Grammar Moses: Writing with clarity is knowing your audience

 
 
Updated 7/26/2015 1:03 PM
hello

Grammar and word usage are evolving things. They're not like math, which has definitive answers. Perhaps that is why I was flummoxed by them as a child.

Grammarians fall along a spectrum. There are the fundamentalists, who hold their 50-year-old texts as close to their bosoms as one might a Bible. There are the libertines, who believe that if it feels or sounds right, use it. They are the early adopters of slang.

You'll find me somewhere in the middle. I hasten to add that I lay no claim to being an expert. I consider myself a curious enthusiast.

Earlier, I told you I might plant an error in a column and reward those who pick up on it.

Judging by the keen response (and I mean in both the sense that it was enthusiastic and sometimes penetrating), you read me as a strict grammar fundamentalist.

Well, I am not.

One man's error is another man's accepted use.

So I hereby suspend the treasure hunt.

It's not in my nature to be so doctrinaire. But I do have some strong opinions on what to hold onto. Visit with me each Sunday and you'll learn what they are.

My thinking is that if what you say or write is understandable to nine out of 10 people, then it is "acceptable." Where I will step in is if I have an idea for how to turn something acceptable into something better. That is, understandable to everyone.

Like, I said

Dann Gire has been the Daily Herald's film critic since I was in high school. And he is one of my favorite writers at this paper or any other. Why? In part, because he writes with panache. But also because you always know where Dann stands on something because he is so adept at writing with clarity.

Dann and I both have an issue with the misuse of the word "like."

Dann's lesson goes a little something like this: If you listen to a car dealer's pitch that a new SUV has features like anti-lock brakes and a deluxe stereo, do you really know what you're getting? Nope.

Because "like" means similar to, but not the same.

If I'm paying for anti-lock brakes, I want anti-lock brakes -- not something that is similar to them.

In the case of the car ad, "including" would be a good substitute for "like."

Don't stop believin'

In our various vocations, most of us probably tend toward fundamentalism. Have you ever watched a TV show about doctors with a doctor or a movie about journalism with a journalist? It's maddening.

We can't help but to pick nits all the way through it. I don't know how my wife puts up with watching TV with a grammar enthusiast.

It's natural to have a sensitivity about what we do, even the words attributed to what we do.

Jean Alberti is a clinical psychologist in Glen Ellyn. She wrote to tell me: "Nearly everyone, no matter how erudite, uses 'feel' when they should, grammatically, use 'think' or 'believe' or some other synonym of 'think.' We use 'feel' when we want to convey less certainty than the words 'think' and, particularly, 'believe' convey. They want to convey tentativeness, so they couch their beliefs and thoughts in this more nebulous term 'feel' and they don't even know that they are in error."

Now that I think about it, I see Jean's point. A feeling is not a thought. But I countered that I bet a priest would be similarly passionate about the word "believe" and take umbrage with it being used as a synonym for "think."

The lesson is: Think about whom you're talking to and learn to appreciate his or her or their sensitivities. Then you will achieve clarity.

And that's the most important thing.

Write carefully!

• Jim Baumann is assistant vice president/managing editor of the Daily Herald. Write him at jbaumann@dailyherald.com. Put Grammar Moses in the subject line. You also can follow or friend Jim on social media at facebook.com/baumannjim.

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