What about the rules we learned in school

At this point, you may be wondering if we should pay attention to anything we learned in school. That depends on the school, because many are terrific. And, of course, we need to follow certain rules or else communication will become hopelessly erratic.

There are three categories of rules to consider:

• rules we all agree with

• rules few people agree with

• rules amateurs follow and professionals don't Let's look more closely at each of these.

Rules we all agree with

Some rules just aren't controversial. For example, we all know to start sentences with capital letters and end them with periods or other terminal marks of punctuation. We also want subjects to agree with verbs and pronouns to agree with the nouns they replace. There aren't really a lot of these rules that cause us a problem. For the most part, people in business know them and follow them.

Rules few people agree with

There's another category of rules "experts" on language try to foist on us. Jim Quinn, author of American Tongue and Cheek, calls these "experts" pop grammarians—people who seem to have a stone tablet from God filled with "The Commandments" on usage.

One of those pop grammarians, according to Quinn, is Edwin Newman, author of Strictly Speaking. In Strictly Speaking, Newman is appalled by the construction convince to (as in "The Soviet Union evidently is not able to convince Cairo to accept a rapid cease-fire.").

In all my teaching and consulting, I've never found another soul who agrees with Newman on that issue. Yet he calls it "one of the worst things" The New York Times does.

Don't worry about the pop grammarians. They're talking—and mainly arguing—only with each other. Virtually all linguists, the real experts on language, disagree with the pop grammarians.

Rules amateurs follow and professionals don't

Professionals are professionals because readers pay for what they write. (How much would you pay for the stuff in your in-box?)

Professionals follow the standard rules (such as beginning sentences with capital letters); they ignore almost all of the rules by the pop grammarians; and they ignore a few rules they learned in school.

What are the rules from school the professionals have learned to ignore? John Trimble, in his classic book Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing, lists "The Seven Nevers":

The Seven Nevers [from decades past]

1. Never begin a sentence with and or but.

2. Never use contractions.

3. Never refer to the reader as you.

4. Never use the first person pronoun I.

5. Never end a sentence with a preposition.

6. Never split an infinitive.

7. Never write a paragraph containing only a single sentence.

Trimble then says he's going to argue against all of them, "earnestly hoping that I may free you of their hold forever."

I agree. The Seven Nevers would be good rules only with a key revision. You guessed it—strike out the word never:

1. Nevef begin a sentence with and or but.

2. Nevef use contractions.

3. Never refer to the reader as you.

4. Nevef use the first person pronoun I.

5. Never end a sentence with a preposition.

6. Nevef split an infinitive.

7. Never write a paragraph containing only a single sentence.

That's what almost all professionals have learned to do. Again, just look at professional writing, and you'll see you've been reading spoken English—plain English—complete with split infinitives, one-sentence paragraphs, and sentences ending with prepositions. Just the way we talk.

And check your grammar handbook. You may be surprised to find that almost all handbooks agree with Trimble—and discourage those old-fashioned and destructive "Seven Nevers."

So remember the most important lesson on style: write the way you talk! It's much easier—on your reader and on you.

You'll learn more about style in these chapters:

• Chapter 6, "Passive voice"

• Chapter 7, "Abstractness"

• Chapter 8, "Punctuation"

For now, though, let's turn to the second major part of plain English writing: organization.

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