Realworld Grammar: When to Break the Rules

A few days ago, I made an editorial decision. In a sentence in one of our Guides, real world was being used as an adjective, in this case, “real-world experience.” I removed the hyphen and space between real and world, making it one word. I sent it out for final approval, which I failed to get from our CEO.

So I did what any underling does when he is shot down by a superior: I argued my position.

My argument was that if English usage has taught us anything, it’s that compound modifiers start life in this form: real-world experience. They stay this way, through thousands of articles, memos, love letters, white papers, and ransom notes—until, one day, some enterprising grammarian says, “You know what’s chapping my ass? This dash. Why do we need it?”

In the above example, this particular grammarian is a longshoreman from the early 20th century. But’s that not the point.

The question is truly, “Why do we need it?” Overachieving, underperforming and overzealous all began their infancy with that unattractive, ink-wasting appendage known as the dash. But they grew up, got smarter, faster, sexier—they even started drinking 16-year-old, single-malt Scotch, which is very mature (that’s a homonym joke).

Here’s a math quiz that doesn’t involve math:

You’re riding a train. Its top speed is 35 MPH, and the track follows a U shape. From your vantage point, you know that your stop is directly across the U, which your schedule says will take you about an hour to reach. You also know that, as the crow flies, your destination on the opposite side of the U is only 3 miles away. So you have two options: 1. Stay on the train for an hour, or 2. Get off the train, walk at a pace of 9 miles an hour, and get there in 20 minutes.

If you can see where you’re headed, why not take the shortcut and get there already?

That’s how I see realworld. From my vantage point, that’s the final destination for the compound modifier, so why not get off this slow train?

As a demand gen agency, why should we wait for the rest of the flock to come to the foregone conclusion?

If we knew that changing all of a web page’s meta descriptions would result in a 300-percent revenue increase, we wouldn’t wait to make sure all our competitors were doing it before recommending it to our clients.

That would be a realworld mistake… How does that sentence make you feel?

In the end, we don’t need clients to think about these things—we want clients to know we are thinking about these things, about language and how it’s used and to what effect.

When you dive into language to this admittedly almost-obsessive extent, you can see beyond the simple function of syntax and move straight into rhetoric—or rather, the type of rhetoric that is on the covert side. Sure, not many readers would see realworld experience and immediately think, “No dash? Geez, these guys are innovators!” But I would argue that when you’re making any decision for the expressed purpose of staying ahead of the herd, you probably have your heart in the right place, even if that decision doesn’t pass the review process.

Ultimately, though, it’s up to the decision makers, whose prescriptive approach to grammar would shock E.B. White’s anthropomorphic geese to the point of self defecation. Should we all strive to be realworld innovators or real-world pragmatists?

Let us ponder the syntax of your marketing campaign to this ridiculous extent. Give us a call or see what else we obsess over.

Learn more about Theo.

Theo Romeo

Author Theo Romeo

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Theo oversees ID’s Creative Department. His team, made up of people more talented and smarter than he, is on a crusade to make B2B creative more compelling and engaging. You can routinely find Theo standing in front of a whiteboard, arguing on behalf of storytelling and challenging the sacred cows of B2B content marketing. Once the culprits responsible for all the high-volume, low-performing content flooding everyone’s desktop and mobile devices are vanquished, you will find Theo quietly staring out onto the waters of the pacific northwest, calm, fulfilled. But in the meantime, when Theo’s not chasing windmills or trying to find less patronizing ways to tell his team how amazingly proud he is of them, you can find him making croissants for his wife and daughter, while listening to black metal and sipping a Sazerac. His personal motto: “Empathy is the shortest path to happiness.”

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