“You’ve just violated grammar code part 5, section 29: Using a comma to set off a dependent clause following a restrictive main clause. What do you have to say for yourself?”
You might feel like you’ve been pulled over by the grammar police when reviewing edits from a copyeditor or suggestions from grammar software.
Grammar gets a bad rap. Grammar conventions are like traffic rules—they keep things running smoothly and without them, we’d have have chaos. Still, sometimes we want to speed.
There are many reasons to flout grammar rules, only some of which are valid. Here are a few common defenses:
Defense #1: Everyone else is doing it
While this defense rarely works in traffic court, it has merit in the world of grammar.
Language and usage evolve as our behaviors shift and the world changes. Today, you can safely ignore rules you may have learned years ago, such as:
- Never use a preposition to end a sentence with.
- And, don’t start sentences with conjunctions.
In recent years, the prevailing style guides have all accepted the use of the singular “they” to refer to an individual without assigning gender. (Never mind that we’d been doing so in speech for years.)
Context also matters. Grammar rules are stricter for books and academic papers than blog posts.
For example, a copyeditor will flag most exclamation marks in book manuscripts. In text messages, however, they express warmth, while the simple period may seem angry or terse.
Emails and blog posts live between the extremes of language and grammatical precision.
Defense #2: I’m not from these parts
Although English nearly spans the globe, its words and conventions change adapt locally. The gulf between British English and American English often shows up in vocabulary and nuances of word usage, and occasionally in grammar and punctuation. (We even use different words for the simple period, or full stop.)
Take the thorny issue of where to put the closing punctuation in a sentence like the following (from Writing to Be Understood):
You cannot simply show up with a verbal wrecking ball, saying “trust me.”
Where do you put the period for the sentence? In the United States, it lands inside the ending quotation mark. Not so in the U.K.
You may find different editions (British and English) for reasons of spelling, vocabulary, punctuation, and grammar.
Maybe the closing punctuation convention will shift. My Irish friend Alastair writes, “As a former coder, I just can’t put punctuation inside speech marks when it’s punctuation for the surrounding sentence.”
He’s right in a logical sense. That’s why so many American writers misplace the closing punctuation. If someone complains about it in your writing, tell them, “I’m deeply influenced by British English.”
Defense #3: I didn’t know this rule
In the court system, ignorance of the law is no excuse. The same is true for grammar. With automated grammar checking embedded in word processors and software like Grammarly or ProWritingAid, there’s really no excuse for simple mistakes in important writing.
If you care about your readers, check your work.
However, if a rule is so obscure that it makes no sense to your ear, then you’ve got an argument for pleading Defense #1—everyone else is doing it.
For example, I regularly abandon the correct “whom” when using who as the subject of a sentence, because it sounds awkward.
Who do you serve?
Whom do you serve?
The second one sounds overly stuffy. Not like me. And I’m not alone. That leads us to the last defense:
Defense #4: My voice, my choice
I often disregard the suggestions of automatic grammar checkers when I believe that something “sounds” better or truer to my voice.
Yes, you should use grammar checkers and hire copyeditors for important work. But remember, you’re in the driver’s seat.
You’re the one establishing a relationship with the reader. And that relationship guides your decisions, because…
The reader decides what’s right
Does the reader understand you? Does your choice have the desired effect?
Many excellent writers flout grammar conventions for great effect. Let’s take sentence fragments as an example.
When I find a sentence fragment in a manuscript, it often makes me go back and re-read the sentence to see if I missed something. (Where’s the verb?) That’s adds to the cognitive load of processing the words, and distracts me from the ideas.
Yet skilled writers use fragments for many purposes: a free-form list, a specific tone of voice, or an important point. In his book On Writing Well, William Zinsser uses fragments for voice and effect:
You should give as much thought to choosing your last sentence as you did to your first. Well, almost as much.
The fragment adds a bit of humor, like a wink. And it works because the writing throughout is clear and wonderful.
Defending your choices
I don’t accept every correction from automated grammar checkers. On rare occasions, I decline suggestions from professional copyeditors. In every case, I do it for a reason that I would happily argue in grammar court.
If your reader trusts that you, as a writer, bend conventions like sentence structure with care and purpose, they will probably not mind. They may enjoy it. Violate the rules thoughtlessly, however, and readers will think you don’t care enough to edit. You’ll lose their trust.
If you want to break the rules, make sure that you know why you’re making that choice. Be kind to the reader.
More about flouting grammar
If you’re a grammar rule-follower, check out my short sentence fragment exercise on YouTube.
For an entertaining discourse on the differences between American English and British English, read The Prodigal Tongue by Lynne Murphy.