1 + 1 = 2
Yes, the rules sometimes change, and yes, some of us were poorly taught, but the rules are not infinite, and they only change after decades of natural cultural shift. Once you know the basics, you will have the confidence to write in your own natural voice and then punctuate those words with accuracy and nuance. In an era when each of us is writing in a variety of mediums every day, the goal is to produce writing that is (1) clear, (2) concise, (3) accurate, and (4) appropriate. Don’t let erroneous or obsolete mechanics prevent your readers from hearing your voice. The purpose of writing is to communicate content that is meaningful, memorable, and persuasive, which means that despite the time it takes to craft your mechanics well, the best-placed commas and periods are completely unseen.
The rules of basketball gave me confidence, and the space between the rules allowed me to be me. The same can be true when we write. [Image: Dan Carlson | Unsplash]
One reason I enjoyed playing basketball in my elementary and high school years was for the sheer simplicity of the sport: The rules were finite, consistent, and – for the most part – unchanging. Once the players accepted the boundaries of the rules, that was when finesse and creativity began: a sideways pass, a defensive screen, a sudden left hook. As point guard, I could dribble the ball down court with my right hand while my left hand was raised with a number, and my teammates would magically scurry across the court in the pattern we had prearranged. The rules gave me confidence, and the space between the rules allowed me to be me.
The same can be true when we write. Yes, American English is arguably one of the richest, most nuanced languages in the world. With roughly one million words and counting, the English language is complicated by its scaffolding of influences from a variety of other languages: Latin, Greek, French, Italian, German, Norman, Dutch, Celtic, Spanish, Arabic, Indian, Hebrew, and Yiddish. Yes, there is a basic mathematical structure beneath, and yes, there are frequent deviations from the standard equations, but all is manageable once you begin to see the 1 + 1 = 2 that undergirds the complexities.
The rules of writing are manageable once you begin to see the 1 + 1 = 2 that undergirds the complexities. [Image: Julian Alexander | Unsplash]
HERE IS WHERE SOME OF THE CONUNDRUMS OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE LIE:
• Idioms: An idiom is a group of words whose combined meaning is entirely different from the meaning of the individual words. Typically the meaning arises from a metaphor, story, or event, but not always.
◦ He jumped the gun.
He moved too quickly.
◦ She felt sicker than a dog.
She felt very ill.
◦ Yesterday it was raining cats and dogs.
Yesterday it rained very hard.
◦ His personality rubs me the wrong way.
His personality irritates me.
◦ That car costs an arm and a leg.
The car is very expensive.
◦ Why does she feel the need to cut corners?
Why does she choose the easy way, skipping important components?
◦ I think we should let sleeping dogs lie.
I think we should leave the situation as it is so we don’t cause problems.
◦ He missed the boat with that proposal today.
He missed his chance with the proposal today.
◦ Everyone decided to jump on the bandwagon.
Everyone decided to join in.
◦ She wouldn’t be caught dead wearing that coat.
She finds the coat distasteful and would never wear it.
The English language is rarely static. Picture a river that is winding its way towards the ocean, slowing to a placid flow in the summer and fall and swelling to a bubbling rush in the winter and spring. A stick or leaf thrown into the river is tossed and pressed by the waters, occasionally trapped beneath a stone or tree root as it is pushed along toward the ocean. When a new idea or moment in history enters our linguistic timeline, it sends ripples through the culture in a forward-moving, continually shifting way.
Here is the linguistic line idioms often travel:
For example, if I say I can be ready at the drop of a hat, you know that I will be ready instantly at your urging and won’t cause you any delay. A non-English speaker would likely have little understanding of what drop or hat have to do with getting ready, but history buffs will know that the early 19th century was a time when men wore hats and those hats were sometimes used to start an event: When the signaler dropped his hat in a downward sweep, the race or fight began.
A simile is a figure of speech that includes the words like or as: I will be as ready to go as a Wild West gunfighter waiting for the drop of a hat. A metaphor is a figure of speech that closely mirrors the simile but does not include the words like or as; unlike an idiom, the meaning of a metaphor can typically be discerned by the context of the sentence: I will be a Wild West gunfighter, ready to fight at the drop of a hat. The complexity of the idiom is that it sheds all contexts and often we are left with a phrase that holds meaning for native speakers, but even we may not know the origins of that meaning.We may strive for clarity with the words we choose, but when the words gather together in English-typical idiomatic ways, is clarity truly possible?
• Homonyms, Homophones, & Heteronyms: English has many words that have multiple meanings and often are pronounced differently depending on the meaning intended, which can lead to further confusion as we strive to communicate well. Homonyms (“same meaning”), homophones (“same sound”), and heteronyms (“different meaning”) are symptomatic of a language so heavily influenced by other languages and cultures.
◦ Homonyms are words that are pronounced and spelled the same but have different meanings.
▪ The price seemed fair to me.
He can’t wait to go to the fair.
▪ I asked him to lie down.
She said she would never lie to me.
▪ His left foot is bigger than his right.
I am happy to foot the bill this time.
◦ Homophones are words that are pronounced the same but have different meanings and sometimes-different spellings.
▪ The squirrel is in the tree over there.
Why won’t the children pick up their toys?
I wonder when they’re planning to come home.
▪ He ran to the bus.
She would like to go to the movie, too.
I ate two sandwiches yesterday.
◦ Heteronyms are words that are spelled the same but have different pronunciations and different meanings.
▪ She wore a red bow in her hair.
I was told to bow deeply after finishing my performance.
He stood at the bow of the boat, watching for whales.
▪ The cat stared at the shiny object in the grass.
I object to your angry tone.
As with idioms, the best approach for learning homonyms, homophones, and heteronyms is to continually ask clarifying questions when you are on the receiving end. When you are writing, always consider whether your audience will hear your meaning clearly. The onus is on the writer to always, always know his or her audience well long before pressing the “send” button.
• Oxymorons: An oxymoron is a phrase whose words have contradictory meaning. While some oxymorons are ironic and intentional, many are not and can cause confusion. Most are so deeply embedded in our language that we don’t even realize what they are.
◦ an exact estimate
a precise amount
◦ a crash landing
a tragic crash
◦ a devout atheist
someone who is firm in his or her unbelief
◦ old news
information that is no longer new
◦ a minor miracle
a surprising and happy occurrence
◦ loosely sealed
shut, but not too tightly
◦ seriously funny
◦ a small crowd
a gathering of people, although not too large
◦ a working vacation
a trip where one plans to continue working
◦ an unbiased opinion
an opinion that is not swayed by popular thought
As with all figures of speech, writers must be aware of their audience and whether unintended oxymorons could lead those readers astray. How old are your readers? What race, class, gender, religion, education, and culture?
• Context: A higher-context culture is relational and interpersonal, with assumed common contexts that make it possible for individuals to leave many things unspoken; higher-context cultures are more common in countries where there is low racial diversity. Individuals in a lower-context culture, on the other hand, tend to be explicit in their communication.
◦ High-context cultures include
Afghan, African, Arabic, Brazilian, Chinese, Filipino. French Canadian, French, Greek, Hawaiian, Hungarian, Indian, Indonesian, Italian, Irish, Japanese, Korean, Latin American, Nepali, Pakistani, Persian, Portuguese, Russian, Slavic, Spanish, Thai, Turkish, Vietnamese.
◦ Low-context cultures include Australian, Dutch, English Canadian, English, Finnish, German, Israeli, New Zealander, Scandinavian, Swiss, American.
Specific regions of the United States are considered higher context than others – the South, for example – but the United States overall is a lower-context culture; we are more individualistic, less dependent on shared experiences, and more likely to use words to explain ourselves thoroughly. The challenge, however, is we are a lower-context culture with a higher-context language. As we see in the examples above, American English is deeply embedded with idioms and mythologies that are culture- and history-dependent rather than word-dependent. We may use copious words to explain ourselves, but are the words we use conveying the meaning we intend?
• Exceptions: The rule exceptions in English are frequent and sometimes surprising with variations in pronunciation, spelling, and syntax. Most of these exceptions are symptoms of a language heavily influenced by a multicultural society, and many can be traced to the language of origin. It is not uncommon for languages to have irregularities; Russian and Chinese are two languages known for their rule exceptions and complex syntax. While most native English speakers bemoan the rule exceptions, the tendency of American English to be culture-rich and metaphor-dependent is a far more unique and perplexing dynamic
American English is deeply embedded with idioms and mythologies that are culture- and history-dependent rather than word-dependent. We may use copious words to explain ourselves, but are the words we use conveying the meaning we intend? [Image: Aaron Burden | Unsplash]
Sometimes the rules change, and sometimes the rules are not taught correctly in the first place. As we seek to differentiate between essential and inessential rules, be sure you discard the rules that should be forgotten.
HERE ARE 12 RULES TO FORGET:
1. “Do not begin a sentence with a conjunction.”
Elementary school teachers often tell students to avoid beginning a sentence with and or but because a young writer might write a fragment rather than a full sentence: And the dog. But feel free to start sentences with conjunctions. And do it as often as you like, as long as your purpose and your audience are well served.
2. “Do not split an infinitive.”
This rule likely refers to Latin, where an infinitive is a single word and therefore impossible to split: to see is videre, for example. But in English, where an infinitive is always to + verb, it is often necessary to split the infinitive in order to avoid awkwardness and confusion. The university plans to more than double its enrollment in the next decade would be a difficult sentence to reword without the more than sitting between the infinitive words to and double.
3. “Do not end a sentence with a preposition.”
In Latin grammar, the preposition must always precede the prepositional object with which it is linked. Although many students were taught this years ago, contemporary grammarians agree that – like the split infinitive – it is not necessary to force Latin rules onto English grammar, particularly when the model leaves standard sentences twisted and confused.
Consider the following acceptable sentence-ending prepositions below:
We wondered where the kitten had come from.
The child got into the bathtub once it was filled all the way up.
When I shouted his name, he looked over.
When she stepped off the escalator, she was careful to step down.
He always prefers it when his children are near.
4. “Place commas and periods where you have a natural pause.”
I frequently meet students who have been taught this rule, and I am always amazed by our loose definitions of natural and pause. I have days when I am fatigued and my pauses are frequent, and then I have other days when I am well caffeinated and I hardly pause at all. Would I skip commas on the latter days and use them copiously on the former? If you were taught this rule, please remove it from your brain. Commas and periods follow simple mathematical rules, as do all punctuation marks in the English language.
5. “The serial comma is unnecessary.”
The serial comma is the comma immediately preceding the conjunction in a list. In the example We went to the store to buy apples, oranges, and bananas, the comma just before the conjunction and is the serial comma. Also known as the Oxford comma in recognition of the Oxford University Press preference for the comma, the serial comma first came into discussion among grammarians in the late 1800s. Most current academic style guides mandate the use of the comma, including APA, MLA, and Turabian. The Associated Press Stylebook, used by journalists and public relations specialists nationwide, advises against its use unless absolutely necessary. In a 2017 U.S. court case, the absence of a serial comma led to ambiguity and allowed the court to interpret a rule more narrowly than might have been intended. If you plan to be a journalist, review the AP’s current recommendations. If you don’t plan to be a journalist, use the serial comma in every list you write.
6. “Periods and commas go inside or outside quotation marks depending on the situation.”
While British English calls from commas and periods inside quotation marks in certain situations and outside quotation marks in others, the rule in the United States is simple: periods and commas always go inside quotation marks.
Consider the following:
Her father explained that the mini orange is called a “kumquat,” but the girl wasn’t sure she wanted to try one.
“We need to get the project done today,” the woman said.
With the increasing popularity of machine typesetting in the late 19th century, typesetters determined that it was easier to nest the minor comma and period keys inside the heavier quotation mark keys rather than risk losing or displacing the thin slices of metal. American grammarians agreed to the change; British English users chose to hold onto King’s English.
7. “Use two spaces after periods and other terminal punctuation.”
Typing two spaces after a period suggests to your readers that you are over 40 years old and have not paid attention to current practices. Typewriters in the 19th and 20th centuries used non-proportional fonts, which means each letter and character occupied the same width on the page. For reading ease, typists used two spaces after periods, question marks, exclamation points, colons, and semicolons. With the introduction of the computer era and an increasing variety of flexible fonts, double sentence spacing or “French spacing” became unnecessary. While the APA stylebook allows for one or two spaces after a period, all other American grammar and style guides have called for just one space since the late 1990s. Unless you have a professor who insists on two spaces, use one.
8. “Use ‘an’ before vowels and ‘a’ before consonants.”
Many of us were taught this article rule, but it is missing one critical word: sound. Here it is again: Use “an” before vowel sounds and “a” before consonant sounds. Consider these examples, which fit under the corrected rule but not under the former:
He woke up an hour before his alarm.
She earned an MBA last year.
Did you earn an A on your exam?
At least he gave an honest answer.
She never intended to be a one-hit wonder.
Speaking of articles, when the word “the” comes before a consonant sound, we pronounce it with the short thuh sound; when “the” comes before a vowel sound, we pronounce it thee: thuh house, thee university, thuh hamburger, thee opposite.
9. “Always use active voice.”
While active voice is typically more engaging for readers, there can be instances where passive voice is more appropriate. When a writer uses active voice, the main subject of the sentence performs the action of the main verb. Consider the following examples of active voice:
The boy rode his bicycle.
The girl sprinted past the skate park.
Everyone shouted at once.
When a writer uses passive voice, the subject of the sentence receives the action of the verb or the agent of the action is omitted entirely. A sentence in passive voice often requires morewords and can seem distanced or flat. But in scientific and technical writing, passive voice is sometimes preferred because it sounds more objective. Consider the following examples of passive voice:
The test tube samples were isolated on Friday and tested again on Monday.
The carburetor was replaced twice in one year.
Sixteen new items were listed on Craig’s List yesterday.
Be aware of the difference between active and passive voice, and choose the mode that best fits your audience and purpose.
10. “Do not use first-person pronouns.”
While the first-person pronouns “I”, “we”, and “us” are sometimes inappropriate in writing that is intended to be objective and impersonal, the dictate that first-person pronouns should never be used is grossly misleading. Purpose and audience are always the best determinants in writing, and too often writers who avoid the first-person “I” produce writing that is cumbersome and unclear. Unless you have a professor, boss, or situation that overtly forbids the use of first person, use “I” freely to bring clarity and distinction to your writing.
11. “Do not use slang.”
A better rule is to, instead, focus on what you should be doing: paying keen attention to your purpose and audience. Any word choices you make – from slang to King’s English – will directly affect how your audience perceives you and your ideas. While slang phrases like three sheets to the wind, emo, and easy-peasy would be inappropriate in an academic essay or an email to your board of directors, such language can sometimes bolster your credibility with an audience that otherwise might be distrustful.
Like slang, overly formal language can make you sound stilted or insincere. “Heretofore” or “thereafter”, for example, could be off-putting in an email to a coworker or appear unnatural in an academic essay when you don’t normally speak that way. As always, consider the predilections of your audience and the finer nuances of your purpose, and make your decisions regarding word choice accordingly.
12. “Do not use contractions.”
As with slang, your use of contractions depends on your audience. In academic writing, an overuse of contractions can sound informal, rushed, and even uneducated. In many emails, the avoidance of contractions, on the other hand, can make one sound proud or even egotistic. If you were taught to eliminate all contractions from your writing, erase that rule from your repertoire. Instead focus your attention on the purpose of your work and the audience to whom you are writing, and decide whether contractions would be inclusive or off-putting for those you intend to reach.