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Hello. We may not have been formally introduced but I’m going to start by making some assumptions. Pigeon-holing you, as it were.

If you’ve clicked on this article, it’s a fair bet that you have at least a passing interest in language use. That already sets you apart from much of the population.

As a cohort, you will further divide into a) a nice tidy subset of those who are sticklers for language rules, and b) a rag-taggle bunch that knows the rules are always changing and may or may not be happy about that, depending on the rule, the written context and which way the wind is blowing. I was going to call this group ‘waverers’, but maybe ‘ponderers’ sounds more polite.

The sticklers would put a comma between nice and tidy. The fact that I didn’t shows that I belong among the ponderers, and that may surprise some people.

Surely a writer, and especially a proofreader, should stick rigidly to language rules and be picky about such details?

The problem lies in defining the ‘rules’.

Some might seem obvious: “Always start a sentence with a capital letter,” for example. But what happens when one person’s ‘rule’ is broken by another person’s style choice?

That was an example right there. Two dear friends have recently queried the use of conjunctions (words like and, but and so) after full stops. Actually, my friends didn’t query the usage. They think it’s just wrong. There’s a perfectly good reason for that – it’s what they’ve been taught.

I’d be the first to admit that I didn’t have to use but after the full stop –  there were ways of avoiding it. That’s where the pondering came in.

A stickler would say, “Conjunctions are for joining facts in the middle of a sentence. That’s the rule.”

A ponderer would say, “Longer sentences are often harder to read. Sometimes they need breaking up, but they still need a word to link the facts.”

The stickler would say again, “It just looks wrong.”

The ponderer would ponder saying something unprintable, and so we’d go merrily on.

More than one way to skin a cat

Let’s look at a hypothetical example – three variations of the same thing, perhaps seen on a flyer or marketing email:

  • There are loads of new products in store. Every one’s a winner!
  • There are loads of new products in store and every one’s a winner!
  • There are loads of new products in store. And every one’s a winner!

Our stickler friends would be happy with either of the first two, but the third would cause a sharp intake of breath.

The ponderers would consider all three to be correct. How to decide?

I’d dismiss number 1 – these facts need a conjunction to clarify the link between them. Now it’s time to do a bit of reading out loud (that’s how readers will perceive the words in their minds).  Number 3 seems preferable in this scenario because it pauses between the facts and gives time for them to sink in. Visually, too, the information is broken into bite size chunks.

Choice made.

This is the crux of the matter: it’s a deliberate stylistic choice for a valid reason. It’s not a careless mistake.

You might not agree with my decision – that’s fine.

The fact that there are usually several ways of writing the same information is what occupies a large chunk of any writer’s time (or it should). The meaning is the same, so what is the effect? That’s why knowing what your audience needs is so important.

This is just one example of a ‘rule’ that some people would never break. Others include the aforementioned commas in lists, prepositions at the end of sentences and turning nouns into verbs. (Split infinitives? Don’t get me started.)

All of those are open to a bit of creativity if the meaning is clear. At least, that’s what I think. You might think differently. But thinking is what it’s all about.

All languages have written conventions to help the reader, and some rules of word order that you can’t break if you want to make sense. Other than that, meaning, clarity and effect should be the main considerations. Language is constantly changing, and the ‘mistakes’ that bother people change too.

Scrutinise your writing. Know why each word is there. Be prepared to justify its existence. And understand that there will always be someone who disagrees with you!

So… broken any good language rules lately?

Catherine Kendal

Catherine Kendal is a proofreader and editor who likes nothing more than sorting the good from the bad and the ugly. She takes the description 'pernickety' as a compliment. Visit Catherine's website