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Good Grammer Rules. Even if your [sic] Taylor Swift.

February 12, 2013

Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift has been taking a beating in the media lately for playing out her troubled romances in her music. And now a scandalous grammar error has been found in one of her songs. Jeesh. You’d think she’d be more careful.

Ok, so Taylor can afford to look dumb and unprofessional, but you can’t. Communicating with your communities of interest is the lifeblood of most non-profits. Whether you reach out through a newsletter, your website, annual report or marketing materials, what you say and how you say it matters. A lot.

Consider this. USA Today recently reported on a study of 1,700 online daters that indicated that 69 percent of women and 55 percent of men consider bad grammar a turnoff. In fact, good grammar came in right behind good teeth as the most important attributes for single men and women considering a potential partner.

I hope that dispels any doubt about how much impact the words you write have on how others perceive you and your organization. So check, double check and triple check your copy before you say it, mail it, print it or post it.

Let’s start with a look at words. First, it’s important to use real words, and to use them appropriately. Ditch the acronyms and industry jargon; they will not make you sound smarter and they will confuse your reader.

Here are a few common errors that will cause sensitive readers to run screaming from your page:

  1. Don’t write “utilize” when “use” will do.
  2. There is no such thing as a “mute point,” unless it’s a silent one.
  3. Don’t write “over” when you mean “more than.” “Over” refers to a physical space, as when Tom Cruise jumped over Oprah’s sofa.
  4. Similarly, don’t use “less” when you mean “fewer.”
  5. Their, there and they’re are different words. Ditto for too, to and two.
  6. And “your” and “you’re” are not interchangeable, Taylor Swift!

Some people just like to make up new words, or make existing words longer. Maybe it makes them feel smart. You, however, should avoid these. Never, under any circumstances, even think about using the following:

        • Undoubtably
        • Supposably
        • Irregardless
        • Preventative
        • Incentivise
        • Commentate
        • Firstly
        • Methodology

Simplify, simplify, simplify. Your readers will thank you for getting to the point and making their job (reading) easier. That means ruthlessly stripping out unnecessary, redundant and inane phrases from your copy. Why? Because according to a 1997 Nielsen study, 79% of readers skim. That’s almost everybody! So banish phrases like:

        • Needless to say
        • The fact that
        • Because of the fact that
        • As a matter of fact
        • At the end of the day
        • In the final analysis
        • All things considered
        • In other words
        • It is interesting to note
        • It may be said that
        • It goes without saying
        • For all intents and purposes
        • And my personal favourite, In order to

There are many more useless phrases like these lurking about, ready to leap into your copy and obscure the really important stuff you have to say. Find them and eject them.

Inverted Pyramid

Another way to ensure your readers (a.k.a. skimmers) don’t miss your message is to write like a journalist by which I mean using the scientifically proven Inverted Pyramid method of content development. All that actually means is that you begin with the important stuff –who, what, where, when and how—and leave the fluff for later since they may never get to it.

Also, be aware of T.L.;D.R. (Too Long; Didn’t Read). This is a common response used to reply to a really long text message. Don’t be that guy! Keep it short and sweet.


Don’t let this happen to you!

Finally, just a quick word about punctuation. Commas are not only super cute, but they’re important little inventions that allow breathing space for your readers. Paragraph breaks (think peaceful feng shui white space), headings and subheadings are also useful techniques that help skimmers quickly find what is important to them. And don’t forget bullets, those handy little dots that help break up text into readable bite-sized nuggets.

And please stop using exclamation points! Yes, your annual report looks exciting! And yes, we can’t wait to admire all those great photos you included! Even the data is exciting! But calm down. Please. Got it?

This post is from a series of presentations I’m currently giving called “Digital for Do-Gooders: Technology to help Non-Profits Do Good Better.” Sponsored and supported by WEtech Alliance, Windsor-Essex’s Technology Accelerator.

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