Standardizing sentences means creating and following both grammar rules and style rules. The rules govern how you put words together to form sentences.
Similarly, the standards that govern plumbing and electrical systems define how various fixtures are combined. The reason that you can select almost any faucet and are guaranteed that it will work in your home is due to standards. For the system to work, everyone needs to follow the rules.
In content, for one reusable component to flow into the next, your sentence must follow the same rules of grammar and style. If you do not standardize your sentence structures, you risk mismatch and confusion when combining components to create a personalized experience.
Most of us learned about grammar back when we were in elementary school. In fact, elementary school is sometimes referred to as “grammar school.” In technical terms, grammar is the study of how words are used properly in a sentence. Typical topics in the study of grammar include:
- Parts of speech (also called word classes). For example:
- Negation, which includes things like:
- Using the word not
- Contractions such as it’s, can’t, and couldn’t
- Other negating words including never, nothing, and nobody
- Sentence structure, which includes things like:
- Word order
- Dependent clauses
Why Grammar Matters
Using correct grammar is important for many reasons:
- Impression of your brand
To mix and match pieces of content to create a personalized experience, the content needs to be grammatically correct. If not it is not, at best you will amuse your customers. At worst, you will embarrass your brand.
It is also important that everyone follows the same rules of grammar. If, for example, you mix past, present, and future tense (without a plan or reason for doing so), your reader could get confused about what is happening now, what happened in the past, and what will happen in the future.
To mix and match small chunks of content in a readable way, we need to standardize the rules that govern sentences.
Grammar defines technically correct ways to use words according to the language you are using. Style defines choices that affect the way a sentence reads. It is the bridge between words/grammar and brand/voice. Style is the intentional, specific, detailed decisions you make for how your writers write on behalf of the company.
Style is also how you get writers across regions and countries to “sound the same,” so that content can be reused and delivered to customers anywhere.
Style assumes that you are choosing from grammatically correct options. After all, if your grammar is not accurate, your choice of style will not matter. Your grammatically incorrect sentence will still be difficult to understand and translate.
There are hundreds of style rules. They include things such as:
- Avoid contractions
- Only use contractions
- Avoid future tense
- Avoid Latin expressions
- Avoid “s” in parentheses
- Avoid possessives
And hundreds more.
Style is also where you support and enforce your “best practices” such as global writing (“use that/these/this with a noun”), legal considerations (“always include a hazard statement if there is a risk of bodily harm”), or regulatory compliance (“every claim about a pharmaceutical product must be accompanied by this regulator-required language”).
There are a number of standard writing style guides available for you to use. You can use one style guide exclusively, use more than one, mix and match from style guides, or come up with your own corporate style guide. Here are a few well-known style guides that are readily available:
- The Associated Press Stylebook
- Microsoft Manual of Style
- Global English Style Guide
- The Chicago Manual of Style
- Custom Corporate Style Guide
Custom Corporate Style Guide
Most large corporations use one of the standard writing style guides as their starting point for creating their own corporate writing style guide. In addition to topics that are focused on sentences and parts of sentences, corporate style guides often include:
- Allowed and disallowed terms
- Acronyms and company-specific words
- Legal boilerplate wording, including caution and warning notices
- System of measurement to use (imperial/metric)
- Index usage and style
- Glossary usage and style
The Dirty Little Secret about Style Guides
Unfortunately, most style guides are created and managed using the most outdated and inefficient tools on the market. Usually, a style guide is created using a plain document or a spreadsheet. Creating, maintaining, and using a plain document or spreadsheet is a completely manual process. You might as well be using a legal pad and a pen, and storing everything in a three-ring binder.
So, here’s the dirty little secret about providing style guides in documents and spreadsheets: No one uses them. That’s right. No one. Maybe a new content developer refers to a list for the first deliverable. But after that, no one has the time to keep looking things up manually. Most writers and editors simply don’t have the luxury of time to use an inefficient, time consuming, manual process. It just doesn’t happen.
One way to make it easier for them (and more consistent for you and your customers) is to automate the style guide.
Automating Your Style Guide
Your style guide can be a static file that needs to be searched when a writer has a question. If you decide to use a static file for your style guide, you run the risk of writers not complying with the rules that you have put into place. It is extremely difficult to enforce compliance with grammar and style rules if you rely on people to look things up.
Instead, I recommend using software to ensure adherence to your corporate terminology, grammar, and style. Software tools can read each sentence, notify the writer where a grammar or style error has been made, and even correct the issue in many cases. And, unlike humans, software doesn’t get tired, feel rushed, or miss an error.
Summary – Styling Your Sentences
To create a scalable, personalized user experience, you must be able to meld different pieces of content together seamlessly. To mix and match content components, your words need to align, and your sentences need to be written using the same grammar and style rules.
Join my webinar Style Your Sentences: Methods for Effective Sentence Management on August 20, 2020, 10:00 am Pacific, to learn more about how managing your sentences can have a big impact on how personalizable your content is.