Unpopular grammar rules

March 17, 2015

Last week, we discussed a few “rules” of grammar and usage, asking whether it was time to let them go. We also asked which “rules” you would keep or jettison.

The outpouring, while more like a trickle, was predictably passionate. People love their grammar.

Also not surprisingly, many people who responded are professional editors or writers, citing grammar terms many muggles might not understand.

“Subject pronoun,” “predicate nominative,” and the like are almost insider terms, ones that many people forget shortly after learning them in school. As we say, knowing why those rules exist, and deciding whether to apply them in that situation, is more important than just following the rules blindly.

Some suggestions had less to do with grammar and more to do with style:

Dave Rosenstein emailed: “Brits put close quotes inside commas and periods; we put them outside. …Yet, there are phrases I would far (further?) prefer to enclose in freestanding quotation marks undisturbed by an interrupting comma or period. Am I alone here?”

British English calls for all punctuation marks to be treated logically, going inside quotation marks if they are part of the quote and outside if not. American English calls for commas and periods to always go inside quotation marks; the practice may date to when type was set by hand, and the little period or comma could easily fall off. That doesn’t explain, though, why semicolons and question marks, among others about the same size as a period or comma, go inside quotation marks when they are part of the quotation, and outside when are were part of the sentence containing the quotation.

Of course, the serial comma came in for its share of comments.

Whether to use that last comma is based on style, but (not to sound repetitive) using it or refusing to use it based on rules and not on the clarity needed in that particular situation is more problematic.

As might be expected, there were a few suggestions to kill the messenger.

Jinnosuke Zeko, whose Google+ profile says is “Just a penguin who waxes poetic and spends too much time at Brewster’s,” wrote, in part: “By suggesting that readers look scornfully upon the English language and highlight rules they believe to be ‘annoying’ or ‘pointless,’ you are actively encouraging them to lessen their academic standards. You are encouraging bad writing. This, by extension, makes you bad journalists.”

And Chuck Anderson emailed, in part: Why not just give up all the rules and let people babble whatever pops into their consciousnesses? Here’s why not: faster than you can say ‘whoa!’, no one would understand what anyone was trying to say. There are rules of grammar and reasons for them.”

We agree completely. We are not advocating wholesale abandonment of grammar, merely the recognition that at some point, some of those “rules” change, because, as Anderson noted, “language evolves.” And, as Anderson said, “There have to be forces, however, that keep the evolution from hurtling down the track so fast that the passengers are left behind.”

But when so many people are using “their” in place of “his” or “hers,” or have never heard the word “stanch,” who are the passengers being left behind?

The largest reaction, though, came from our use of “transgendered,” resulting in tweets and emails like this one:

That allows a great segue to next week’s topic, respectful language.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.