Writing for Business and Pleasure
|Have you ever had the feeling that the people who
devised the rules of English grammar did so for the diabolical purpose of making
you look bad?
Well, you’re not far from the truth. Even the knowledgeable E. B. White, co-author of the classic writing handbook, The Elements of Style, recognized the complexity and capriciousness of the rules that govern our language when he wrote, “English usage is sometimes more than mere taste, judgment, and education – sometimes it’s sheer luck, like getting across the street.”
To make matters worse, no sooner do we learn a few rules and begin to think we know how to apply them then someone tells us they have changed. Is that fair? It’s like trying to hit a moving target. Let’s see if I can bring some order to the chaos.
First of all, it’s helpful to keep in mind that not all rules were created equal. As Joseph Williams points out in Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity & Grace, many rules have come to us as a consequence of “largely random accumulation” and “not all rules of usage have equal standing with all writers of English, even all careful writers of English.”
To prevent these edicts from getting the better of us, let’s divide them into three categories: There are RULES that you should always observe because they have won almost universal acceptance. There are Rules that you should sometimes observe, depending on your audience and your intended stylistic effect. And there are rules that simply aren’t worth observing. Here are examples of each.
RULES: These are the RULES known to every educated writer: Don’t use double negatives, verbs must agree with their subjects, avoid double comparatives, etc. Other examples in this category are RULES that should be known to every educated writer but sometimes are not: the difference between “it’s” and “its” (“it’s” is a contraction of “it is”; “its” is the possessive pronoun), or the correct use of the reflexive pronoun (used when the subject of the sentence acts upon itself, as in “I hurt myself”; not when a pronoun is used as a subject or object, as in “Jane and myself [should be ‘I’] will attend the meeting” or “You can give the report to either John or myself [should be ‘me’]”).
Rules: These are Rules that you may choose to follow or to ignore, depending on the occasion and your intent. For example, as a general rule a paragraph should have more than one sentence to allow for adequate development. But you may choose to write a one-sentence paragraph for special emphasis. Likewise, as a matter of practice you should express your thought in complete sentences (groups of words that contain subjects and predicates and are not introduced by subordinating conjunctions). But you may choose to use a sentence fragment for special effect. Like this. Keep in mind, however, that when you choose to ignore these Rules, you always pay a price with certain readers who expect you to follow them inflexibly.
rules: I like this category best. If you think about it, knowing that certain rules are not worth observing frees you from a good deal of nonsense. It empowers you as a writer. As evidenced by the practice of many careful writers, you may freely ignore the following: Never split an infinitive. Never begin a sentence with “because.” Never begin a sentence with “and” or “but.” And never end a sentence with a preposition.
Perhaps Winston Churchill said it best when someone chided him for breaking the preposition rule: “This is the sort of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.”
And neither should you.
Writing for Business and Pleasure
First, you must learn the rules. You must learn that
verbs has to agree with their subjects and that you should never use no double
negatives. Not to mention them sentence fragments. Second, you must follow the
rules. You must remember that “fewer” refers to number (as in “fewer dollars”)
and “less” refers to quantity (as in “less money”), despite your hearing and
seeing these words misused continually. Third – and here’s the hard part – you
must distinguish between valid rules and nonrules.
end a sentence with a preposition.
begin a sentence with “because.”