This blog shares some of our thoughts about plain language, and the latest discussions about plain English and clear design in New Zealand, and around the world.

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05 January 2011

Fun with grammar

Just before Christmas, we received this enquiry through our website:
kia ora
to my shame I don't regularly look at your website but someone sent me a link recently and as I scanned through it my eye landed on the piece about grammar that said english doesn't have rules it has patterns the article said you could split an infinitive start a sentence with a conjunction and finish a sentence with a preposition it then continued with a number of rules that have to be followed when using commas and apostrophes and so on which made me wonder which rules we have to follow and which ones we dont ive done a lot of writing and editing and following and writing style guides and i think you have to have rules that must be followed except when there is a good reason for breaking them take the split infinitive for example it can be the best way of expressing an idea to put an adverb between the to and the verb but if you just take the rule away people start putting whole adverbial phrases in there and it really does become hard to read i think there should be rules about capitals at the beginning of sentences and full stops at the end if we just do away with those rules english becomes hard to read the greeks used to write in capital letters with no puctuation and because it was hard to read people invented punctuation etc to make it easier its a good job i followed spelling rules or you would be totally confused happy christmas
We thought it was too good not to share, so we asked Peter Russell, the sender, if he minded us blogging his letter - and our response. Thanks, Peter, you're a good sport.

Here's the response:
Dear Peter
When you are trying to make something – whether it is a boat, a coat, or a sentence – it is important to follow the right pattern for the job. If you ignore large parts of the pattern, or don’t follow any pattern at all, you’ll end up with a mess. People with heaps of experience, talent, and skill can afford to take liberties with the pattern, because they understand their tools, their materials, and the impact of both on the effect they’re trying to achieve.

Nonetheless, the pattern is not a rule – in the commonly used sense of the term ‘rule’. If you put a keel on the roof of your cabin instead of under the hull, it won’t work – and all the people at the yacht club will have a good laugh at your expense, but you have not broken a rule. If you make one sleeve long and the other short, it might look odd, but you have not broken a rule. And if you insist on inventing your own spelling (or typing an email with no punctuation in order to tease your friendly local grammarians), your communication may be flawed, but the grammar police will not arrest you.

With that small change in terminology – rule to pattern – we agree with all that you’ve written. It is important to follow the patterns.
Peter may be please to know that we edited the article on the website that prompted his email, adding the line: "Below, we discuss some of the patterns you should follow if you don't want to confuse people." Thanks again, Peter.

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