One word, please: when it comes to grammar guides, keep an open mind

Years ago, I explained to readers the rule of using “that” and “who”. I explained that “that” relates to the restrictive covenants that specify the name you are talking about, like in “The car I bought was red”. And I explained that “which” is for unrestricted covenants, which you can remove from the sentence without losing clarity on the name you are talking about: “My car, which I bought last year, is red. . “

Then I found out I was wrong. I was not wrong to follow this rule. I was wrong to tell others to follow him. My mistake: I didn’t understand that the guides for editors, especially the Associated Press Stylebook, contain rules only for people editing in this style, and those rules do not necessarily apply outside the room. writing.

It’s as if a teacher told me “Don’t chew gum” and I’ve spent years running around telling people it was wrong to chew gum. I did not understand the context.

Fast forward to 2022 and a column in the Guardian newspaper by sub-editor Susan McDonald:

“After more than two decades as a sub-editor, I know that language is alchemy and that there is no exact prescription for good writing,” writes McDonald. “But I also know that grammar is central.”

Translation: “My editing experience qualifies me to teach you grammar rules.” So she does.

“There is a simple rule for ‘that’ against ‘who,'” writes McDonald, establishing the law for restrictive and non-restrictive covenants. She adds: “Some of the grammars point to an irregular restrictive ‘qui’ that can replace ‘that’ but I’m not convinced yet.

I remember when I was “still” convinced. Then suddenly I was. It only took some research to understand that style rules are not universal rules. That is, just because my AP Stylebook says I have to use “No. 1 “instead of” number one “or” number 1 “in an article I edit, that doesn’t mean you have to do the same.

To find out which language rules apply to everyone, turn to a written reference for everyone, such as a dictionary or user’s guide.

“Although some textbooks say otherwise, ‘that’ and ‘which’ are both routinely used to introduce restrictive clauses into edited prose,” writes Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.

If one guide prohibits a use that another authorizes, neither has the power to tell you that the other’s advice is wrong. You can choose.

Yet when you’ve spent years believing that your path is right, it’s hard to let go even in the face of evidence to the contrary. Take, for example, McDonald’s position on the Oxford comma, which is the optional comma before “and” in “red, white and blue”. To prove that the Oxford comma is greater, she uses a popular argument, that she creates “an essential distinction” between these two sentences: “I dedicate this book to my parents, Martin Amis and JK Rowling” and “I dedicate this book to my parents, Martin Amis and JK Rowling.

See how, without the Oxford comma, it’s not clear whether Amis and Rowling are the writer‘s parents? That’s a pretty solid argument, eh? Of course, until you think about it a bit more. Replace “parents” with “father” and the argument breaks down: I dedicate this book to my father, Martin Amis, and JK Rowling. Are Father and Friends one and the same? You cannot be sure. But if you take the Oxford comma out, it’s clear you’re talking about three people, not two: I’m dedicating this book to my dad, Martin Amis and JK Rowling. The point is, Oxford commas also have drawbacks.

McDonald’s spells out more wrong rules. “In my book, ‘different from’ is correct, ‘different from’ and ‘different from’ are not. Putting the McDonald’s comma splice aside, it begs the question: is it really suggesting that you should write, “My sister is different from me” instead of “My sister is different from me”?

So what’s the lesson here for you? When a professional editor starts preaching grammar rules, take our words with a grain of salt.

June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know”. She can be contacted at [email protected]

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