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Learn the Rules to Break Them

A new word is added to the dictionary every two hours. Like culture, biology, and even geology, language advances along by the inexorable passage of time. It’s the only universal rule: all things change. They may change at different rates, but progress can’t be stopped, no matter how attached you are to some variant spelling or geological formation.

One thing that has always irked me about time travel movies is the ease with which people communicate after travelling hundreds of years in either direction. The high-class stories build in translation devices (think the TARDIS’ ability to imprint translations onto its travelers), but nothing says poorly written like a storyline of a present-day team without a linguist going back to medieval England. Has no one read Canterbury Tales? It would sound like another language to those travelers.

This is the main impetus behind the adage that you must first learn the grammar rules before you violate them. Some of them are quite stupid, but you have to know why they are before you decide what you think the best way to communicate is. The Gregg Reference Manual, for instance, claims that plural abbreviations should never have an apostrophe except in cases of possession (e.g., ABCs, DOBs, etc.) except for single letters, like the baseball team the A’s, in instances of confusion (the instruction states “Use an apostrophe before the s where confusion might otherwise result”).

I would argue that is an unnecessary bit of complexity that causes more problems than it solves. Just look at the preponderance of apostrophes where they are inappropriate on the internet (it’s 1980s, not 1980’s, for the love of all that is good and right, people) to know that English grammar could do with a bit of simplification. One of the reasons it is so hard for non-native speakers to pick up English is our exceptions to rules. But I would argue the rules that distinguish further and farther are good and necessary, as the distinction of physical distance (farther) versus figurative (further) adds depth and richness to a sentence via the proper usage.

And these rules are always changing. It displays trends and revisions like any other ideology. Just the other day I had a conversation with another writer about the progression of the industry toward a more precise usage of hyphenated words, in part I believe because of a more sensitive Microsoft Word grammar algorithm that has made people more aware of this particular rule (though the Word algorithm still has a ways to go to match a human professional). Ten years ago, you would have never seen Word’s squiggly underline pointing out a word you forgot to hyphenate. Too bad that grammar support hasn’t translated to Twitter yet.

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