Writing Tips: When to Adhere to the Rules and When to Break Them, and Why Should You Care, Anyway?

Surprise: there is a place for bad grammar in good writing. But when and where? And, really, why should you care?

Tips about grammar for creative writers, bloggers, professionals, employees, business owners, and just about anyone:

1. There is a place for bad grammar in good writing. But one has to use it with intent and know where it is appropriate. There is a difference between what is intended and what is sloppy, and readers can tell the difference.

2. Conventions in spelling, grammar, and punctuation are there for a reason: they facilitate comprehension. Punctuation is as powerful a tool as the words themselves and, of course, parts of speech such as “your” (possession) and “you’re” (subject and verb) as well as adding “apostrophe s” (possession or contraction) or just “s” (plural) are neither interchangeable nor are they language evolution. However, “mompreneur” is a good example of language evolution. In creative writing, there are ways to denote slang, broken speech, pauses, and so on by using slang words (gonna, goin’, ain’t, yeah), m-dashes (a line like this–to show abruptness, sudden change in thought, or a cut off sentence), and tag lines (author additions to dialogue to denote a natural pause or to give speech timing and rhythm), which help your reader to “hear” the character and the nuances of speech that make him or her real. In some blogs and advertising, casual language and “talking to the audience” in a natural tone are techniques to make the reader feel comfortable and feel a sense of familiarity. (Notice I said “techniques.” The writer has chosen to do this to achieve a desired result.)

3. Word processors and grammar checkers are a good start rather than a good finish. They cannot interpret what you really intend to say, so you need to use your own human brain to interpret the recommendations. They also miss homonyms and many other errors, and make recommendations that are outright wrong because they interpreted the use of a word in its noun form, for example, but you used it as an adjective. Beware the ‘s/s grammar checker recommendations as well. This means you need to know your grammar, know what you’re saying, and which form is correct for the way in which you used it.

4. It is not the publishing house’s job to correct all your grammar. They are busy enough–so to increase your chances of having your work looked at, no matter how wonderful your idea, put in the time to learn to write and edit well or hire an editor before you submit.

5. Since good writing and editing require years of study to learn well, it is not a requirement for everyone to be a polished writer or skilled editor–but that doesn’t mean you should put out “incomplete” work. You may not be a dentist, electrician, professional photographer, or website developer either. What do you do if you need those services? You go to someone who is trained in what you need done and you hire them. Businesses contract out for services all the time–either because they need an expert or because their time is better spent running their business. It’s the same with editing your work. If it’s important, take the time to learn writing conventions and grammar, or hire an editor.

6. Language conventions are not intuitive; they are learned. No one expects you to just “get it” or be perfect. But that doesn’t mean written work that is put out, especially permanently–such as on the web or in circulated written materials–should be unrefined. Consult dictionaries, grammar books, or skilled editors. Your writing is a reflection of you. It speaks of your general attitude and your commitment to detail, which is usually an important consideration in any line of work because it reflects credibility. Whether or not you care about writing is related to your attitude and approach toward other things, or certainly it is interpreted as such. Error-free writing shows people you are thorough, aware, and attentive–important qualities when marketing and building a client base, and when you provide a product or service people trust you with, from web design to health services to e-books. It shows people you care–you respect your readers or customers and yourself enough to do one of several things: check the quality of your work, learn what is needed, or get someone to do what you can’t. It is a form of due diligence. Dotting your i’s and crossing your t’s, pun intended, is a frame of mind. How you approach writing tells others how you approach the things they rely on from you. It is a direct reflection on your credibility and professionalism.

Non-writing professions

Precision in language is such a big deal because it affects far more than written English.

“Understanding how music is created is comparable to understanding how language is constructed. Like a language, music has syntax, a vocabulary” – from Understanding the Fundamentals of Music, Professor Robert Greenberg, via The Teaching Company.

Computer programming: ditto. How many people would dismiss the precision and accuracy required in constructing a program? It is written in a language complete with its own spelling, syntax, and structure, the details of which a person must learn in order to use it and get effective results.

Artists such as sculptors and painters have their own set of rules for the craft as well, which they must first learn in order to understand how they can be used and when and where they can be broken. How long do artists study? As with most disciplines, professions, and hobbies, it is an ongoing process–lifelong learning.

Why “apostrophe s” for plural?

When we make things plural, even acronyms, we add an “s” and not “apostrophe s,” such as CDs, DVDs. However, as you notice in tip number 6 above, we cannot write “is” or “ts” because of the lowercase letters, so we add the apostrophe for clarity.  My guess is this is where much of the recent confusion about the meaning of apostrophe s and its usage for any plural began.

In addition, we would ordinarily write numbers one to ten out in text (depending on the style guide). But because “6” refers to a numbered list above, it is written as a numeral.

And did you notice that “its” and “it’s” are backwards? Normally, “apostrophe s” denotes either possession (ownership, such as Bill’s car) or contraction (he is –> he’s). But “it’s” is already a contraction of “it is,” so the possessive form is written as “its” to set it apart. (The tree dropped its leaves.) The same applies to “whose” and “who’s.” (Whose book is this? Who’s coming to dinner?)

Finally, this is not showcased here, but a new plague that has arisen is the use of concepts that can be written as one word or two separate words, such as “everyday” and “every day.” They are often used interchangeably, or the one-word version is more frequent. (In children, I’m finding the reverse. Common words such as “somebody” and “everywhere” are written as two words, “some body” and “every where,” respectively.)

In general, the one-word version of a term is used as an adjective, and the two-word version when the second half is a noun. For example,

We go to work every day.
This is our everyday price.

Notice that in the first case, “every” can be substituted out. “We go to work each day” or “we go to work for a day.”

In the second sentence, “everyday” describes what kind of price. “Every” cannot be separated from “day,” but you can substitute a different descriptive word entirely:

This is our sale price.

Language evolution

Every day, I hear something about language evolution. Here’s food for thought. “Alright” is in dictionaries, but it is still not officially accepted in modern grammar books as correct usage in any form. As of now, it is always written as two words, unlike “all ready” and “already,” or “all together” and “altogether.”

“Alright” is not all right. (Here “all right” means “okay” or “correct.”)

All right, I’ll come along. (Means “okay” or, in this case, even “yes” but less definitive or willing.)

Are you all right? (Okay.)
I’ll get to it, all right?
All right
, here it is. (Okay; fine.)
It’s all right to do that.
I’ll check if it’s all right. (Okay; correct.)
It’s cold in here, all right. (That’s for sure.)
All right
! We won! (Hurray!; yeah!)

All right, I’m done.

There is a possibility that in the future grammar books will officially accept “alright” as a version. But this is NOT the same as interchanging “your” and “you’re” or using “apostrophe s” to denote plural. Remember, now we’re talking about completely different parts of speech! There’s a reason the spelling and punctuation for those words is what it is.

This was eloquently stated by Wendy Monaghan Editing Services with reference to style, preferences, and the changing nature of language: “In this case, there are no shadowy interpretations, individual or group preferences, or quirks of individual disciplines. The rule is clear: do not use an apostrophe to indicate plurality.” That is, don’t write your signs as “fries, drink’s, and hot dog’s” or your short form news stand name as “Mag’s.” It’s fries, drinks, and hot dogs, of course, and Mags for Magazines.

When to obey the rules and when to break them

Exceptions are puns in advertising, which have to be used with knowledge and deliberation, and often apply to homonyms, such as “Give us a brake,” which was displayed by City of Edmonton Transit on their buses, requesting cars to please slow down or stop (brake) and let the buses merge into traffic. But it was a play on the frustrated expression, “Give us a break!” which means give us a chance or cut us some slack.

And–what I like to tell my writing students–if you don’t know your grammar, you won’t get the humour!

See also
Unconfusing the Confusion About Writing: Is There Room For Imperfection?

Did You Know It’s An Editor’s Job to Work With the Author, Not Against the Author?

The New Fad of Your

What is Plagiarism Really?

Language Devolution: How Will It Affect Our Thinking?

As well as
Writers – Tips for Using the Right Publishing Service by Louise Harnby | Proofreader in The Proofreader’s Parlour.

© 2012 Eva Blaskovic. All rights reserved.

About Eva Blaskovic

This blog has moved to http://www.evablaskovic.com.
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8 Responses to Writing Tips: When to Adhere to the Rules and When to Break Them, and Why Should You Care, Anyway?

  1. Pingback: Language De-evolution: How Will It Affect Our Thinking? | Eva's Sirius Blog

  2. Sherie says:

    Ahhh….Eva, I am going to have to print this out as a reference! My grammar skills have gotten worse, over the years. I am afraid that the repeated exposure has gotten to us all. : D Love the post…very well said!!

    • Thanks, Sherie. Repeated exposure to incorrect usage definitely affects us all, but especially kids learning to write. They need reliable printed and online material to learn from. As for the rest of us seasoned writers and editors, we still have to refresh and upgrade, just like any professional development or ongoing evolution of our skills. I’m always checking stuff. We can’t keep everything in memory at all times, but my take on the matter is that we should care enough to check, and care about what we post.

  3. Pingback: Did You Know An Editor’s Job Is to Work With the Author, Not Against the Author? | Eva's Sirius Blog

  4. Pingback: Unconfusing the Confusion About Writing: Is There Room For Imperfection? | Eva's Sirius Blog

  5. Thank you so much for this article. I’m going to direct people to it and the others listed at the bottom of the page when they demand to know why grammar even matters, or why I insist there’s a difference between “everyday” and “every day.”

    • Dear Thomas,

      Your comment is greatly appreciated. I believe the saddest thing is not the mistakes in grammar *per se*, but that people do not care and do not understand why grammar is important. Grammar is accuracy in communication.

      Here’s an example from “Devil in the Dark” (Star Trek, Original Series, 1967).

      Kirk reads the Horta’s message: “‘No kill I.’ What is that? A plea for us not to kill it? Or a promise that it won’t kill us?” (http://en.memory-alpha.org/wiki/The_Devil_in_the_Dark_%28episode%29).

  6. Pingback: The New Fad of “Your” | The Sirius Blog

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