This One Thing Will Make Your Writing Look Professional — Or Not
Yes, I am aware that no one likes talking about grammar. But if you call yourself a writer, there is no way around it. Sorry to break it to you.
Grammar doesn’t need to be boring, though. Don’t think of it as a rigid set of rules to follow. Think of it as a means of improving your style, and then use it to do just that. Sometimes, a single change will do wonders for your writing and make any text seem much more professional.
There is a famous saying in German:
Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod.
It translates to “dative is the death of genitive” and illustrates the very thing it says: that the dative case makes the genitive case redundant.
But just because we can omit genitives doesn’t mean we should. As a matter of fact, I believe that we absolutely shouldn’t. My long-term experience as an editor has convinced me that genitives are always better.
Because they are more elegant, more direct, and most importantly: shorter. If you are familiar with George Orwell’s rules of effective writing (not: the rules of effective writing of George Orwell), you might remember rule no. 3:
If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
With the addition of a single letter, the genitive case allows you to say exactly what you want to say without having to use any pronouns, possessives, or other awkward additions.
Let’s look at two examples from research papers I edited:
The goal of a grandiose narcissist is to enhance his self-image.
While this sentence is perfectly correct, something seems a little off. There are a lot of components that don’t actually tell us anything, empty pronouns like “the” and “of.”
Another problem is that with this syntactic construction, the narcissist’s goal is promoted to the top of the sentence, rather than the narcissist himself, whom the statement is actually about.
It is a known fact that the components at the beginning and end of a sentence stick with the reader the most, which is why we should put the important stuff there rather than hide it in the middle.
So let’s rephrase the sentence using the genitive:
A grandiose narcissist’s goal is to enhance his self-image.
Notice how the protagonist, the grandiose narcissist, is now at the start of the sentence? Notice how I eliminated the two clumsy fluff-words “the” and “of”?
This, ladies and gentlemen, is the magic of genitives.
Let’s look at another example, just in case you’re not quite convinced yet:
The total score of each participant was collected in a spreadsheet.
The sentence is built just like the one in the previous example. In this case, the fact that the total score resides at the beginning of the sentence isn’t as much of a problem though, since this is what the sentence is actually about.
However, the writer felt the need to clarify with a possessive clause that she meant each participant’s total score when she could have used the genitive without a problem.
If we listen to George Orwell (and I trust him), every single word is worth cutting out, so why not make the sentence more direct by omitting the unnecessary pronouns?
Each participant’s total score was collected in a spreadsheet.
There we have it: a much more elegant sentence with fewer pronouns and a clear action — scores were collected. Of course, we could have made this sentence even better by rewriting it in the active mode, but that’s a topic for another day.
I hope you are convinced of the genitive’s power by now (not: the power of the genitive). It truly makes your writing much more professional with one simple change.
It’s definitely worth a try!
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