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....''

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.

Joseph aims to show what points matter most. He starts with traditional parts of speech, showing how to frame them fitly. The frame is the English sentence, Churchill's ''noble'' sentence: a complete idea, as Joseph describes it, making sense in and of itself in relationship with others.

''What matters'' in usage, however - where noun gains identity and verb gets it moving - is iffy. And sometimes touchy. Some word-watchers are saying that things like ''disinterested,'' even danglers, are blurred beyond mattering, a matter for nattering. They might call Joseph himself a zoo curator, tending a menage of specimen English for all to see and copy. They say the ''norms'' don't really live there; you find them in the field, disporting themselves nicely, thank you. Leave them be.

In this Great Debate - on whether to crack the whip or let ideas run - a grammar guide like Joseph's is a code of many colors: Stand on precision when it's needed. But fit form and style to function. Choose your words, prune evolving patterns. Have reasons for your reins on writing. Then, buttoning down rules in practice can let ideas fly (unless they were flying in the first place). Fluent language need be pliant.

Most people, for now, could be happy with most rules Joseph offers. They're time-tested.

But those who would ignore or defy certain rules are, in Joseph's book, cretins. The labeling might turn back those who want to obey good rules but cannot grasp them. It could turn away someone whose only sin was to fear them.

Yet the care Joseph brings to the mother tongue should come as milk to many.

In some places the guide itself slips: brussel sprouts? That looks and sounds limp, like poorly prepared veggies. And when Joseph scolds the National Council of Teachers of English, the teachers' association, over its guidelines on nonsexist language, the NCTE's stand appears misstated (see accompanying story).

Joseph also errs in saying the council would let minority children languish in their own dialect instead of usher them into the mainstream. In fact, a council official says, teachers must afford ways for all students to learn ''written edited American English'' - but do so with care and respect for each one's background, the student's mother tongue.

Despite the guide's flaws, it has a spirit that's of the essence. A guide like this can help to show how the letter is made true to the spirit.

If a guide can help dispel a writer's fear - fear of being out of step with ''eddicated folk'' - and build toward confident, natural, yet individual thinking and writing and action, it's worth it.

If it quells pride, too: a smugness over a command of language, a feeling that one's grasp and use of the rules is set in stone, a feeling that language itself is so noble that it must never change. Also ignorance, not realizing that one's language - or an entire enterprise - may well be missing hearers.

A good guide arms one with faith that the rules will work: that they diffract meaning even as harmony mellows melody. And as mastery works understanding. Mr. Joseph's guide is available for $20 from the International Writing Institute , Hanna Building, Cleveland, Ohio 44115.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.