My editing background isn’t formal or extensive; I always got a little nauseous if a job interview required a grammar and/or proofreading test. Recalling punctuation rules and exceptions still causes my chest to tighten a bit. Should I be admitting this to the world I want to work in indefinitely? *Shrug.*
It’s not that I don’t understand and value rules. I find incorrect uses of their, there and they’re just as cringe-worthy as the next writer.
I am opposed to wasting time considering whether I should use a semicolon or a comma. And wondering what the hell is going on with en dashes and em dashes. Will people catch my drift if I use “that” when I should use “which?”
Was I even using quotations properly just then?
By allowing the rules to take over the writing process, I’m less focused on saying what I’m trying to say. And. It. Slows. Me. Down.
It made me think of those fashion rules my elder relatives used to impart on me when I was younger. It was the ’90s, so it is has yet to be determined that anyone had a firm grasp on what it meant to be fashionable.
These were the rules:
- Do not EVER wear brown shoes or a brown belt with black pants
- Pantyhose are a must for skirts and dresses, even if it’s like 95°
- Bare midriffs are for the beach and pool only
- Mom jeans are the only jeans (until super low riders were the only jeans)
- Do not wear white after Labor Day because reasons
- Socks with sandals will cause eyeballs to bleed
If you’ve ever watched What Not to Wear, you probably know that large horizontal stripes and crazy-tight clothes are universal no-nos. And if you’ve ever watched Project Runway, you may have contemplated how much draping is too much draping. High fashion has its own set of confusing and costume-ish wacky standards.
So what is fashion, exactly? Is it the bright racks of denim and plaid at Gap? Or the sultry, sophisticated feel of a Gucci bag? What rules are we—the common clothes-wearers— supposed to follow?
It depends, doesn’t it? It depends on the situation, on that person’s style and body type, and on the goal. If the goal is comfort (and based on the jacked up sales of the athleisure industry, it seems like a popular goal), leave the mini-skirt and stilettos in the closet.
Yes, there are some relatively universal rules that are common sense. Wear clothes that fit and flatter you. Don’t wear clothes that cause you or others an unnecessary amount of physical pain. Unless it’s Halloween or you’re strutting your stuff on the catwalk, maybe avoid attire that makes others question your sanity.
But even those rules may be too constricting in some circumstances, or in a different era.
The same is true for grammar, and how we think about language. How we write and communicate depends so much on the context, on who we are and who we are talking to, and the goal. Maybe that’s why our writing manuals are called style guides, rather than rule books.
My approach to grammar and language is very similar to my approach to fashion. If it doesn’t look right, and makes me uncomfortable, I know I need to change something. I will consult my AP Style Guide as a last resort if I’m forcing myself into uneasy wording or usage situations. But I certainly don’t bother if I’m texting, tweeting, or writing an email to a friend.
As more and more channels of communication become available in our phone’s app store, the “rules” split and diversify. Even the oldest and most beloved rules of grammar gurus can lose their relevance and others will undoubtedly pop up, especially in casual settings. It just be like that sometimes, bro.
Which brings up another important question for word nerds: How do we distinguish between language trends that may die off, and long-term shifts in how we communicate?
An idea for another post. Ya know what I hope doesn’t go out of style? Breaking *some* rules when necessary, and hilariously public grammar mistakes. Like the one below. Except…I will probably never forget those that serve me hot breakfast.
The bottom line is that grammar and punctuation rules can’t be taken TOO seriously, because we risk losing our ability to translate and adapt. The purpose of language is not to police or encourage conformity, but to be understood.