My Eternal Struggle With Grammar

Wikipedia defines grammar as: The set of structural rules governing the composition of clauses, phrases, and words in any given natural language. The term refers also to the study of such rules, and this field includes phonology, morphology, and syntax, often complemented by phonetics, semantics, and pragmatics. A lot of wisdom in those words.
I define grammar as a complete pain. It’s not that I am against the use of grammar or have some objects to the rules that have been set up. I’m lucky to speak a language that indeed does have so many well-defined rules. My issue is that the iron clad rules of grammar are less iron and more rust.
Where did these grammar rules come from? Long ago, people started speaking. They didn’t have rules; they just spoke. Later on when the rules were written to give the language some consistency. In order to do this, the rules had to have many exceptions and not every instance is covered by a rule. For example, we have the basic spelling rule, "I before E, except after C." And yes, I know. This is technically a mnemonic and not a “rule.”
Today, we get these rules from various sources. For writers, the gold standard is The Chicago Manual of Style which proudly proclaims it is “the venerable, time-tested guide to style, usage, and grammar.” There are other modern sources like “The PC is not a typewriter” and one that I occasionally use “Grammarly Handbook.” The problem I have is when the “experts” don’t agree or they have no opinion.
I will be the first to admit that my grammar is at best, OK. [Example side note. Is it: ok, Ok, OK or okay?] The good news for me is that there are excellent editors and they are really good at cleaning up my work. But what happens when the editors disagree with each other? Often their answer is: “What you’re asking doesn’t matter that much. Either way is fine.” In the end, I do my best to be consistent.
Here is an easy one. How do you write numbers in a sentence?
There are 52 playing cards.
There are fifty-two playing cards.
There are fifty two playing cards.
This should be easy. Pick one of the three and go with it. The Chicago Manual of Style states that for under 100, one should write out the numbers and use a dash. “There are fifty-two playing cards.” For numbers over 100, one should write in numerals. “There are 152 playing cards.” Other sources dictate that it should always be one or the other and not both. Another source says that you should use written out words inside of the quotes and numerals outside. Another source says that for non-technical books, the words should be written out and technical books should exclusively use numerals.
For me, I don’t care. I just want to be consistent and so, I made up a new rule. For numbers over 5, I use numerals unless it is at the beginning of a sentence. This rule seems to make my writings read a bit better. However, I know that my personal made up rule is not even close to the gold standard.
Let’s look at a complex example: ?!
What’s your problem?!
What’s your problem? !
What’s your problem!?
What’s your problem!
In this sentence, somebody is yelling out a question. This yelling is expressed with a “!” My dilemma is: What’s the proper way to use punctuation in this instance? This isn’t clear. The Chicago Manual of Style has no specific rule to cover this issue. Even the Internet [Should Internet be capitalized? Some say yes, others no. Another confusion.] has many discussions on this issue that generally result in disagreement. For my writing, I decided to go with “?!” as the Internet discussions suggests that “?!” is the most appropriate usage. My opinion is that “?” trumps the emphasis “!”, but the emphasis “!” is still required. I also don’t like WRITING IN CAPITOL LETTERS.
What an impossible example? “There are three two’s in the English language.” That’s a perfectly valid sentence, but it is impossible to actually write. Should we make up a fourth two? Call it “tu” “There are four tu’s in the English language.”
There is another overall issue with grammar and this comes down to “writing style.” While this is technically not grammar, I am just going to call it grammar. For example, the dialog for a play/movie/book might have random grammar. This is because the person who is “speaking” just talks that way. This gives the impression that the character is uneducated. A technical or legal document would have terse sentences that don’t make much sense. A poetic or dramatic work has flowy words without punctuation. Why are all these different with regards to grammar? I would prefer that clear rules apply without exception to all forms of writing.
I find that some particular people are complete stickers for the rules. I also find that these same people never seem to have anything nice to say about my writings. They cannot get over their own grammar safeguards enough to enjoy my written thoughts. For me, this issue has been present since my dawn of my writing. On a side note, I nearly flunked my college Psychology class due to this issue.
On a personal note, I find that the writings from the grammar stickers is at best bland. They go out of their way to use direct “flowerily” sentences with “big words.” IE words that are not in common use. As a result, I have to keep asking questions to get them to tell me what is really going on. This is especially troubling in Engineering when I just need the facts and not “big words” loaded with endless punctuation.
Another issue I have with grammar stickers is that their writings begins to look like a legal document. Every other word has a coma or semicolon after it and it seems to be a contest to see how long a sentence can actually be. Reading one of these “correct sentences” out loud is like reading with a mouth full of rocks on an empty stomach. My college roommate referred to this as “dieseling” from when you turned off your carbureted car and it would still run.
The comma is intended to give the reader a chance to breath and should be used with moderation. The period is there to separate thoughts and give the mind a break. The use of normal words helps get the point across quickly. That same psychology teacher that tried to flunk me loved to use the word “Cynosure.” [Definition: A focal point of admiration] Valid word? Yes. Did anybody in the class know what the word meant? No. Was it an attempt to make that teacher seem important? Defiantly!!!
Where does that leave me? I have an overall goal in my writings with regard to my grammar. I try really hard to check my grammar and I do my best to make it consistent. Before I release something to my editor or on my blog, I go over it several times. When I send my works off to an editor and they work overtime to clean my messy material up. I accept all their changes without question. I look over what they corrected and try to duplicate their changes on my next work. That’s the best I can do.
I wish there was a better solution for me. The real problem not having a single gold rule to follow. Also, what happens when the software grammar checkers and editors disagree? In other languages, there is a board or governing body that settles these questions. The English language has no governing body. In 1906, the Simplified Spelling Board was created to reform the spelling of the English language, making it simpler and easier to learn, and eliminated many inconsistencies. The board operated until 1920, the year after the death of its founding benefactor, Andrew Carnegie who had come to criticize the progress and approach of the organization.
I believe the Simplified Spelling Board or something like it should be resurrected. Perhaps a Wikipedia version of the The Chicago Manual of Style. Let’s pretend this is true for a moment. They met, had a discussion on the “?!” issue and determined the conclusion: As of 2017, the correct way to emphasize a question is “?!” No other format shall be tolerated. This rule would then be incorporated into textbooks and software grammar checkers. The results will be that the grammar monsters have less to complain about and all writing would be consistent
Now if there is one thing I really hate is a rant that offers no solution. So, everybody. Let’s set up some sort of governing board and then accept their words of wisdom. One a side note. Please buy my book!!! It’s a good book and so far, without exception, everybody that read it, enjoyed it. I’m going crazy without any sales.

You’re the best -Bill
October, 24, 2017


Read my next blog
Writing in the Tom Clancy Universe

Follow me

Copyright © 2020 Bill Conrad