Re: Language rules

Subject: Re: Language rules
From: Jim Purcell <jimpur -at- MICROSOFT -dot- COM>
Date: Wed, 13 Aug 1997 11:11:35 -0700

Geoff Hart writes:

> Speaking as a moderately heretical editor, there are _no_
> rules for English, though there're books full of rules of
> thumb. These rules of thumb all boil down to either "it
> doesn't make much sense in terms of clear communication but
> everyone does it anyway and will understand" or "we do it
> this way because everyone who speaks English has been
> trained to understand this form of communication". If you
> can't fit a rule into either category, make darn sure you
> understand whether the rule facilitates communication
> before you inflict it on your readers.

I know what Geoff is getting at, but let's not confuse grammar with
style. Grammar is a set of rules by which we construct speech:
subject-verb agreement, word order, that sort of thing. Fortuantely,
grammar is pretty well understood, at least by native speakers. About
the only time we get tripped up on grammar is when we write an overlong,
overcomplex sentence in which we lose track of subject, tense, and

Style is a matter of appropriateness to the situation. If this list is
any guide, every writer's second hobby is pointing out things in
commercially published or in-house style guides and usage dictionaries
that she considers arrant nonsense. While this is always a fun activity,
it misses the point of these documents. They should not be interpreted
as weapons of oppression wielded by inflexible editors, but as
compendiums of effective solutions to common problems that work most of
the time. The less of these things you have to think about every time
they come up, the more you can focus on what is unique about the writing
you are doing right now. You are, or should be, free to ignore the style
guide when you need to, but know what you are doing and why.

Jim Purcell
mailto:jimpur -at- microsoft -dot- com
My opinions, not Microsoft's

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