As we all know, it is important in business communications to use correct grammar. Poor grammar interferes with your message and undermines your credibility. In some cases, however, it may be necessary to bend the rules a little to make sure your audience understands you.
Don't Bend the Rules for No Reason
Business writing is different from adspeak. One often hears advertising slogans like "Drive beautiful" or "Less emissions. More driving pleasure," and many of us still remember the egregious "Us Tareyton smokers would rather fight than switch."
Advertisers have a product to sell, and if they can do that, grammatical rules don't necessarily matter. Aside from annoying people who know better, the worst effect is that some people come to believe that what they hear is the proper way of speaking.
Audience Analysis Affects Our Word Choices
I have found that some businesspeople get confused by the subjunctive in indirect speech. (Quick explanation: When we're making a factual or objective statement or asking a question, we use the indicative mood, as in "We will use it every day." The subjunctive mood, on the other hand, expresses various degrees of unreality, as in "If I were a carpenter...," which clearly indicates that you aren't.)
A colleague once asked me if Sara was coming to the meeting that was about to start. I said, "When I spoke to her last night, she said she was coming." He replied, "I don't care if she was coming. Is she coming?"
In some situations, one might consciously use the indicative instead of the subjunctive. If asked, "Is Roger editing this?" you might reply, "He said he is." Inelegant, to be sure, but at least no one will be confused. Mind you, you would only do this in speech. If you're writing, certainly in this case, you have to use conventional grammar.
Or you could simply avoid the issue by saying something like "Yes, she is coming," or "Yes, he is editing it." I should only add that the contrary-to-fact subjunctive should generally be left alone. For example, you would always say, "If I were taller..." rather than "If I was taller." The latter is incorrect and again doesn't do much for your credibility.
Regular Diction Usually Works Fine
I once worked at a company where some of my immediate colleagues always took "since" as referring to a time after which something happened. For them it never meant "because." If I said something like, "Since we had extra tickets, we gave them away," they would look at me strangely for a moment until they realized what I was saying. The simple solution was to use "because" every time this type of situation came up.
Speak English, Not Grammar
Some people are so obsessed with grammar that they forget to take into account the way people actually speak. I'm sure that's what the Tareyton advertisers were striving for. What they didn't anticipate was that most people did not in fact speak that way.
Some people, for instance, when asked who's there, answer, "It is I." Although technically correct, it's just not English. Instead, they're speaking grammar.
Obey the Rules, but Be Flexible
Once again, the message is to follow the rules, but to be flexible in response to the needs of your audience. St. Augustine, himself a professional rhetorician, once said, "It is better that the grammarians reproach us than that the people not understand us." In business, if our audience doesn't understand us, we have failed to communicate.
All the best,
P.S. Remember: a selection of my past newsletters is available online at http://www.holton.cc/archive.html.