For Grammatically Correct Writing, Don't Write as You Speak

I have been accused of being an old-fashioned editor. I edit or correct grammar and punctuation the way I’ve always done it—the way I learned grammar long ago in high school. I also typically follow the AP Stylebook I had to use in college as a magazine journalism major.  I do, however, pull out other style books from time to time as needed. Strunk and Whites’s Elements of Style lies close at hand.

However, some grammar rules have changed on me over the years. They became modern, and I remained old fashioned. (Occasionally someone points this out to me.) Actually, I’ve been know to say people allowed themselves to become lax about the rules, and I didn’t.

In fact, a few rules have been changed because we don’t speak the way we write. Along the way, wise writers (?) decided our writing sounded too stilted. They liked the way our speech sounded better, so they allowed us to do things like put prepositions at the end of sentences, for example.

For this reason, I sometimes have to go looking for grammar rules—to confirm what I already know or to learn why other editors are allowing their writers to get away with “mistakes” I don’t allow. I have lots of grammar and style books, but most are old. They contain old rules.  For this reason about a year ago I started searching for a better grammar and/or style book.

Given my feeling that we should not write as we speak—that maybe we should watch our speech and speak more grammatically (then our writing would follow suit)—I was quite pleasantly surprised to discover Catharine Bramkamp’s book Don’t Write Like You Talk, A Smart Girl’s Guide to Practical Writing and Editing. I asked her to send me a copy to review, and she gladly did with a warning that the book might not be what I expected.

Indeed! It is not only a book with some grammar rules we all need to know, it’s a modern lesson on not writing the way we speak, text or email. She’s taken all our technological “improvements” into account and considered how these—as well as our speech—affect our writing. And she’s done it in a very humorous manner. I wouldn’t have thought I would just sit down and read a book about grammar and style, but I did…and I enjoyed every minute of it.

On the more serious side, I located a very useful nuts-and-bolts, fairly dry guide called Rules for Writers by Diana Hacker. It even includes the MLA and APA style guides as well as grammar exercises. It’s totally functional. I have located every hard-to-find punctuation question answered in that little spiral bound book—and I’m talking about answers I searched for elsewhere…and I have searched for a few on line and in all my books. So, I suggest you take a look at it if you want a good grammar and punctuation desk resource. However, you won’t read it cover to cover like Bramkamp’s book. I promise. It has become a permanent fixture on my desk, though. (It does contain mostly “old” rules; if some one knows of a good grammar book with “new” rules, please let me know!)

I share all this not only to suggest you buy these two books; I’d also like to suggest that every writer and editor needs a refresher course now and then—even if just on one particular point of grammar. The rules of writing do sometimes change…although we have been told that they don’t. You might think you know something, but if doubt creeps into your mind, take a look at a book. (I do.)

It’s good to work out of seclusion now and then, too. I recently became part of a team of editors editing a newsletter for a writers’ club; the editor of that publication was quick to point out when he thought I, the “professional editor,” might need to recheck my work! This has helped keep me on my toes. That’s why critique groups or readers who can offer editorial feedback serve you well.

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