Today is National Word Nerd Day. This observance gives us a chance to make good grammar relevant again. I’m not sure who should be in charge of this movement, so I’m stepping up to lead the parade.
For some people, writing is just a way to communicate. For me, it’s more of a passion for how words fit together.
I see writing as an intersection of creativity, experience, knowledge and connection. It’s an art and a science where clarity and crisp communication converge with inspiration and flow. For me, writing, editing and proofing are a fun puzzle, not a dreaded chore. I love reading anything connected to words and language. And doesn’t everyone still have their high school grammar book?
Grammar rules fine tune writing
Working with a good editor is a writer’s nirvana for me. There’s usually a way to tighten things up a bit, improve the flow or find a more vivid word. I’m constantly trying to make my personal writing more creative, open and insightful, and I work toward clarity of message and purpose in my professional writing. I stopped striving for perfection in both types a while back (thus the need for a good editor), but that doesn’t mean I stop trying to improve. In most cases, the rules of grammar are what help me fine tune my writing.
Unfortunately, in today’s world, grammar rules seem to be less urgent. Obviously, our digital culture has contributed to this decline. Add to that an increasing informality in many professional environments, and we see more and more liberties with language, grammar rules and sentence structure.
Over the years, colleagues, friends, family members and students have challenged my obsession with words and rules. They have questioned whether grammar rules are still relevant. When a student asked why it mattered if she knew the rules for using “I” or “me” as a subject or object, I was stunned. She said, “It sounds just fine to my ear to say ‘She’s going with Mary and I.’”
I hear very smart people using this incorrect construction daily. They think it sounds fine, but it’s not. Why should grammar rules be any less important in a professional context than accurate formulas are for calculating interest or precise procedures are for diagnosing an illness?
Unfortunately, the writing profession doesn’t have formal accepted practices governed by some appointed board like the accounting or legal professions do. We can’t be censured for improper use of participles or ending a sentence with “at.” We editors and writers have to police ourselves.
We could get bogged down here in arguing the merits of various style guides or the use of the Oxford comma, but that’s not the point. The point is grammar rules provide consistency which leads to clarity of message. That’s what good writing is all about.
Rules are rules
Like any good word nerd, I have several grammar rules that are not negotiable (which translate into my pet peeve editing issues).
1 – “She is going with Mary and I” will never be correct. Ever. For any reason.
2 – Dangling participles are insidious gremlins. (A participle modifies like an adjective does, so it must have a noun to modify.) They often go unnoticed in writing because our ears are so used to hearing them spoken. You are likely to get the gist of what the speaker means if she says, “Opening the door, it was time for everyone to enter.” But, “it” didn’t open the door, and this construction can lose a reader who has to stop and think about who opened the door. (“Opening the door, the host indicated it was time for everyone to leave.”)
3 – Spelling is spelling. Period. Creativity isn’t an option in spelling.
4 – Apostrophes indicate possessive not plurals. Merry Christmas from the Smith’s. The Smith’s what?
5 – I believe the serial comma isn’t necessary in most cases, but I’m not going to touch that word nerd debate in mixed company. This provokes as much controversy among writers and editors as the preference of vinegar versus mustard sauces does among BBQ aficionados. Just decide how you’re going to use a comma in a series, stick to it and make sure your writers do the same.
But … there’s a time and place to break a rule
There’s a time and place for being a little rebellious as a writer. Sometimes creativity has to win out over the rules. My personal guide for breaking a writing rule is to do it deliberately and consistently,
In the interest of avoiding the label of the inflexible chief enforcer for the grammar patrol, I offer up a few rules that I fudge on a bit. We all have our own. I’ve already used a few in this piece. Here’s my take on several rules I allow my inner grammar patrol to ignore.
1 – Sometimes it’s acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition. The old example of something “up with which I will not put” is awkward construction, no doubt. In today’s world, that kind of writing sounds stilted and overly formal. But saying “where’s it at” should never be acceptable. Know your audience and use a preposition at the end of a sentence if it’s something you can live with.
2 – Sentence fragments and single word sentences can occasionally help make a point. Admittedly this loosening of a rule is partly due to today’s texting society, but sometimes a fragment can add emphasis in more informal writing. Agreed?
3 – Starting a sentence with a conjunction can improve a transition or be a bridge between ideas. But know when to use this construction appropriately and use it sparingly.
4 – The rule of split infinitives may just be outdated. This rule has been around since the dawn of time … or at least the dawn of Latin. As long as the meaning is clear, I believe it’s alright to occasionally split the infinitive.
Before I officially launch this grammar movement, I’m off for some light reading in the Elements of Style. This re-released edition of this classic has lovely whimsical illustrations by the artist Maira Kalman. Her cover art of a self-satisfied basset hound caught my eye when I first saw the book at Litchfield Books several years ago. And while I do love the art, it’s the juicy rules and vibrant writing commentary that keep me turning (and scribbling on) the pages.
What grammar rules will you always obey and which are less rigid for you as a writer or editor?