Short Saturday: Rules You Can Forget

We’ve talked about “writing rules”* before. Some are inviolable, like No Double Spacing After a Period. Some have to be reconsidered, like my stance on the singular they. Some fall into gray areas depending on the audience you’re writing for or which side of the pond you live on. Me, I tend to err on the conservative side; I’d like your prose to be elegant. (I don’t mean stuffy—just graceful.)

The most important thing to remember about grammar in particular is the rules have a tendency to morph. What was “proper” fifty years ago (or even twenty) may have changed; things you thought improper may have become accepted usage. You may not like it (I may not like it!), but language is molded by users, not by rulemakers.

So I was delighted to find this article by David Marsh, a senior editor at the Guardian and author of the Guardian Style Guide. I like his take on things:

Every situation in which language is used – texting your mates, asking for a pay rise, composing a small ad, making a speech, drafting a will, writing up an experiment, praying, rapping, or any other – has its own conventions. You wouldn’t expect a politician being interviewed by Kirsty Wark about the economy to start quoting Ludacris: “I keep my mind on my money, money on my mind; but you’se a hell of a distraction when you shake your behind.” Although it might make Newsnight more entertaining.

This renders the concept of what is “correct” more than a simple matter of right and wrong. What is correct in a tweet might not be in an essay; no single register of English is right for every occasion. Updating your status on Facebook is instinctive for anyone who can read and write to a basic level; for more formal communication, the conventions are harder to grasp and this is why so many people fret about the “rules” of grammar.

Marsh’s examples are down-to-earth and in many cases he provides memory pegs to make it easy. And he’s fun. In this great article you’ll find ten things people worry about too much, five things they should worry about more, some notes on punctuation (although I don’t exactly agree with his example for how to use a semicolon), and—bonus!—what pop music can teach us about how to build a sentence (syntax). Enjoy!

* Here are some of the other discussions we’ve had about writing rules: hopefully, adverb use, permissions, fiction rules, and why it’s my job to keep current on the rules.


Tweet: Ten grammar “rules” you can quit worrying about now.
Tweet: The most important thing to remember about grammar is the rules have a tendency to morph.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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  1. Samantha says:

    I’m curious how you disagree about the semicolon?