July 15, 2008

Breaking the Rules

Randy, a reader of Messages That Matter, wrote me last week to let me know that I had made a mistake in one of my messages. I had written a sentence fragment, which he thought sounded awkward and, well, fragmented.

I wrote Randy back to thank him for reading so carefully and for caring about the correct use of English. But I also said that I thought he was wrong about the sentence fragment thing. He was quite right that it was a fragment. But writing an occasional sentence fragment isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

That got me to thinking about our topic this time—rules of grammar and style that either aren’t rules at all or that don’t matter very much.

Correct grammar must matter, right? Otherwise, why would the school system spend so much time and effort in trying to teach it to us? After all, they call it “grammar school,” not “arithmetic school” or “reading school.” It must be important.

Understanding standard English grammar and learning to use it correctly are both worthwhile accomplishments. As we move into the world of work, we need to communicate with people whose use of language differs from our own. They may speak with a regional accent or come from a different ethnic background than we do, one that has influenced their use of English. In order for us all to communicate with each other successfully, we need to share a common understanding of how the language works. This is particularly important in writing, because in writing we don’t have access to all the nonverbal elements that help us get our point across when we are speaking to someone in person.

That’s the point of standard English. The “rules” of grammar are actually nothing more than a description of how this standard system works. If we all play by the same rules, the communication game can proceed relatively smoothly. If some of us follow different rules, communication will quickly break down.

But some of the so-called rules aren’t actually rules. They are pedagogical shortcuts that our teachers used to make their own jobs easier. Or they are rules that applied to the use of language several generations ago, but which we no longer follow.

Here are some examples of so-called rules that aren’t:

Never start a sentence with “And”. And why not? Because Mrs. Whipple said we couldn’t back in the fourth grade? And, like the other coordinating conjunctions (but, or, for, nor, yet, and so), is used to join words, phrases, clauses or ideas of equal rank. Sometimes those ideas will be expressed in the form of complete sentences. The relationship between them will be more obvious to our reader if we use a coordinating conjunction at the start. You have probably noticed this practice in newspapers, magazines, and books and, if you had a Mrs. Whipple in your background, you may have assumed this was just further proof of the decline of civilization as we know it. No, that’s not the case. Instead, it’s an example of a teacher making her job easier by laying down an absolute rule rather than explaining the underlying principle.

When kids learn to write, they struggle to master the tools of the written language, including spelling, capitalization, and punctuation. As a result, they are likely to write something like this:

“Last summer we went to Disneyland on vacation. And Sea World.”

The last three words logically belong in the preceding sentence. But Mrs. Whipple doesn’t have the time to explain why, so she just circles them and writes in the margin of our paper, “Never start a sentence with ‘And’.” So we never do, even when it would make sense.

Never write a sentence fragment. Is that really a rule? Maybe. It depends on how formal your writing is. If you want to sound conversational or if you want to create some dramatic emphasis, you should consider writing a sentence fragment instead of a complete sentence. I use a lot of fragments in these messages, but I almost never use them in proposals. The choice is driven by tone and by the nature of the audience.

Never end a sentence with a preposition. Sometimes putting a preposition at the end of a sentence is awkward or even unnecessary:

“Where are you going to?”

We could just say or write, “Where are you going?” The “to” at the end isn’t needed. But sometimes the preposition falls naturally at the end of the sentence. When it does, leave it there:

“I don’t remember which file I put her documents in.”

I suppose you could twist that around to say something like “I don’t remember into which file I put her documents,” but why would you? You’d sound like a dweeb.

In other cases, the preposition isn’t functioning as a preposition at all, but rather as part of the verb. We say that we will not “put up with” certain conditions. We express “interest in” something. It’s possible that those prepositions could end up at the end of a sentence:

“We told the realtor which offices we are interested in.”

There’s nothing wrong with that sentence and there’s definitely no reason to move the preposition.

In my response to Randy I said that grammar is like music. If we don’t have an ear for what sounds right in the first place, knowing and applying rules won’t help us much.

The Sant Corporation’s team of writers can produce great proposal text that will be music to your ears. If you need help creating your proposal library, give us a call.

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