An American Editor

November 6, 2013

On Language: Are There Rules?

A colleague wrote on another forum: “Yet these [rules of grammar] are elements of correct use of language (and key in quality editing/writing).”

What is correct use of language is arbitrary. “You and I” can be as correct as “you and me” — it just depends on the dominant grammar trend at the time of usage. Grammar “rules” are simply conventions that some self-appointed group of “authorities” has determined reflect current values in expression, which values many current writers and editors accept and agree with. If that were not true, then the rules today would be identical to the rules of 500 years ago and would be immutable, yet we know that grammar rules are always in a state of flux.

I am of the opinion that there is only one true grammar rule: The manner in which something is spoken or written must be such that the listener or reader can make no mistake about the speaker/writer’s intent and meaning. Aside from that, all so-called rules of grammar are here-today-gone-tomorrow rules of consensus.

Consider style manuals and usage manuals. If rules were universal and permanent, there would be no need for more than a single style manual, usage guide, or even dictionary, as there could be no difference and no room for interpretation. Yet we have many of each, and each has differences from the others.

Consider this example: “early rising people” versus “early-rising people.” Which is grammatically correct depends on which style manual, grammar book, and usage manual one looks at and applies. Or, better yet, consider the serial comma — now abandoned in British and Canadian English, except for when it would enhance clarity, and under assault in American English. Yet for decades, using the serial comma was the rule (and one that I think should be kept because its use improves clarity).

Correct use of language is neither a black-and-white proposition nor written in stone. Rather, it is more like silly putty.

The sibling proposition is that “to break the rules [of grammar], you must first know the rules.” In a sense, that proposition is true. But with the rules being in a state of  flux, it is difficult to nail them down so that one can know what rule one is breaking. I think that perhaps the rules being broken are less rules of grammar than they are rules of current consensus and spelling.

In discussions with colleagues, I have noted that when the talk gets to grammar, the discussion really becomes one of word choice. Grammar is the structure of sentence, word choice (and its companion spelling) is using the correct word spelled correctly (e.g., taught vs. taut). Yet sentence structure isn’t rigidly defined even though some grammarians would have us believe otherwise.

Sentence structure, like most things in editing, really revolves around understanding, communication, and clarity: Is the sentence written so that a reader can understand it? Does the sentence communicate the message the author wants to communicate or is it communicating a different message, even if only to a few readers? Is the sentence so clear that there is no possibility that a reader will misinterpret the sentence and what is being communicated by the author?

Rules of grammar are intended to promote those three principles without becoming so inflexible that either the meaning or the drama of the sentence is lost. How sterile is “to go boldly” compared to “to boldly go”? Ultimately, the rules of grammar boil down to this question: What is in charge?

If rules are in charge, then there is no room for flexibility; either the rule is met and satisfied or it is ignored and broken (consider, e.g., the “rule” against splitting infinitives). If the rule is ignored and broken, and there is no effective mechanism for enforcing compliance with it, then it is not a rule; at most, it is a suggestion based on past experience that has been created by a self-selected group. When was the last time you nominated and voted for someone to be part of the grammar rule-making board?

Today, we know that the rule against splitting infinitives was a misguided attempt to squeeze American English into a mold into which it could not fit. Yet the attempt lasted for decades. I remember losing points on essays in high school for not adhering to that rule. Not one English teacher questioned the rule or its soundness; every one enforced it by lowering a paper’s grade. Yet, inexorably, the rule met its death because it could not be enforced outside the classroom. Consequently, one must question whether it ever was really a rule with willy-nilly enforcement or just a suggestion.

Today’s rule in opposition to the serial comma is similar to the split-infinitive rule. Is it more deceptive to the reader to have the extra comma than to forgo it? What harm does the inclusion of the comma cause? Even in an economic sense, the cost of the serial comma probably doesn’t amount to even pennies on a print run.

The movement is afoot to minimize punctuation. The trend began in British English, which is where the trend to do away with the apostrophe seems to have also been born and taken root, and has spread. But the rule is not much of rule because it has the clarity exception: If clarity is improved, keep the serial comma.

The importance of this recently surfaced in a discussion I had with a client. My client complained that in a book that was to follow Canadian English, we used the serial comma, and Canadian English does not use the serial comma. As I noted to the client, such a broad statement is wrong. Canadian English would prefer not to use the serial comma, but accepts it where it enhances clarity. So, I asked my client, who decides the issue of clarity? The answer is the editor initially and the reader thereafter. Consequently, if the editor decides to include the serial comma, it is not wrong. “Which,” I asked, “is clearer: eats shoots and leaves or eats, shoots and leaves or eats, shoots, and leaves?”, making reference to Lynne Truss’ excellent book. “The answer,” I wrote, “depends on which is meant and that between the second and third option, the addition of the final comma makes a world of difference in clarity.”

My client, as is the right of clients, was unimpressed and instructed that Canadian English does not approve of the serial comma and, therefore, we were not to use the serial comma. To the client, this was a rule of grammar, and as a rule, not to be violated.

As editors, we fail our clients and public by referring to rules of grammar rather than to grammar suggestions. Today’s “rules” of grammar are simply reflections of today’s language fads. Tomorrow, different rules will come about that abrogate the former rules. Although I have yet to succeed, I continue to try to educate clients that there are no immutable rules of grammar except for the three principles of understanding, communication, and clarity. If those three principles are met, then the rules of grammar have been satisfied and how we structure the text to meet those three principles using grammar suggestions makes the text more conform or less conform to current grammar suggestions.

12 Comments »

  1. I’m reminded of my favorite example of why I prefer the serial (“Oxford”) comma – “I would like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God.” 🙂

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    Comment by anansii — November 6, 2013 @ 4:27 am | Reply

  2. I agree with much of what you say, but interchanging “you and me” and “you and I”? If for no other reason, your reader must stop and reread, or shakes her head at your ignorance, you have not communicated clearly enough.

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    Comment by Marci Lindsay — November 6, 2013 @ 7:19 am | Reply

  3. I would disagree that It depends on the usage/context itself. In some sentences, “you and I” would be correct; in others, “you and me” would be correct. Neither is correct all the time, and I would not want to see the distinction between them disappear.

    I agree that use of the serial comma is more a style matter than a grammar rule. As a journalist originally, I’m used to not using the serial comma, but I do use it when it’s needed for clarity. And I wish people who don’t use it would remember that it’s called for even in AP style if one element in a list is a compound (that is, a, b and c, and d).

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    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — November 6, 2013 @ 11:11 am | Reply

  4. Hooray! At last someone willing to shoot down the Grammar Nazis! As to the serial comma, I ALWAYS use it. And there are a few other “rules” I choose to ignore/violate at times. One of these is FANBOY: the ONLY permissible conjunctions are for, and, nor, but, or, and yet (note the serial comma). Grammar Nitpickers aside, I maintain that the sentence “He ran, then he tripped” is clear and understandable, and will not cause readers any problem. Sometimes my editors even let me get away with it. And as far as the Chicago Mangle of Style … well, enough said.

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    Comment by James Hartley — November 6, 2013 @ 11:48 am | Reply

  5. I fully agree with your views. Thank you! As a translator I have to make use of every tool at hand to make my work clear and true to its original. Word order and punctuation used as needed help me do just that!

    Martha

    >

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    Comment by hybridee — November 6, 2013 @ 12:59 pm | Reply

  6. A linguist once told me the reason she didn’t use the serial comma was because the comma is a stand-in for “and.” So with serial comma you’d technically have “red and white and and blue.” As I don’t think most people are aware that the comma is a stand-in for “and,” I prefer the serial comma. Even those who don’t usually use it would agree that it should be used when meaning is ambiguous, as with anansii’s interesting parents.

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    Comment by Gretchen — November 6, 2013 @ 2:20 pm | Reply

  7. Amen! All your posts are great, but this one especially. Every editor and writer should read — and try to understand — this.

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    Comment by Benjamin Lukoff (@lukobe) — November 6, 2013 @ 2:24 pm | Reply

  8. Because I work mainly in fiction, and because I have many different clients, I see every day how flexible “rules” can be. I deal with language’s chameleon quality by sticking with a limited set of reference books and applying the same standards consistently unless instructed not to. These reference works reflect my personal preferences (e.g., serial comma), not any law handed down from on high.

    IMO, consistency and clarity (and no typos!) are what matter. Readers are nowhere near as fussy about technical details as authors, editors, and project managers are.

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    Comment by Carolyn — November 7, 2013 @ 8:46 am | Reply

  9. I beg to differ on your description of the “rules of grammar.” You seem to be relying on the prescriptive grammars of many past generations, and those of the “mavens” to use Bolinger’s term: http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/2008/07/sensible_shamanism.html

    Also missed out is a consideration of the book by Joseph Williams book _Style: Toward Clarity and Grace_ in which he identifies three types of rules (pp. 176-177).

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    Comment by Haralambos — November 21, 2013 @ 3:53 pm | Reply

  10. […] perhaps because it will be more stylistically pleasing to our audience or because it will be more easily understood or be less ambiguous. However, in general, linguists acknowledge that these decisions are matters of personal preference […]

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    Pingback by A prescriptivism with moral and political ends: The linguistic shalt‘s and shalt not‘s I can get behind | linguistic pulse — December 16, 2013 @ 7:05 pm | Reply

  11. […] perhaps because it will be more stylistically pleasing to our audience or because it will be more easily understood or be less ambiguous. However, in general, linguists acknowledge that these decisions are matters of personal preference […]

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    Pingback by A prescriptivism with moral and political ends: The linguistic shalts and shalt nots I can get behind | linguistic pulse — December 16, 2013 @ 7:18 pm | Reply

  12. […] with Editor’s Bias,” “The Business of Editing: Walking the Line,” “On Language: Are There Rules?,” and “What Do Editors Forget Most Often?“). The style guides and grammar books […]

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    Pingback by The Makings of an Unprofessional Editor | An American Editor — April 1, 2015 @ 4:00 am | Reply


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