Invariably, style guides disagree on some grammar specifics. I wrote a post last year about using commas in a series. In researching that post, I discovered that both common usages are correct – depending on the style guide you consult. Bottom line: grammar isn’t a hard and fast rule. Consult the appropriate style guide for your usage, and when in doubt, consider your target audience.
Deciding Which Style Guide to Use
Deciding which style guide to use can pose challenges. Obviously, if a publication or client requires a specific style guide, use the specified style guide – even if it’s an in-house style guide that doesn’t agree with ‘correct’ grammar rules. If the publication or recipient doesn’t specify the style guide, think about how the writing is being used.
If you’re writing for a newspaper or consumer magazine, the AP Stylebook is probably the appropriate reference. The AP Stylebook is also widely used for Web writing.
If you’re doing business writing, on the other hand, you’ll probably be better served by The Chicago Manual of Style.
For scholarly writing, you might want Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style or The Publication Manual of The American Psychological Association (APA Style, not to be confused with AP Style). You may also want to use The MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers or the MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing for appropriate MLA Style.
Using ‘Correct’ Grammar vs. Common Parlance
When you’re doing formal writing, you should definitely use correct grammar. If you’re writing for a corporation, or drafting professional documents, you’re typically representing a company and should utilize correct grammatical rules and word usage. However, if you’re writing for a more informal audience – on a blog, for example, or for a less formal target demographic – you might want to consider intentionally throwing some of the grammar rules out.
For example, if you’re talking to a more informal audience, and you want to build a rapport, you might want to ignore grammar rules like “don’t end a sentence with a preposition” and throw one right out there on the end. In fact, I know a lawyer who intentionally prefers to use more common ‘incorrect’ punctuation and word usage so his clients view him as more accessible, instead of using a correct but stiff writing style that fails to connect with the readers.
The goal of all writing is to connect with your reader on some level, so consider who you want to reach when you’re writing a piece. Ask yourself what tone and style would be best received by your audience, and utilize that style. And yes – if it means bending some grammar rules, bend some grammar rules. The world will keep on spinning, and you might get a new customer out of it.
Proofread, Proofread, Proofread
Finally, to make sure you’ve got it right, proofread, proofread, proofread. Read your copy as you’re writing it to ensure you’re using proper grammar and putting punctuation in the appropriate places. When you’ve finished a piece, re-read it for any errors and correct any awkward word usage. For important pieces, close the document and walk away from it for a while, and then come back later and review one final time for correctness. The triple-check should be enough to ensure you’re sending a beautiful, correct piece of writing out into the world, to the best of your ability.