aren’t based on the structure of English or how it developed. They’re based on Latin and other Indo-European classical languages, so when we use those rules for English, they fall short. Traditional grammar doesn’t evolve with time or contemporary usage, and it rejects the social and functional varieties of language.
First came language, then 200,000 years later the linguists showed up and created rules about how language is supposed to work, based on the way people communicated. The nitty gritty of grammar is already deeply ingrained in our brains — and we don’t need to think twice about it in everyday situations.
If we can understand each other, we innately know the rules (even if we can’t explain them). We know that adding an “s” to the end of most nouns makes a word plural and that verbs change depending on the subject of a sentence.
Grammar itself doesn’t make writing as clear as possible for the reader. Yes, grammar is important, but we really need to be concerned with syntax, which is the arrangement of words or phrases, to create well-formed sentences. A sentence can be a stylistic train wreck but be grammatically perfect!
Take this example: “Today we will contemplate the idiosyncratic hindrances inherent in pontificating at great length on overly complex syntactical structures to a group of typical internet readers with calamitously abbreviated attention spans and a lamentable absence of appreciation for classic prose.”
In other words, “Let’s talk about why it’s pointless to initiate an online conversation about complex sentence structures with average web readers.”
Which sentence would you rather read?
Which sentence would you rather present to your customers?
Both are grammatically fine, but the first is a stylistic nightmare. In content marketing, we care about syntax and construction because grammar alone doesn’t make writing clear.
It helps to follow the general guidelines we all know and use, but what makes writing clear is appropriate syntax and construction — a writing style readers can easily understand. Grammar is merely a guideline to help speakers and writers.
In content marketing especially, where we prefer a conversational tone, we often must decide between traditional written grammar and spoken grammar. When we speak to one another, we’re more lax with the rules. When we’re writing, sometimes it’s difficult to sound conversational because the syntactical structures matter so much more. The art of good content writing is balancing the writing so that it’s both conversational and grammatically correct.
According to the Latin-based prescriptive rules, it’s not appropriate to begin a sentence with a coordinating conjunction like “and” or “but,” nor is it appropriate to end a sentence with a preposition. If someone asks you to define the word “holophrastic,” and you reply with, “I’m not sure. I’ll have to look it up,” you’d get the stink eye from a prescriptive grammarian.
According to that one set of “rules,” it’s inappropriate to end a sentence with “up” — a preposition. As an editor concerned with clarity, I can assure you that it’s fine to end a sentence with a preposition when it makes sense to do so.
Other traditional, prescriptive grammar rules — such as subject-verb agreement and proper punctuation — are crucial for clarity and are exponentially important to your content’s success, so they should be followed.
The rules of traditional grammar are bendable, but you shouldn’t ignore them.
Now we’re getting into style.
If you end every sentence in a paragraph with a preposition, it’s going to affect the flow, overall cadence, and quality of the piece — and any decent editor would correct it. My belief is that you can bend the rules when it makes sense for clarity and style’s sake, but you can’t completely disregard traditional grammar.
In content marketing, we’re concerned with the reader’s experience. It trumps any antiquated rule you think you remember from seventh-grade English class.
The way writing is presented is referred to as style — it includes word choices, sentence structures, and paragraph structures. If grammar refers to what a writer does, style refers to how a writer does it.
Notice the difference between the following two passages:
1 – Content published today must speak to the correct audience. If it does not, it will not bring the desired results. Business owners wish to use blogging and social media to attract new customers. If they publish content that speaks to the wrong audience or is published in the wrong places, they will not reach people who want to learn more about their brand. Web analytics services help business owners learn more about their audiences, so they can work toward reaching the right crowd online.
2 – Your content should speak to the right audience, if you want to attract more people to your brand. As a business owner, you can use social media and strategic blogging to reach new levels of engagement with the right people. Consider using web analytics services to learn more about your audience’s online habits.
The two passages say the same thing, but they use different styles.
Passage 1 is stiffer and more formal. It doesn’t use contractions, and it’s written in the third person. I think it’s boring, but it might resonate with a particular audience. Passage 2 is friendlier and more conversational. It uses contractions and the second person, which make it more approachable to an average web reader.
There are no hard rules when it comes to style, but at Content Equals Money, we have plenty of suggestions in our style guide. We know what’s best for our clients and what brings optimal results in content marketing.
We ask our writers to avoid weak verbs and passive voice, because strong verbs and active prose create powerful content for web publication. There isn’t a grammatical reason to avoid passive voice, but we know active voice is usually best for clarity.
We aren’t concerned with serial commas (as long as it’s consistent), and we don’t care if our writers end sentences with prepositions if it makes sense to do so. We like contractions, and we avoid long-winded sentences.
We emphasize the importance of simplicity without negating the importance of flow.
We know it’s okay to begin a sentence or two with a coordinating conjunction (and, but, for, yet, nor, or, so), and we won’t drown a piece of writing with repetitive or dead language. There’s no room for filler copy at CEM!
If you have an issue with anything discussed in this section of my blog, you’re offering me style advice, not grammar advice.
It all comes down to this: We at CEM consider the reader and our clients’ requests. If a client appreciates prescriptive grammar and doesn’t want to see a sentence ending in a preposition, we’ll gladly deliver.
Usage brings us closest to optimal readability for our intended audience. It’s the difference between, “Hello, sir. How are you doing today?” and “What’s up, man! You doing okay?” Both are greetings addressed to a male, followed by a question inquiring about the listener’s condition. One is formal, the other is not, and they’re appropriate in different scenarios.
In content marketing, usage matters the most! It’s the best way to resonate with the people you’re trying to reach. If you know your audience well, you can present them with content perfectly tailored to their needs. If your usage is on point, your content will speak your readers’ language.
How do we at CEM determine appropriate usage? It depends on the client’s audience. Words recently added to the Oxford Dictionary include Scooby snacks, manspreading, and side boob. Would we include those terms in a blog for a high-end law client? No. Could they be added to a blog to be published on a site that frequently discusses pop culture and appeals to millennials? Of course. Just as you probably wouldn’t wear a Speedo to your sister’s graduation, you shouldn’t use a term like “side boob” when it would likely offend your readers.
The next time someone points out a grammar issue in your writing, be sure it’s a grammar issue. If it is, fix it. If it’s a style or usage issue, consider how much you value their opinion because — after all — that’s all it is: their opinion.
The takeaway is this: Whether it’s a client, a reader, or a listener, our ultimate goal is to use our words to convey our message as clearly and effectively as possible. Of course grammar matters — that’s the easy part. With so many stylistic variations out there and ever-changing usage expectations, it’s important not to stray from the essence of why you’re creating content in the first place — to make a positive impression with your intended audience.
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