Buttoning down your grammar rules ... to let the meaning fly
As a baboon who grew up wild in the jungle, I realized that Wiki had special nutritional needs. - A zoo curator It isn't just zoo curators who make ungrammatical monkeys of themselves. The dangling-baboon modifier is cited by Albert Joseph as a common mistake ''among ordinary, educated adults who must write things....''Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Joseph is a workshop and TV teacher, consultant, and former editor of a business magazine, who has helped federal bureaucrats and Fortune 500 folks to write better; his book ''Put It in Writing'' has been widely used.
Now comes Joseph's ''Executive Guide to Grammar,'' a 157-page handbook for self-study. It may be meant for executives, but most people at loose ends with grammar could profit. It's a primer and polisher of basic structure, a refresher , or a prompter on usage. It exposes weak habits, offering strength.
A growing stress on excellence in business communications shows up in sophisticated in-house guides, albeit often attuned to mere ''image.'' The role of ''communications manager'' is expanding toward policing written and spoken work in every corporate corridor.
Business takes its licks on language, just as Academe does. More discipline among movers and shakers could show that grammar isn't a hair-splitting hobbyhorse but a power tool for all. A precision tool, too.
Joseph's grammar is approachable, his reasons for care-taking clear.
A subheading asks: ''Why Does It Matter Whether You Follow Rules, If People Understand You?''
His first reason may hint of button-down lock step: ''Like your clothes ... your language style makes a strong unspoken statement about you. If your words and sentences do not quite follow the group's rules, people in that group will question your intelligence - or your ability to do your job.''
Pity the worker polishing grammar just to sound like the boss - or to one-up rivals or manipulate consumers. Yet first impressions come first, especially in a busy business.
Joseph's second reason goes deeper: ''... careful language is usually a sign of careful thinking.... Obviously, you must think an idea clearly before you can express it clearly. Less obvious, however, is the opposite: Expressing the idea also helps you to think it out clearly.''
The guide points to bringing out thoughtful qualities, like:
* Directness fused with courtesy: Writing can be to the point yet graceful.
* Inner coherence for clarity: ''In grammar the related parts must match.''
* Inclusiveness: Presumptuous putdowns are taboo; Joseph offers ways to get past sexist language. And shop-talk jargon is best left in the shop.
* Distinctions in meanings: For example, he notes the use of ''disinterested'' - for which no other word quite serves. For some time it has meant ''unbiased, free of selfish motives,'' not ''un-interested'' or ''bored.'' Most guides want the unique sense kept.
* Integrity: Joseph would probably say to avoid danglers, even, for instance, if baboons don't run zoos; and to find one's own best tongue, not just ape grammarians.
Executives or others whose syntax is sinful may atone with an instinct for action; but something's lost, for sure.