Rules vs. a mongrel language

Native speakers of English may not recognize it, but our language is incredibly difficult to master. Difficult to read. Difficult (maybe more difficult) to pronounce correctly. I do not envy speakers of other languages, particularly languages such as Mandarin and Japanese, which have a lot more innate purity and order than English, trying to learn this mongrel tongue.

A lot of the difficulty is because English borrows words from everywhere. So we have the French-derived silent-t words chalet and ballet sitting side-by-side with hard-t words like millet and billet, which got Anglicized when they transitioned from Old French to Middle English more than 1,000 years ago.

While rules of grammar and usage can be tricky, and while (as I mentioned yesterday) those rules can be bent or broken at times in the service of compelling copy, simply understanding the rules of how a word is to be read, understood and pronounced can be a pain in itself.

To illustrate, read this poem which popped up in my Facebook feed today. Apparently, according to the clickbait headline, if you can read every word correctly you will be speaking English better than 90 percent of the English-speaking population.

What Winston Churchill taught me about grammar

I recently got a pretty good question from a client. After seeing some copy I’d drafted which had a few sentences beginning with conjunctions, he wondered: aren’t you supposed to avoid that? (After all, he’d had English 101 and remembered at least that much.)

So how did I answer? Was this professional malpractice on my part?

I don’t think so. Here’s why:

Winston Churchill was once chided by a woman for ending a sentence with a preposition. He thundered at her, in mock agreement, “Madam, ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I shall never put!”

Love that guy.

Like Churchill demonstrating the absurdity of adhering to certain arbitrary rules no matter how much they mangle your syntax, this one works the same way. In general one should avoid beginning sentences with “And,” “But” and “Or” — or any other similar conjunction. If you are consistently beginning sentences with conjunctions, that should be a clue that you can restructure your copy to be clearer, more concise and more powerful.

That said, there are undeniable times when it’s the right choice to drop one of those in there. While “proper English” is an exact science, copywriting is more of an art, and a good copywriter knows when to bend or break the rules for the sake of flow, rhythm, or grabbing attention.

For instance, Strunk and White tell me not to use sentence fragments. But sometimes? That’s exactly what you need.