Nov 28

A Pattern Library for Writing

Grammar is just a set of shapes for language

I don’t know about you, but no one taught me grammar at school.

It’s a massive shame, because grammar is really useful. These days I use it as a pattern library for writing. Like a stencil set, it gives you a collection of predetermined shapes to use when you’re floundering.

Which is helpful, because writing is hard.

Three of my favourite grammar patterns - statements, imperatives and gerunds - come direct from Ginny Redish’s incredible book Letting Go of the Words. It’s up there with Steve Krug. Seriously.

And don’t worry, this stuff’s easy. Trust me!

Statements Make Great Subheadings

Let’s start with the statement pattern. Subheadings are critical on the web and it’s easy to write great ones - avoid nouns and use statements:

  • A statement says something. The subheading of this section, ‘Statements make better subheadings than nouns’, is a statement.
  • Nouns say very little.  A noun doesn’t say anything, it just gives something a name. Noun equivalents for this subheading might be ‘Statements’, or ‘Statement subheadings’. Boring.

Look carefully at the subheadings you write. Most of them are nouns, guaranteed. Statements are harder to write but more compelling to read. They force you to commit to actually saying something.

And saying something is always a good thing when you’re writing.

Recommendations Start With A Verb

The classic research report is a list of insights and recommendations. I use two patterns here: all insights are written as statements (just like subheadings) and all recommendations start with a verb.

  • Insights as statements
    'Doctors want practical information, not scientific advice'
    'Users are unlikely to register for the site'
    'The customer relationship is with the drug, not your company'
  • Recommendations starting with verbs
    'Create materials that focus on practical information'
    'Remove the registration requirement'
    'Build individual sites for products, not a portal'

In fact, the recommendations start with a particular type of verb. This is the imperative pattern. If it can be spoken like the word of god, with an exclamation, it’s an imperative verb. Create! Remember! Fornicate!

(Incidentally, starting with a verb makes for good subheadings too).

Different Verb Types Add Depth

Sometimes you need two levels, like when you’re writing instructions. One level to describe the task (‘sending an email’) and the other to describe each step (‘open your email client’, ‘click on new mail’, etc).

This is where I use the gerund pattern. Gerund sounds fancy (it’s Latin!) but it’s just a normal verb which ends with ‘ing’.

You can always take an imperative verb (create, remember, fornicate) and turn it into a gerund verb (creating, remembering, fornicating). This gives two levels - tasks are gerunds (‘sending an email’, ‘logging into the site’, ‘resetting your password’) but instructions are imperatives (‘open your email’, ‘click the login button’, ‘enter your address’).

You’ve seen this all over the web.

Go Forth and Multiply

(See? The word of god loves an imperative or two).

I use these grammar patterns every single day. They are the lines and shapes, the boxes and arrows, of written language.

My favourite grammar pattern of all time is the active voice. It’s the best writing tip you will ever learn. Especially if you’ve had any kind of academic education which involved writing.

But it’s tricky to explain. When I’ve cracked it I’ll let you know…

Say hello on @myddelton. This is my second post about language and design - if you liked it you should read The ‘Can’ versus ‘Will’ Hack too. Oh, and buy the new edition of Letting Go of the Words by Ginny Redish.


  1. myddelton posted this