OPINION | BRENDA LOOPER: Break some rules

Brenda Looper
Brenda Looper

Having been a writer and editor for some years now, I'm often asked for guidance on grammar, sometimes because of something that appeared in the news sections.

I only deal with the opinion pages, and the rules are less strict for grammar here, as we write conversationally. We're also the occasional rebels, like on The Associated Press style change on "percent." AP now allows the percentage sign, but nah, we're still writing it out. So there!

Because we try to write as if we're talking to someone over a coffee or soda, clarity is the bigger concern. While we do follow general grammar rules, we don't get too far into the weeds or too proper because perfectly proper grammar can be a real bore to read.

Besides, many of those grammar rules we've been taught not to break on pain of a ruler across the wrist are perfectly fine to ignore sometimes, and some of them were most likely based on pet peeves of the people who came up with them.

There'd be a lot of new rules based on the response to my question to friends and colleagues about pet peeves. If people only knew all the things that make editors cringe ...

Linguist Chi Luu, in the Lingua Obscura column on JSTOR Daily, tackled the idea of ungrammatical English in August 2015. "Linguists would agree that there is a socially accepted standard dialect that rules much of the mainstream, literate world of the Anglosphere. It is indeed important to learn the accepted linguistic conventions of the standard dialect for reasons of communication, clarity and even persuasive style.

"But it happens to be a historically privileged dialect and is not inherently linguistically better than other, non-standard dialects of English. Even if you don't buy this linguistic fact, like all dialects, even ones you may perceive to be ungrammatical, there are rules which reflect how speakers actually use the language. These rules are not formed by some invisible authority on high, never to be questioned, ever."

And this would be the difference between prescriptive (how language ought to be used) and descriptive (how language is actually used) grammar.

Luu writes: "Here are the plain facts: Many of these pop grammar rules that are still seriously taught in schools and universities and even promoted (and inevitably violated) in style guides were magically pulled out of thin air by a handful of 18th and 19th century prescriptive grammarians. They're totally made-up grammar myths that somehow gained a superficial, high prestige status among the public and are repeated as fact ad nauseam.

"Often these rules were modeled on an aspect of Latin, perceived to be a more 'pure' language than English, and went against actual historical and literary usage. In many cases the rules made communication more stilted and less clear (and promoted humorous syntactic constructions up with which I will not put). Some rules may even have started as merely an offhand expression of an individual grammarian's opinion, before it somehow became ensconced in the public consciousness as a hard and fast grammar rule. The split infinitive, not ending a sentence with a preposition, the ongoing confusion with less versus fewer or use of the singular--they are all examples of rules that had shaky linguistic foundations to begin with."

We can't abandon grammar rules, though, because different types of writing call for different types of grammar. Formal writing, such as for academic papers, requires more proper grammar. Conversational writing, on the other hand, generally uses basic grammar as an outline to guide where it goes. You can split an infinitive if you want to (making sure that it means what you intend to say, as "to boldly go" is a little different from "to go boldly"), begin a sentence with a conjunction, or end a sentence with a preposition.

However you write, just be clear. Make sure that modifiers are in the right place because a misplaced one will change the meaning of a sentence (example: "Covered in sweat, she flopped on the sofa" versus "She flopped on the sofa covered in sweat."). Make sure your sentences make sense; a trick I learned in my college broadcast classes is to read what I write out loud.

Language evolves, and so do the rules around it, yet we still follow rules that came about because something irritated a grammarian, or because someone thought we should match Latin rules (in Latin, an infinitive is a single word, so can't be split, unlike English infinitives). If strictly following all those grammar rules makes your writing clunky, it's OK to ease up a bit.

I'm pretty sure no one will smack you with a ruler.

AP alum Chuck Bartels shared an anecdote when he told me his grammar/word pet peeve that was too funny (to me, anyway) not to pass on.

"Several decades ago the AP sent out a survey to sports editors asking what cliches they'd like to never see again," he wrote. "I wish I knew the person's name, but [someone from] the Miami Herald replied, 'Think up your own cliches.'"

Dang it. And here I was hoping for some help. Mine are getting stale.

Assistant Editor Brenda Looper is editor of the Voices page. Read her blog at blooper0223.wordpress.com. Email her at blooper@adgnewsroom.com.

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