Unfortunately, there are a lot of myths about ‘rules’ in writing. Sorting out what’s right or wrong versus what’s preferred or asked for can be tricky for the inexperienced author. In this article, I offer some guidance.
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Writing well means understanding the difference between a rule and a preference. In the world of the written word, these two things often become confused.
How do you sort out the rules from the preferences?
There is a difference between choosing where to place an apostrophe and choosing how to spell ‘focused’.
You can get the first one wrong because different placements will create different meanings. You can’t get the second one wrong, but you can be inconsistent; ‘focused’ and ‘focussed’ are simply variants of the same word and both are correct in British and American English.
So, how do you work out what’s a rule and what’s a choice?
Check a good-quality dictionary or reference manual if you’re unsure. Oxford Dictionaries Online is a great place to start because it shows spelling variants – e.g. whiskey/whisky, organize/organise, centre/center – and explains whether these are equally acceptable across different regions, more likely to be used in one particular part of the world, or distinct to a particular area.
Refer to a style manual. A good-quality style manual should distinguish between a rule and a preference. Which one you choose should be relevant to your audience. If you’re working with a publisher, the press will probably have its own house style, or refer you to a preferred guide like New Hart’s Rules or The Chicago Manual of Style.
If you’re a self-publishing author, you can create your own, though a professional editor and proofreader should offer this as part of their service.
Creating your own style sheet enables you to record decisions about hyphenation, numbering, capitalization, spelling variation, punctuation style, etc., and enforce common-sense consistency without becoming bogged down in overly prescriptive ‘rules’ taught to you by someone who thought they knew better.
You can find a free template for a style sheet on my Self-publishers page.
Check online resources from grammarians and linguists to help you separate the good sense from the nonsense. That way, you can defend your decisions.
Consider your audience. Certain types of writing (and those who will be reading it) bend more easily to particular style choices.
Broadly speaking, a good piece of writing will be sensitive to its audience. Variations in punctuation style, idiom usage, spelling and grammar abound, but they are just that – variations, not mistakes.
The most common myths debunked …
There are plenty of excellent online articles highlighting common things that writers are told are ‘wrong’ when in fact they’re perfectly fine. I’ve provided a summary here, though if you read the linked-to articles in full you’ll quickly realize that the same sticking points arise time and again.
Myth 1: Verbs with -iz suffixes are Americanisms (for example, specialise vs specialize). This isn’t true. In fact, use of the -iz form has been around for over 400 years and is a completely standard variant that’s recognized, and widely used, within UK publishing and beyond. Consistency is what you should look out for.
A word of caution, though – take care not to apply the style globally to your text. There are some words that must retain their -is suffix (e.g. compromise, advertise). Oxford provides a useful list of the most common words that must be spelled with -is. If you’re in doubt, look up a word’s spelling in a good-quality dictionary that includes variants.
Myth 2: You can’t split an infinitive. There are numerous online articles debunking this myth, but one of my favourites is Language Myths by Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman (Grammarphobia).
They write: ‘Writers of English have been merrily “splitting” infinitives since the 1300s. It was perfectly acceptable until the mid-nineteenth century, when Latin scholars – notably Henry Alford in his book A Plea for the Queen’s English – misguidedly called it a crime. (Some linguists trace the taboo to the Victorians’ slavish fondness for Latin, a language in which you can’t divide an infinitive.) This “rule” was popular for half a century, until leading grammarians debunked it. But its ghost has proved more durable than Freddie Krueger.’
Myth 3: You can’t use a preposition at the end of a sentence. This is incorrect. You can use a preposition at the end of a sentence – in fact, sometimes it’s far more comfortable for your reader.
Says the OxfordWords blog: ‘Most of us learned in school that ending a sentence with a preposition was a mistake. This “rule”, however, is misguided, dating from the 17th century, when several notable writers tried to codify English to fit more neatly with Latin grammar. Clearly, there are instances where attempting to avoid ending a sentence in a preposition results in a statement that is either over-formal or simply poor English.’
Consider the following examples:
Myth 4: You mustn’t begin a sentence with a conjunction. This is yet another dose of hypercorrection – obviously, you don’t want your writing to be boring, so it pays to not overdo it, but there’s nothing grammatically wrong with starting a sentence with a conjunction. And in some cases it can even add punch to a sentence (see what I did there?).
Richard Feloni, in 10 popular grammar myths debunked by a Harvard Linguist, reviews linguist and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style (published by Allen Lane in 2014), and writes: ‘Teachers instruct young students that it is incorrect to begin a sentence with a conjunction (and, because, but, or, so, also) because it helps keep them from writing in fragments, Pinker writes, but it's advice that adults don't need to follow. Avoid writing an ugly “megasentence” full of connected independent clauses, and feel free to start a sentence with a conjunction’ (Business Insider UK, 2015).
Myth 5: You must place two spaces after a full point. Actually, it's best not to – it looks awful on documents produced with modern word-processing software such as Word or InDesign.
Publishers don’t do it; nor do professional typographers. When we do it, it makes the text look gappy and amateurish. You can do a quick search and replace in Word to remove double spaces (simply click Ctrl H, and then type two spaces into the Find What box and a single space in the Replace With box).
This supposed typographical rule is purported to be a hangover from the days of monospaced letters on typewriters; these had only one font that gave equal space on a page to a wider letter such a ‘w’ and a narrower symbol like a full point. Whether that's true is not the point. Go to your bookshelf and pick up any contemporary, professionally published book; I promise you this – all full points will have a single space after them. Delete your double spaces and you're more likely to look like a pro!
For an entertaining discussion of the issue, read Farhad Manjoo’s article Space Invaders (Slate, 2011).
Myth 6: You can’t use ‘they’ as a singular pronoun. This old chestnut gets a lot of peevers in a pickle. It’s a shame because it’s a rather splendid solution for those who want to write clearly and succinctly while avoiding gendered language. It’s been in use for a while too – from at least the sixteenth century.
Some publisher house styles demand the avoidance of the singular ‘they’; others embrace it, given that, as Arike Okrent notes, ‘[i]t’s perfectly good English. It sounds completely natural. Great writers like Shakespeare and Austen used it’ (4 Fake Grammar Rules You Don’t Need to Worry About, Mental Floss, 2015). Oxford Dictionaries concurs.
Note, though, Oxford’s follow-up caution: ‘Two things are matters of fact, however: many people use it, and many others dislike it intensely. If you’re writing something, it is therefore advisable to consider who might read it, and what their views might be.’
Myth 7: You shouldn’t start a sentence with ‘However’. You can, but getting the punctuation right is essential.
(a) When it’s being used in the sense of ‘Nevertheless’ or ‘But’, it acts as a connector or conjunction with the previous sentence:
(b) ‘However’ can also be used to mean ‘in whatever way’ or ‘regardless of how’. In this case, I wouldn’t place a comma after it because it would interrupt the sentence.
She also provides some thoughtful advice about avoiding placing ‘However’ at the beginning of a sentence: ‘Sometimes it’s still a good idea to avoid it because a lot of people think it's wrong. I don’t advise starting a sentence with ‘however’ in a cover letter for a job application, for example. You don’t want your résumé to get dumped because someone thinks you’ve made a mistake even if you haven’t’ (Quick and Dirty Tips, 2013).
Depressing, but worth bearing in mind!
Final thoughts …
First, consider Jonathon Owen’s reminder that good writers should never ignore register. ‘There’s a time and a place for following the rules, but the writers of these lists typically treat English as though it had only one register: formal writing. They ignore the fact that following the rules in the wrong setting often sounds stuffy and stilted. Formal written English is not the only legitimate form of the language, and the rules of formal written English don’t apply in all situations. Sure, it’s useful to know when to use who and whom, but it’s probably more useful to know that saying To whom did you give the book? in casual conversation will make you sound like a pompous twit’ (12 Mistakes Nearly Everyone Who Writes About Grammar Mistakes Makes, Arrant Pedantry, 2013).
Second, bear in mind that some people’s ‘rules’ are actually just their pet peeves. Taking time to understand the difference between a rule and a preference will at least enable you to defend your choices. However, don’t be surprised if some sticklers still object to your decisions – there’s no consensus.
Says editor and writer Stan Carey, ‘There are local and institutional conventions, but since English lacks an official language academy, there is no universal Standard English. Pick a version and you will find it riddled, as Geoffrey Pullum wrote, “with disorder, illogic, inconsistency, oddity, irregularity, and chaos”. Amidst such ragged variability, clarity is desirable and elegance is admirable, but while certain rules facilitate these qualities, others are misguided myths that undermine them’ (Descriptivism vs. prescriptivism: War is over (if you want it), Sentence First, 2010).
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Louise Harnby is a fiction copyeditor and proofreader. She curates The Proofreader's Parlour and is the author of several books on business planning and marketing for editors and proofreaders.
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