Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Down with (stupid) grammar rules

I am just popping my head above the parapet of a thankfully heavy workload to raise a small cheer on the 50th anniversary of the publication of "The Elements of Style". This little book by William Strunk and E.B. White, has been a very influential guide to English grammar since its publication, much beloved of American college students (or at least, much beloved of their instructors).

However, I am not cheering for Strunk and White and their famous little book. Rather I am cheering for Geoffrey Pullum, Professor of Linguistics and English Language at the University of Edinburgh. In his article 50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice, Pullum points out that neither author was an expert in grammar and that their book gave incorrect examples and ignored its own advice. Pullum recognises that their advice on writing style is bland and "mostly harmless" but complains that their strictures on grammar were generally incorrect and unjustified.

Before I became a technical writer I studied English and learned enough to understand that language is not fixed, but is continually changing and developing. Knowledge of good grammar helps readers understand written text, and helps writers - particularly technical writers - construct prose that is clear and unambiguous. Inflexible rules, of the kind advocated - but not always followed - by Strunk and White can obscure and obfuscate rather than clarify. We need to recognise that we only serve our readers when we write prose they can understand. If we need to "bend the rules" then perhaps the rules we were taught aren't right any more.