Writing “rules” are usually just styles

Should you capitalize items in bullet points? Punctuate them? People have strong opinions about matters like these. However, most of the time, what they believe are inviolable rules are actually just styles and personal preferences.

People get remarkably worked up about those “rules.” And as someone who creates copy for a living, it’s a constant issue. Rarely does a month go by without someone taking me to task for violating the “rules.” Don’t I know better? I do claim to be a professional writer.

What makes it even more bemusing is that one person’s prohibition is another’s standard. A great example is the Oxford (or serial) comma. That’s the comma that should or should not (depending upon your stance) be added before the conjunction in a series of items. Is it “bacon, lettuce, and tomato” or “bacon, lettuce and tomato”? You’ll find an even split among people, along with a strong conviction their way conforms with the rules and the other approach is an unforgivable error. (I prefer to use the Oxford comma because it adds clarity. To some, that makes me an apostate.)

Where do these intense beliefs originate? I’m convinced it’s with English teachers, and not all English teachers — just those who inspire terror and a demand for absolute fidelity with their standards.

You’ll find no bigger fan of English teachers than this writer. I had some who were absolutely brilliant. And middle and high school English teachers face the unenviable task of convincing bored students that reading and writing are not only important, but can be enjoyable.

However, some believe their take on grammar and syntax is absolute and infallible. In their fervor to instill those rules in their students, they not only convince those students there is just one correct way to write, but also terrify the students to the degree they become convinced they’re poor or incompetent writers.

I present writing workshops for many business audiences, and when I tell attendees “that” English teacher was wrong, you can see the terror in their eyes. Their fear of splitting an infinitive or dangling a participle and receiving a paper bathed in red ink lives on. Others insist the AP Stylebook or other guide is so sacred it must have been delivered by God right after wrapping up work on the Ten Commandments.

Your teachers weren’t wrong when it came to schoolwork. The academic world uses a rigid, formal framework in which things like starting a sentence with a conjunction or ending it with a preposition are sins. But — and this is a most important “but” — it’s a style of writing that’s used only in the academic setting. In the outside world, it’s perfectly acceptable to use a looser, less formal approach. In fact, less-formal writing is preferable, because it’s more communicative.

You might lose points for using a contraction on an essay test or a theme paper, but when you’re writing a report, an email, a blog post, or a memo, contractions actually make what you’re writing more conversational and understandable.

Do stylebooks matter? Absolutely, but it depends on the environment and who you’re writing for. Stylebooks provide guidance into the best choices for particular situations. If everyone in an organization uses the same stylebook, writing will be more consistent. But again, that doesn’t represent inviolable rules — it’s just the organization’s preference.

Language isn’t static. The English we use today is vastly different from the English of the early 70s, which was unlike the English of the 1940s, which was distinct from the English taught in schools in the 1910s. It changes along with our world, so there’s a good chance that some of what “that” English teacher taught you no longer applies. A great example is the increasing use of “they” as a single pronoun covering any gender, which has only become the preferred usage in the last few years.

My advice? Choose a style that works for you and stick with it. And instead of focusing on obsolete rules from a terrifying teacher, concentrate on communicating clearly. That matters more than all the rules.