Why Most Grammar Guides Suck (and Where to Get Answers Instead)

Sophie Playle

A little while ago I had the pleasure of seeing Professor Geoff Pullum, head of linguistics and English language at the University of Edinburgh, give a talk about grammar.

Now I don’t know about you, but I’m wary of people talking about grammar. I feel myself tensing in anticipation of inaccessible technical terms and stuffy haughtiness. And I’m an editor, so you’d probably expect I love debating the finer points of subject-verb agreement.

And I am interested in these things. Because I’m interested in helping people with their books, and writing that follows the rules of grammar and punctuation is more easily understood. And what’s the point in writing something if you don’t want it to be accessible?

Grammar is a tool we wield – used correctly, it whittles sentences into more beautiful shapes.

As an editor, I want to make sure I’m an expert in using such a tool.

Which means learning about grammar because, believe it or not, I wasn’t born with an innate knowledge of the intricacies of the English language!

Where do we learn about grammar?

Lots of us learn the rules of grammar and punctuation in school. Unfortunately, a lot of what’s taught is wrong – or at least doesn’t look at the bigger picture. One of the most important lessons everyone should learn about grammar? How flexible it is. School often doesn’t teach that.

If your job involves words in any meaningful capacity, you may have also read a grammar guide or two. These can do way more harm than good! Many are incredibly outdated, having been written more than a hundred years ago. As the originals go out of copyright, they get repackaged and republished by others as new guides – simply spewing the same old outdated nonsense.

Because of the nuances of language and the way language evolves, this prescriptive stance isn’t useful. In fact, clinging with desperate authority to such ‘rules’ can not only make you look stuffy and pedantic, but it’s also a sign you probably don’t understand grammar that well in the first place. (Ooh, I went there.)

So how do we learn about grammar in a meaningful way?

In part, the same way you learned how to talk. We subconsciously and intuitively absorb many of the rules of grammar just by being immersed in language.

Though there are some decent grammar handbooks out there, consulting them for all your grammar needs is not sufficient. We need factual investigation, not the opinions of famous men, says Pullum. Linguists are skilled at gathering the facts about language – and we can learn the same skills.

Be observational, and investigate. With the internet at our fingertips and access to resources like Google Books, we can search for certain constructs and see how common (or uncommon) they are, simultaneously assessing the clout of the source – Orwell’s writing might be considered artful in a way a teenager’s blog about gaming memes might not.

Things to keep in mind …

If you’re an editor (or a writer or a teacher), there can be a lot of pressure to know the ‘right’ answers when it comes matters of grammar. We’re often considered authorities on such matters. Yeah – no pressure.

So it’s completely understandable that you’ve looked for guidance from authorities who profess to have more knowledge than you – namely the stuffy old grammar guides I’ve been talking about.

But I want to encourage you to remember the level of optionality and variation there is when it comes to grammar.

Always remember:

  • Comprehension is more important than grammatical correctness.
  • Aesthetics shouldn’t be ignored – writing is an art, not a science.
  • Often grammatical ‘errors’ are simply an informal style – so don’t overcorrect.
  • House style is important to follow – though feel free to make your case against it if applying it weakens comprehension, aesthetics or style!
  • Different readerships will appreciate and expect different levels of ‘correctness’.
  • Some grammar and punctuation rules really aren’t up for debate – such as parenthetical commas needing to be in pairs.

Grammar books to avoid

Pullum declares the following books should be burned:

  • Dictionary of Modern English Usage by HW Fowler (‘Too old!’)
  • The Elements of Style by Strunk and White (‘Lies!’)
  • Gwynne’s Grammar by NM Gwynne (‘Copies Elements!’)
  • Simply English: An A-Z of Avoidable Errors by Simon Heffer (‘Ignorant!’)

Grammar books worth your time

Pullum suggests all books with an evidence-based approach to grammar are worth reading. He highly rates Butcher’s Copy-editing – and since this is one of most valued resources in the editorial community, we editors can feel a bit smug about that.

  • Butcher’s Copy-editing: The Cambridge Handbook for Editors, Copy-editors and Proofreaders by Judith Butcher
  • The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven Pinker
  • A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar by Huddleston and Pullum (Hey, of course he’s gonna recommend his own book!)

Instead of learning the rules to break the rules, it’s important to consider whether the rule is any good in the first place. Remember, not all grammar guides are created equal.

Does grammar and punctuation make your head spin? Let me whip your manuscript into shape. Check out my line and copy-editing service.

Sophie Playleis a professional fiction editor. She specialises in developmental editing, critiquing and copy-editing, and loves working with authors and publishers who are passionate about high-quality storytelling. Speculative fiction, fantasy, science fiction and literary fiction are her genres of choice. She's an Advanced Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and has a Creative Writing MA from Royal Holloway, University of London. Find out more: liminalpages.com

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