Writing Rules

Written by Helen Glenn Court
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"There are three rules for writing," Somerset Maugham tells us, "unfortunately no one knows what they are." There are in fact more writing rules than three and we do know what they are. But there aren't too many more. The English language is more usage than grammar, and more style than punctuation. The rules are simple and few, but absolute.

The Gray Areas between Writing Rules

Vivid recollections come back to me whenever anyone mentions writing rules. A nun with glasses, a long black habit, and a ruler appears out of the mist. She was forever rapping my knuckles, it seemed at the time, for my not heeding the ones she'd told us about. I don't remember the particulars, but I became highly sensitive to language. Since then I've encountered people so convinced of the right and wrong of style and usage that they have become muddled on the rules that are rules, or at least strong suggestions.

There is nothing in English grammar, for instance, dictating that adverbs ending in "ly" should be hyphenated. A scholarly author I edited recently, however, maintained that if I were going to hyphenate mid-19th century I was morally obliged to hyphenate psychiatrically inclined. Author invoked the Chicago Manual of Style. I use that venerable reference daily and know section 7.87 well (it says, in effect, "wrong!"). Any fool can win an argument with facts.

Emerson's line about consistency has sadly suffered a similar fate. "Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds," he originally said. Now, there's a vast chasm between consistency and foolish consistency. That "mid-19th century" is hyphenated is independent from whether "largely irrelevant" might be. Learn subject and verb agreement. Master correct spelling. Understand the apostrophe and the semicolon. Read Lynne Truss's book Eats, Stems & Leaves. But don't mistake style guides for writing rules, and if you think you need help with your writing style, then seek it out.


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