Hide! National Grammar Day looms
You needn't lift a rodent out of the ground in February to figure out that National Grammar Day is not far off. March 4 is less than a month away, and that leaves you with little time to mend your slovenly ways.
But National Grammar Day is not time for fretting or hysterics. It’s a day to take a cold, hard look at what you imagine to be the case with grammar and usage, comparing it to what is actually the case. By way of assisting you, You Don’t Say offers a few principles to keep in mind. *
English has rules, but not as many as you think.
There are rules for making subjects agree with verbs. There are rules for making nouns plural — you don’t get to use z instead of s. Some of the rules can get complicated, particularly because of exceptions, but they belong to a fairly discrete core group.
English has idioms.
You can’t call them rules, but if you fail to observe idiomatic expressions and constructions, people will think you odd. Certain prepositions accompany certain verbs, just because they do. You can comment on a subject, but you cannot comment of it. And some expressions are idioms; that is, they have a meaning that cannot be deduced from the meanings of the individual words, either singly or in combination. When you discover something, you come across it; when you fall asleep, you drop off.
English has conventions.
Spelling and capitalization are agreed-on practices, though they can vary widely by region, nation, genre or community of writers. The Chicago Manual of Style is a dauntingly thorough guide to the conventions of book publishing. The Associated Press Stylebook serves the same function for newspapers. But such conventions hold in limited circumstances and contexts; they are not universal and are not meant to be.
Moreover, conventions shift over time, and what you were taught in the sixth grade may no longer be the case.
Guidelines are not rules.
Winston Churchill is frequently quoted as saying that short words are best and old words best of all. “Blood, toil, tears, and sweat” carries an impact not to be denied. But if you look at his published work, you’ll find that he get can get as Augustan as the best. What you write will vary, depending on subject, context and audience.
Individual stylistic preferences are that and no more.
You may agree with H.W. Fowler that it is sensible to use that, generally, to introduce a restrictive clause and which, generally, to introduce a nonrestrictive clause, but it is not a rule, or even an unquestioned convention. It is an individual stylistic preference, like a taste for inserting commas to replicate the pauses of spoken language. You may want to restrict who to refer to people, that to animals and inanimate objects; but that is merely your preference, not a practice that you can oblige someone else to follow.
Some “rules” are mere superstitions.
Split infinitives. Not ending a sentence with a preposition. Do I have to go on again about the nonsensical and non-English prohibition on “split verbs”? If you thought I was tiresome about Wikipedia … **
So put away that cell phone. Sit up straight. Look at me while I’m talking to you. You have three weeks to clean up your act. Get busy.
* I’ll forward you subsequently to Language Log or other sites at which the experts explain patiently how I have made a hash of things.
** Oh yes, here’s a blog by someone who carries on about Wikipedia in a way that leaves me looking like a model of restraint.