Sticking to the Rules

13 Apr 2008


The thing about the English language is that when it can, it defies most of the rules. The “rules” are so loose that they’re more like guidelines or suggestions – and a lot of people out there want to give you their interpretation of the language. There’s the Associated Press Stylebook, New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, Chicago Manual of Style, Strunk and White’s ever-popular The Elements of Style, and many, many other usage books that are tailored to specific genres or audiences (technical writing, academic writing, etc).

While many of “the rules” are actually up for debate, the secret to ending that merry-go-round of confusion is simple: create your own rules!

1. Make your own rules

Consider the serial comma. In MLA format, you need to include the serial comma, as in “apples, oranges, and bananas.” But the serial comma isn’t requisite, so leave it out if you prefer “black bears, brown bears and polar bears.”

Other “rules” that can be broken include not ending sentences with prepositions or splitting infinitives. If it makes for better, lucid copy, go ahead and break the rules.

But don’t go overboard – you still need to obey the timeless rules of grammar that make your copy easy to read. You can’t take it upon yourself to forever banish periods from the ends of sentences. Essential grammar rules (i.e. most of the rules) are non-negotiable.

2. Stick to your house rules

This should be easy to follow. There is no excuse for breaking your own rules – if you use the serial comma, keep using it; if you don’t, don’t use it.

The last few decades have introduced a slew of new words that still have yet to be pinned down as “correct.” Until then, their usage, spelling, and capitalization are still fluid, forcing everyone to decide how these new words will be incorporated in their house style. For instance, do you email or e-mail? Do you surf the Internet, internet, Net, or net? And is it a Web site, web site, or website? Truth is, any of those are as good as the others.

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