Style and grammar, or why lots of things aren’t ‘wrong’


What do we talk about when we talk about grammar?

Strictly speaking, grammar is the unique patterns of a language, the system of how speakers can put together words and sentences. Grammar encompasses morphology (how to form words), syntax (how to form sentences) and semantics (what words and sentences mean). This is what linguists talk about when they talk about grammar.

The following areas are not grammar in the strict definition, but fall under the larger definition of grammar as “rules and principles of language”: punctuation, phonology (the sound system), orthoepy (correct pronunciation), orthography (correct spelling) and lexicon (vocabulary and usage). These (plus morphology, syntax and semantics) are what most people talk about when they talk about grammar.

The second definition of grammar is pretty broad, but there are language-related rules that fall outside of grammar. Many of these are style rules: whether to put the period inside or outside of quotation marks, whether e-mail is hyphenated or a single word, and so on. Style rules are set to ensure consistency in writing, so readers aren’t distracted by small differences. (And yes, readers do notice when things aren’t consistent.)

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Grammar costs nothing

It’s National Grammar Day, the day each year when we celebrate grammar in all its glamour. Yes, the two words are related, and yes, grammar deserves a celebration. Grammar is what makes communication possible — it allows a person to convey ideas through language, and allows others to understand those ideas.

Why we need grammar

However, too often “rules” of grammar are used as a cudgel to bash anyone who steps out of line. The cudgel approach causes two problems, though: first, many “rules” that are used to smite the “barbarians” have no basis in English grammar and are just a bunch of peeves that have been passed down for generations; second, the division of people into the “civilized” and the “barbarians” — and the snooty correction of the latter by the former — doesn’t help the cause of clear communication but instead ticks off the people labeled as barbarians and distances them from the value of standard English.

This is not to say that grammar isn’t important, or that there’s no need for a standard of communication, particularly in writing. Good grammar enables readers to center on the message, rather than puzzling over what a sentence is attempting to say. Good grammar, correct spelling and proper punctuation lend credibility and authority to a piece of communication.

But the important thing is that grammar is not a “secret handshake” or code available only to those invited to the club — anyone can learn the rules of standard English. All it takes is time and inclination; like manners, grammar costs nothing. There are hundreds of books out there on grammar, language and writing, many of which are available at your local library or even free for download (make sure you don’t pick one that’s a collection of peeves). Plus, there are a multitude of websites, podcasts, videos and Twitter streams that offer tips and direction — all free.

While grammar costs nothing, ignoring it might cost quite a bit: Research has found that not only do readers notice mistakes, they engage less with websites that have language errors, and they are far less likely to buy something from a website that has even a single misspelling. (Spelling isn’t grammar, but it falls under the broad “rules of language” definition of grammar that many people use.)

So if for no other reason than the bottom line, grammar deserves a celebration. But while we’re at it, let’s go ahead and celebrate the beauty, richness and complexity of English for its own sake.

More fun stuff for National Grammar Day:
Send a National Grammar Day e-card from the official site: http://www.nationalgrammarday.com/
Editor Mark’s grammar haiku contest: http://markallenediting.com/2012/03/04/2012grammardayhaiku/
Free punctuation icons: http://www.winepressofwords.com/2012/02/punctuicons-a-free-grammar-themed-icon-set/
Free Grammar Day wallpapers:
http://www.winepressofwords.com/2012/02/a-free-collection-of-national-grammar-day-desktop-wallpapers/

Nutty non-rules of grammar

Speed limit may riseRecently I got a voice mail message from a reader saying that the verb “rise” could be used only with animate subjects, and thus our headline “Speed limit may rise to 75 mph” was incorrect, and it should have said “Speed limit may be raised to 75 mph.” Turning aside the issue of changing a perfectly good active-voice sentence to a wordier passive, I was intrigued, because I’d never run across this “rule” before. After all, bread rises. The sun rises. No one seems to complain about those. So I turned to the bookshelf.

None of our dictionaries said anything about “rise” being restricted to animate subjects.

Our usage manuals cite “rise” in distinction to “raise,” the former intransitive and the latter transitive. But I saw no rules limiting “rise” to certain classes of subjects.

The “raise” entry in one book reminded me of another “rule” I’d run across: “Raise” is for crops or livestock, “rear” is for children. That one merited a mention in Garner’s, which said that “raise” is standard for children as well as farm commodities, and the phrase “born and reared” is “likely to sound affected” in American English.

After I posted the rise/animate issue on Twitter, grammar-book author June Casagrande replied, “That’s one of the nuttiest non-rules I’ve heard, and I’ve heard a lot.”

I’ve heard a lot, too, and it can be really tough to disabuse some folks of the notion that a particular grammatical point is “wrong” when they’ve labored under that pretense for years — or decades. But let’s try.

For the record, these are NOT legitimate rules of English usage:

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