Suzannah Windsor Freeman is a writer and blogger at her site, Write It Sideways.
I recently came across this amusing post on Humorous Reminders of Common Writing Mistakes, which made me ask myself this very question.
Reading through the list of writing faux pas, I kept vacillating between, “Oh, I would never do that!” and, “Uh oh, I do that all the time.” Once, I would have referred to myself as a definite Word Nerd (because I must admit to the guilty pleasure of reading the dictionary).
Today, I’m not so sure.
So I stopped to consider what separates Word Nerds from Grammar Rebels, and what unites them in their love of language. This is what I came up with:
Word Nerds are well-educated in the technical aspects of language and believe we should obey its rules.
Grammar Rebels are also well-educated in the technical aspects of language, but they believe it’s okay (and sometimes necessary) to break certain rules.
So, what’s the one thing Nerds and Rebels can still agree on?
There are certain language rules that must never be broken. Ever. (Well, except if you’re writing dialogue and your characters can’t speak English properly.)
Here’s a list of rules that both groups of writers agree shouldn’t be broken:
* Spelling: Unless you’re talking about the difference between American and British English, spelling is not a matter of preference.
* Double Negatives: Say, “I don’t have any cash,” not “I don’t have no cash.” If you ‘don’t have no cash,’ you actually do have cash.
* Semicolons: Semicolons separate two clauses that are related to one another, but which could be used on their own. Alternatively, they can separate items in a list. Don’t use them for any other reason.
* Apostrophes: There’s no juggling these little guys. Use them only to show possession or in a contraction.
* Commas: Commas should only be used when necessary and they must be put in the right spot.
* Redundancy: Snow can just be snow–-not ‘cold snow’ or ‘white snow.’ All snow is cold and white.
* Quotation marks: There are hard and fast rules about how to use quotation marks. Learn them and use them correctly.
* Punctuation: Periods, question marks and exclamations should only be used where they’re meant to be used. No swapping allowed.
* Formal writing: If you’re writing a business letter, an formal essay or a work document, adhere to the commonly accepted rules of grammar.
Can you think of any others?
Now, for the rules Grammar Rebels routinely break:
* Split infinitives: It’s okay to say, “I’m going to pick Johnny up from school,” instead of the proper “I’m going to pick up Johnny from school.”
* Run-on sentences: I’ve seen this done in fiction to produce a stream-of-consciousness type feel.
* Sentence fragments: Your sentences don’t always have to be complete with subject and predicate. Like this.
* Beginning sentences with conjunctions: You can start sentences with and, but and or for emphasis. But don’t do it all the time or it gets annoying.
* Contractions: You can freely use contractions in any kind of informal writing. We use them everyday in speech, so they’re somewhat necessary.
* Ending sentences with prepositions: Usually you can end with a preposition and it sounds fine. In cases where it sounds better to use the more formal structure, use that instead.
* Paragraphs: Paragraphs length is up for experimentation, but variety is the key.
* “They” as a singular pronoun: You can use they or them to mean one person, informally. In fact, you probably do it all the time when you’re talking. “What did the person on the phone say?” “They said to call back in an hour.”
Which camp do you fall into? (Or should I say, “Into which camp do you fall?”)
I highly suspect there’s a little Rebel in all of us. In fact, I’m almost willing to guarantee you’re less of a Word Nerd than you might think.
When is it okay to break the rules? When is it not?