The secret behind Obama’s cool

November 7, 2008

While I appreciate it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, I was really excited to be invited yesterday by Editor Group to attend a short talk on grammar. Did I just hear you yawn? Wrong! It was probably the most interesting session I’ve been to in ages.


Led by Professor Pam Peters, Director of the Dictionary Research Centre at Macquarie University, it really left me thinking about the subtleties of language and just how strange language actually is (when you think about it, the fact that we humans can talk let alone read and write is quite a miracle too).


Here are 3 take-outs that you might appreciate (go on, give grammar a go!):


Grammar affects your confidence: there’s nothing worse than someone pointing out your bad grammar. In fact, it’s pretty rude. Professor Peters says that grammatical slips occur when ‘one hasn’t sorted out the connection of ideas in their head first’. Translation: think really clearly before you write and the grammar will hopefully sort itself out.


Grammar happens naturally: Professor Peters cited an interesting report by Chomsky which concluded that native speakers of a language have ‘grammatical knowledge galore’ inside their heads. It’s something that happens automatically when kids learn how to speak. Translation: Relax! You know it already (but maybe read a book or two to polish up).


Obama’s acceptance speech was held up by great grammar: Grant Butler, head honcho at Editor Group, made an interesting point about the eloquence of Barak Obama’s speech that many of us had the pleasure of hearing or reading this week. He reminded us that the people who helped him write it (and perhaps even Obama himself) would have had an incredible grasp on their grammar. No comma, imperative verb or split infinitive would have been used haphazardly. Translation: If you want to be cool and highly respected, learn how to make grammar work for you.


Please don’t send me any tricky grammatical questions (I’m a child of the ’70s when grammar was thrown out the window) but check out Professor Peters’ book instead: The Cambridge Guide to Australian English Usage.


But if you have any deep and meaningful insights on grammar I would love to hear them.


2 Responses to “The secret behind Obama’s cool”

  1. David Says:

    As Prof. Peters said, grammar happens naturally and the easiest way to check grammar is to read what you have written, out loud.

    I learned that trick a hundred years ago, writing advertisment and news copy for radio and television. If you can’t read it out loud, then the grammar (or the thoughts involved) are off somewhere.

    Mind you, being an annoucner didn’t hurt, but to this day, I still check the same way and nine times out of ten, I’m grammatically correct. You could call it Writing by Ear, but I generally prefer a keyboard as I dislike getting ink in my hearing appendages.

    The Elements of Style by Strunk and White is still next to my keyboard. It is a slender work and E.B. White, (of Charlotte’s Web fame) is the White of Strunk and White. He drills grammar and punctuation unmercifully, as well as the active voice in writing.

    Spelling? That’s anothr mattr al2gethur. Dang!

    (via alphainventions)

  2. libbyvarcoe Says:

    Hi David
    I love my Strunk and White too. But I never knew that E.B. White was of Charlotte Web fame! That was the first book I ever read. No wonder Strunk and White is such a great read. Thanks for shedding some light!

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