Writing Center

Write Like You Mean It

By Mark Anliker, Writing Tutor

Since before I can remember, my grandmother has been correcting me whenever she asks me how I'm doing. "I'm doing good!" I tell her enthusiastically as she arrives at our home for Easter. "No, no, Mark, you're doing well."

And of course she's right. "Good" is an adjective, sometimes a noun. One does not simply use "good" as an adverb, though. That would be preposterous, heretical even. So how could I have been so careless, so irreverent? How could I have insulted my English-speaking upbringing so flagrantly? Well, I don't want to sound overly critical of my grandmother's conventional wisdom, but there's nothing wrong with saying "I'm doing good." It's a phrase people use every day.

While it may be important to speak with proper grammar in many situations, the notion that certain things we say are necessarily "right" or "wrong" rests on a strange yet pervasive assumption about the way language works. We tend, far too often, to pretend that language doesn't change, that its rules are etched in ancient stone somewhere ("Oh yeah, the Rosetta Stone, right?"). Fortunately that's not the case, and it never has been.

The basic building blocks of language are not sentences or words, syllables or sounds, not even letters. People are what make language what it is. People are the only reason language exists. And when people say "I'm doing good," time and time again, even if they fail grammatically, they succeed in conveying exactly what they mean.

Even though most of us understand this at heart- that language changes all the time-we tend to limit our own writing only to what we perceive as "grammatically correct." Sometimes, we take this rules-oriented version of writing one step further by uncomfortably imitating what we perceive as professional prose.

In an effort to sound "professional," we're much more likely, for example, to describe something as "lacking feasibility" rather than "starry-eyed." Both are fine phrases and can convey similar meanings, but one of the phrases may be less inviting than the other depending on the audience and context. Often- times, abstruse, Latinized language may confuse and intimidate readers, even put them to sleep. Sometimes as authors we, too, can find ourselves distanced from our own writing by such slavish conformity.

So why do we try so hard to "get it right" when "getting it right" doesn't mean much of anything (and might even make our writing worse)? I'm not saying that it's always advisable to loosen up your writing and break taboos (using contractions, using the first person, adding "ish" to the ends of words, etc.), but sometimes, for some audiences, it really will sound better. Just don't tell my grandmother I said so.

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