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Grammar Made Easy And The 80/20 Principle: Less Stressful And Much More Effective Than The Traditional Approach

Feb 10, 2008
Easy grammar and the 80/20 principle? Is there really a connection? Not only is it for real, but it's pretty amazing that it hasn't caught on yet. It's high time that it does because it can save many people a lot of headaches.

Just in case you don't already know the 80/20 principle from sales, here's a quick explanation: 20% of most salespeople's clients account for 80% of their sales. Which means, of course, that the other 80% percent of their clients aren't paying their way. The logical consequence: It pays to focus mostly on taking very good care of the 20% that do. Maybe those customers will buy even more. And if not, at least the salespeople will have a bit more free time...

The 80/20 principle doesn't just work for sales, though. When I learned English (which is my second language), for example, my favorite word-building book was based on the very same principle. It had three sections:

1) About 150 words made up at least 10% of all the words in any average document. They included the basics, such as articles, conjunctions, most prepositions, and numbers.

2) Another 1,000 or so words, together with the really basic 150 words, covered well over 90% of the words in any average text.

3) Several thousand more words were divided into subject areas, so I could study just what I needed. When I wanted to talk about the weather, I'd look up weather words. When my hypochondria got the better of me, I studied the medical section. I've been getting by very nicely ever since.

English has tens of thousands of additional words, of course, but that's what big dictionaries are for. And how often do you ever need those?

The same is true for grammar, where the 80/20 principle works much the same way. With just 20% of the "rules," you can cover almost all of the territory you'd ever need, at least if you pick the right 20%.

That seems hard to believe if you look at those grammar books filled with thousands of obscure little rules, all of them designed to intimidate. Many of you probably met all those rules in high school. How many do you remember? Not many, probably.

The traditional approach to grammar is really a factoid-based trivial pursuit-type approach. It's not very efficient. Compare how the 80/20 approach covers that territory:

1) There are the basic ingredients and a system to put them together into sentences.

2) There are a few rules that help you avoid the major problems, such as agreement errors, weird tense sequences, and dangling modifiers.

3) There are some nifty techniques to make your sentences more effective and your prose flow better. Those three make up the 20%.

Beyond that, for the other 80%, you have two options: You could look up what you need in some big grammar book. Or, and here's your secret weapon, you could rewrite the sentence. It's your sentence, after all, and you get to write it any way you want to. Just pick a way you know how to handle.
About the Author
For 10 quick tips on how to edit your writing effectively, visit www.LinguisticLeverage.com and sign up for Elisabeth's series of grammar, writing. and copywriting tips. Elisabeth Kuhn is a linguist and writer, and enjoys helping people unleash their inner grammar power. To find out more about the practical applications of linguistic leverage, including copywriting, visit www.LinguisticLeverage.com
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