Episode 20: Elements of Style


Grammar is an imprecise science and a moving target. As much as grammar purist would love to maintain a standard of what is correct and what is blatantly bad, grammar has a way of slipping through our fingers. The graves of old usage rules are scattered about the landscape of past prose. Instant messaging and email have further transformed the landscape. In my opinion, there aren’t fewer rules now than before; there are simply different rules for the 21st century. With all that said, however, grammar still gives a quick first impression (that’s because English majors like me are still editors and publishers).

The most important aspect of using proper grammar is simply to remember that it’s situational. Formal writing demands a much higher standard of correct language usage than informal. On most blogs, for example, you can get away with a more relaxed, conversational style, and most creative writing now days demands the natural approach. (Keep in mind that you can use a more formal style if it fits the subject matter or the character.) Nonfiction and technical writing, on the other hand, often do not sound like everyday conversation and usually demand a strict adherence to a particular style guide.

Grammar does have a purpose (and it is not to make you get bad grades or to sell grammar books . . . mostly). The purpose is simply to provide a standardized language that anyone can read and understand without requiring specialized knowledge from the writer. Let’s say, for the sake my world-famous quirky examples, that syntax (word order) was not standardized in English to some degree. Then I might write something like this:

Met Harry when Sally.

Sure, you might figure out what I mean (When Harry met Sally), but only because the phrase is fairly well known in my generation. And, yes, this is a rather extreme example, but even simple comma rules can cause confusion if used incorrectly, as in one famous example:

The panda eats, shoots and leaves.

Standard grammar provides a starting point of agreement between writer and reader (and the editor who pokes his nose in here and there). You certainly don’t need to be an English scholar or know every grammar rule, but there are some excellent resources out there that will get you on the right track.

Books: The Elements of Style (Strunk and White)—still a classic and my favorite “grammar purist” book; Handy Grammar, Usage & Punctuation (Random House–Webster)—despite the lack of a serial comma in the title, a quick guide to the basics; Chicago Manual of Style—in my mind, the granddaddy tome of all things grammar (however, you can’t go wrong with any of the big name style guides)

Websites: Even though I disagree with her on some aspects of grammar (and extra-grammatical areas as well), I still heartily recommend Grammar Girl for a new take on an old topic. She covers everything from asterisks to apostrophes. There are also a plethora of free sites out there that offer primers.

Don’t fear grammar—instead, think about the people who will see you as lacking credibility if your grammar is bad.

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One thought on “Episode 20: Elements of Style

  1. In Episode 19 you wrote, “Before moving beyond the boundaries, make sure you know where the boundaries are and how they work.” I think that applies equally well with grammatical boundaries: you should first understand the reasoning behind the rules and learn to apply them consistently; then you may risk breaking ones you think need breaking.

    Also, one small disagreement I have with you: while you write, “[Y]ou can’t go wrong with any of the big name style guides,” I do think you can go wrong with some that are written for a specific (however large) market. For instance, while the AP Stylebook is well known, its ruling criteria are at times peculiar to the needs of print media (which may override good sense in other media, in my opinion!).

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