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Breaking the Rules

Grammar: that double-edged sword.


Coming from an English major and UX writer, grammar matters. A lot. It's all about setting standards and best practices in order to raise the chances of being understood.


But it can go too far. There's a reason "grammar nazi" was an insult back when I was in school; we've all met someone who says "Well actually, it's whom, not who." The response was never one of gratitude.


The waters get even muddier in UX Writing. We want to be correct, but conversational. Natural, but not distracting. How do we balance that out?


Some rules can be broken. These tend to be "mistakes" that are made often by native speakers; while grammatically unsound, they have a natural ring to them and cab be less jarring than the written rules.


Rules you can break


Don't be afraid of sentence fragments. Your copy will be easier to read if it's broken into chunks, instead of run-on sentences. It's okay to occasionally begin a sentence with but, and, or so, as long as the flow isn't broken. Separate concepts and ideas in a way that feels natural.


Another common "mistake" is using the plural for singular. For example: "Here's your keys" isn't technically correct, but "Here are your keys" has a more formal ring to it. This is one of those rules that works in other places and just doesn't in others, depending on the noun, so tread carefully.


And let's kill a myth right now: it's okay to end a sentence with a preposition. "Where are you coming from" sounds way more natural than "From where are you coming?" Write it how you say it.


Rules you should follow


Some rules are never meant to be broken. The obvious example is spelling; the chances of your users understanding you decrease if the word isn't recognizable. Punctuation and basic sentence structure should also be followed.


Avoid double negatives and unclear subjects. Capitalize the first word in a sentence and proper nouns. Conjugate verbs correctly. It's stuff that likely comes naturally to you; if you're unsure about something, don't pore over books and articles to figure it out. Write what sounds right.


Rules of your product


Who you're writing for matters. If your company is trying for a friendly, super conversational voice, it's okay to bend the rules a bit. If you work for a more matter-of-fact product, you may want to stick to the grammar more closely.


At the end of the day, you know your product and your users. Your copy should be concise, clear, and consistent. It should be purposeful and practical. As long as those rules are followed, don't sweat the other stuff.

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