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Saturday
Dec182010

We don’t need no rules of grammar

Back in April 2010 Steve Wheeler (@timbuckteeth) posted a useful article reminding students that when it comes to succeeding academically, accuracy in using the language still counts.He lists a set of rules which humorously make the point, such as "Avoid clichés like the plague." My question is: do the same rules apply to bloggers?

Grammar, sentence structure and punctuation are important!I think there are two main issues. Firstly, it's fine for bloggers or creative writers of any kind to bend or even break the rules of grammar, if that is done in a purposeful way. For example, I might wish to write a sentence consisting of just two or three words, or even a single word, for emphasis, which breaks Rule 10: "No sentence fragments.", as in:

You would think installing this application would have dire effects on your system. Not so.

Secondly, I disagree with some of the rules anyway. To be specific:

Prepositions are not words to end sentences with

As one of the commenters on Steve's post says, this isn't a rule as such, just someone's invention. Trying to obey it can lead to all sorts of grammatical gymnastics. I think Sir Winston Churchill said it best:

This is the kind of English up with which I will not put.

And don't start a sentence with a conjunction

It sounds like sound advice, yet doing so can often be used to good effect, for example:

But there was no way of knowing that.

Starting the sentence with the conjunction 'but' gives it an immediacy and impact that the acceptable alternative, "However," lacks. Indeed, the comma itself, which is grammatically correct in this context, induces a pause, as it is supposed to, thereby slowing down the pace. In my opinion, pace is just as important in non-fiction writing as in fiction or poetry. Would you not agree?

It is wrong to ever split an infinitive

Well, possibly the most famous split infinitive in the English language, "to boldly go etc", from Star Trek, is not improved by rendering it as "Boldly to go" or "To go boldly". Perhaps that's because of its familiarity, but there are lots of examples in everyday life where to not split an infinitive would come across as forced, unnatural. Usually the distinction is drawn between written and spoken language. A blog, surely, can be both.

Avoid clichés like the plague

Good advice, but hard to abide by. After all, clichés became clichés because they were deemed to be so apposite.  You could try to coin your own analogies and metaphors rather than use a cliche, but in the wrong hands that can come across as self-satisfaction at one's own cleverness. Much better to write naturally and plainly. After all, if the image conveyed by the metaphor distracts from the subject of the writing itself, the whole point of communication has been lost. Therefore a far more useful piece of advice would be to avoid metaphors and similes unless they are truly necessary. They rarely are.

No sentence fragments

Why not? Sometimes these can be used to great effect. I wrote an article in which I not only used sentence fragments, but placed each fragment on a line of its own. I thought that was quite effective in conveying the style in which I would have said the same thing had I been having a conversation with the person I was referring to. In any case, for the sake of balance, these rules ought to include one which forbids writing long, complex, sentences. See, for example, my review of The Making of a Digital World, which contains such gems as:

This process is nested in the process in what Modelski terms the active zone process, defined as the spatial locus of innovation the world system, representing the political process driving the world system evolution, and unfolding over a period of roughly two thousand years (again separated into four phases).

Don't use no double negatives

Hmm. Well I can see that doing so might not be a guarantee of examination success, but certainly in other contexts the use of a double negative can be rather effective. For example:

Badges? We ain't got no badges. We don't need no badges!

(See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stinking_badges)

You'd have a hard job trumping Elvis Presley's triple negative in the song Hard Knocks:

Nobody never gave nothing to me.

Conclusions

The point is that you want to communicate not only clearly, so that you end up saying exactly what you mean, but engagingly. No disrespect to academics, but I have the impression that engaging the reader is usually seen as very much an optional extra. Depending on the nature of what you're writing about, and your target readership, the rules of grammar in the traditional sense may or may not apply. Audience and context are key.

Of course, all this assumes that you know the rules of grammar and good writing to start with. If you don't, those quoted by Steve would be good ones to print out and stick on your wall.

Another good source of information is the Grammar Girl podcast. This is surprisingly useful — surprisingly because, as we all know, rules of grammar and syntax differ between the USA and the UK. As George Bernard Shaw observed, "England and America are two countries divided by a common language."

However, Mignon Fogarty, the 'grammar girl', makes a point of highlighting the correct versions for a British audience and for an American one, where there is a difference.

The website English Language & Usage also seems very useful. It’s organised in a question and answer format. You can ask a question, and tag it as well. A cursory look suggests that other users can answer your question, and people can vote for answers they like. If that seems a little too reliant in the wisdom of crowds, from what I’ve seen the answers are sensible, with examples of usage and full explanations. I’m not sure I’d want to rely on this if I was studying for an English examination, but for answering questions which might arise in the course of writing an article, say, I think this is a very good site. I came across it via Nik Peachey’s A Collaborative English Grammar.

Also check out Anne Wayman's Five blogs to help you improve your writing.

Finally, the much-maligned grammar checker in Word and other wordprocessors does a reasonable job. You don't have to accept all the suggestions, but surely it's better to have the choice than to remain ignorant to the fact that you may have got it wrong?

This is a variation of an article first published on the ICT in Education website.

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Reader Comments (2)

Excellent post! I do my best not to end a sentence with a preposition. My high school English teacher would take off points if we did.
December 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca
Thx! Mine too, Rebecca! But I think we cannot afford to be inflexible.
December 18, 2010 | Registered CommenterTerry Freedman

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