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Grammar and Punctuation Rules – Learn ’em; Forget ’em

Spelling, grammar and punctuation rules and consistency are fairly recent phenomena. I suppose, in general, they do help us understand each other. One of the problems is rules tend to change more slowly than language. 

Michelle Pierce has an article at copyblogger called: Three Grammar Rules You Can (And Should) Break

I think she’s right. Each of the rules she pinpoints, when used, tend to make a sentence awkward and often interferes with understanding.

On the punctuation side, I’ve been known to tell students they only need three punctuation marks – periods, quotes and commas. If they want to get fancy, I suggest they add a semicolon for a total of four. My experience tells me these are really all you need to construct sentences that communicate clearly. Which is what we want, right?

What do you think? Do you have rules you ignore? Or do you follow them all. Either way, tell us what and why.

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{ 15 comments… add one }
  • booga

    Admin: The plural of ellipsis is ellipses. There’s some irony in this article!

  • Devon: Certainly. I also revoke dash licenses, too, based on similar punctuation abuse.
    (Note: everyone has heard about poetic license, but I actually have a printed version.)
    jk

    jorgekafkazar’s last blog post..Stranded in Mexico

  • Jorge, may I borrow your “semicolon license revocation”? I need to use it on some of my students!

    Devon Ellington’s last blog post..Thursday, April 16, 2009

  • Thanks for stopping by my blog, Anne. That’s a very interesting word you suggested. I like it.

    I’m both an developmental editor (content, organization, clarity, etc.) and a proofreader (both in the strict sense of proofing proofs against original copy and the more general sense of making sure spelling, grammar, and punctuation are correct). I agree with you that there is a difference between how those jobs are done, but the point of both is to make the manuscript clear.

    In my experience (and I know I’ll get some flak for this), the reason why writers don’t follow grammar and punctuation rules is usually because they don’t know them or understand them, nor do they wish to. And again, that’s fine with me. That’s what I get paid to do. But as previous posters have said, you must know the rules before you can break them. If I’m to do my job well, there are precious few I would choose to break.

    Jessica’s last blog post..Word of the Week: Scobberlotcher

  • Bill

    Bill – are you saying that when Latin etc. was actually used by the common folks there were rules? That’s the point.

    I’m not sure what “common folks” means, either in ancient Rome or today.

    If you’ve ever studied Latin, or any inflected language, you’d know that a minor misspelling would often change the meaning of the sentence completely. In fact, the accents–whether a syllable is long or short–can do the same. Not such a problem with spoken language (is this where the common folk come in?) but as far as I know it’s essential in written Latin. And classical Greek was originally written entirely in upper case letters, with neither punctuation nor spaces between the words.

    Now, my point is that if you’re texting someone, and you write “r u in trubl at skool,” it’s clear. That is, both parties are communicating satisfactorily. But would you allow this in a published work, even a blog posting?

  • Bill

    Another nifty bit of punctuation, though, is the leading question mark, as in:
    ¿What is going on here, he wondered.

    Yes, it’s nifty, but it’s not English punctuation, and I can’t imagine any competent editor or proofreader letting that get by.

  • admin

    Isaac – agree on the exclam… of course, computer guru john devorak made a fetish out of using them everywhere in print… drove me mad, but I liked his stuff back then.

    Devon and Lou, choice, yes, you’re right. You do need to know the basics then choose… good point.

    Ben, fascinating link… I wonder what “analytical understanding of syntax” means? Sigh… I may blog on that article!

    Bill – are you saying that when Latin etc. was actually used by the common folks there were rules? That’s the point.

    Nothing wrong with dashes – em or other wise, ellipsis, or hyphens… but you can get along without them I don’t think you can get along in writing without periods, commas and quotes. That was my point there.

    And of course it’s not a sentence, but it does communicate clearly I think.

    Jorge, I’ve always liked the leading question mark… so logical to let the reader know what’s happing up front. Sadly I doubt we’ll see it in English in our lifetime…

    Jessica, I suspect that what you do as an editor is more along the lines of making things clear than enforcing grammar rules… not always the same thing imo… but perhaps I’m wrong.

  • As an editor, this post makes my heart ache. However, a writer’s flagrant disregard for the rules is what keeps me employed. Carry on! 🙂

    Jessica’s last blog post..Word of the Week: Scobberlotcher

  • Basically true, Anne. I’ve often told people in workshops that their semicolon license has been revoked. The same goes for dashes–too often misused. Usually commas, periods, quotes, and question marks would suffice and are sometimes even used correctly.
    I feel that the colon [:] is under-used, but it’s seldom needed, so why confuse people?
    Another nifty bit of punctuation, though, is the leading question mark, as in:
    ¿What is going on here, he wondered.
    What is going on here, he wondered? is just plain wrong.
    He wondered, what is going on here? seems too much in the narrator’s POV.
    What is going on here? he wondered. also seems off, because it ends twice, once with a question mark and again with a period.
    Best regards,
    Jörge

    jorgekafkazar’s last blog post..Stranded in Mexico

  • Bill

    This is all very funny. My comments are going to sound snotty, so allow me to apologize in advance.

    “Spelling, grammar and punctuation rules and consistency are fairly recent phenomena.” Unless, of course, you’ve ever studied Latin, or classical Greek, which have extensive and complex grammars.

    “Each of the rules…tend [sic]” Have we dispensed with agreement of number between subject and verb?

    “I’ve been known to tell students they only need three punctuation marks – [sic] periods, quotes and commas.” But not hyphens???

    And not ellipses, nor en-dashes, nor en-dashes?

    “Which is what we want, right?” Which isn’t a sentence.

    As For Michelle Pierce:
    “Michelle Pierce is the editor-in-chief (and word ninja) for Aqua Vita Creative, and she is very picky about spelling, grammar, and punctuation.”

    Uh-huh. If so, perhaps she should rethink usage like, “reading up on Greek and Roman myths” and “Except that it’s really not that big of a deal.” And before she trashes the rule about ending a sentence with a preposition, she might reconsider this one, which is neither grammatical nor clear: “Who is Aqua Vita Creative for?”

    Fire away, folks.

  • I recently read a fascinating article by the head of linguistics and English language at the University of Edinburgh that focused on how ‘The Elements Of Style’ was in many ways a grammatically flawed text that should not be taught as the go-to reference on how to write in English. You can read the piece here: http://chronicle.com/free/v55/i32/32b01501.htm

    Benjamin Hunting’s last blog post..My Miata Track Car

  • Lou Paun

    Apostrophes are important for avoiding confusion about number/possession.

    I agree with Devon — you have to know what the rules will accomplish before you can choose to break them purposefully. Most of the errors I see do not improve clarity, and some of them increase confusion.

    That said, I have to admit that I really don’t worry about ending a sentence with a preposition!

  • Unfortunately, too many of those who are unpublished can’t be bothered to learn the rules.

    You have to know the rules first. Breaking them must be a CHOICE, based on deep knowledge of the rules, so that you have the style and skill to break them appropriately.

    But if you can’t be bothered to learn the rules in the first place, you come across as lazy and wind up in the reject pile.

    Devon Ellington’s last blog post..Wednesday, April 15, 2009

  • Isaac

    I definitely think clarity is numero uno. I must admit that I’m a big fan of semicolons; maybe I’m just showing off. I also find myself using a colon now and then before a list, though I usually avoid it.

    I never thought about it, but periods, quotes, and commas are the big three. My students need questions marks and single quotation marks. Do apostrophes count as punctuation?

    By the way, I hate the exclamation point; sentence structure and context should add emphasis, not punctuation that comes at the end of a sentence (which sort of makes you have to read the sentence again).

    Speaking of punctuation at the end of the sentence, the Spanish language has question marks and exclamation points at the beginnings of sentences. Spanish uses a lot more common sense than English.

    I could go on and on about this stuff.

    Isaac’s last blog post..Interview with David Morrell, author of First Blood and other works

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