During nearly every class I teach, a student or two will ask me about one particular grammar rule or another. The student’s question typically starts with: “What is the correct way to use…”

And my answer invariably begins with: “Well, it depends…”

Now, that may sound vague and wishy-washy to you. But it’s actually accurate and true.

You see, the so-called rules of our language are elusive and continuously changing. And how you define a rule depends on which grammar book you refer to.

So, how do you know which grammar book to use?

I’ve mentioned my favorite grammar book before – June Casagrande’s Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies.

Another good choice is Kenneth G. Wilson’s The Columbia Guide to Standard American English. Wilson’s book is a bit more academic than Casagrande’s, but it’s also rich with well-written explanations of the best ways to use our language in a variety of circumstances.

In the book’s introduction, Wilson calls standard American English usage: "linguistic good manners, sensitively and accurately matched to context — to listeners or readers, to situation, and to purpose."

Here's Wilson’s take on my own “it depends” answer:

Often the accurate answer to a usage question begins, ‘It depends.’ And what it depends on most often is where you are, who you are, who your listeners or readers are, and what your purpose in speaking or writing is.”

That's about as clear and accurate as any answer I can think of. Although, it may be frustrating for those of you who want hard and fast answers about grammar. That's not how our language works. It's not an exact science.

But Wilson's book will make it easier for you to find an answer that works for you. In fact, one lexographer describes Wilson's book as: "A vigorous assessment of how our language is best written and spoken and how we can use it most effectively, this guide is the ideal handbook of language etiquette: friendly, sensible, reliable, and fun to read."

So how do you know the grammar rules you need to communicate clearly and persuasively? Well, it depends…


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About John Sturtevant

John Sturtevant provides public Business Writing Seminars and Presentation Skills Workshops. He also runs Effective Business Writing Training and Presentation Skills Workshops onsite at companies around the world.

To learn more about how your staff can learn practical techniques for clear and persuasive communication, call John Sturtevant at 713-861-9992, or contact John Sturtevant here.