by Isabo Kelly
I am not now, nor have I ever been, a grammar expert. Because of this, I find myself checking on grammar questions and rules all the time—especially when one editor “corrects” something that another editor doesn’t. The thing I’ve discovered in all this checking is that often people mistake style preferences for grammar rules. I still mistake the two with great frequency (thus, this article).
So first, some definitions:
Grammar is the basic syntax and structure of our language. It allows us to communicate in predictable ways. Language came first. Grammar was the attempt of linguists to define the rules of that language. For most native speakers of any given language, the grammar rules are so ingrained, they are used automatically and without thought. When discussing grammar in relation to the written word, we’re talking about those most basic rules that allow the conveyance of information in a consistent manner. Some good examples of grammar “rules” revolve around sentences and sentence structure. For example:
*Sentences start with a capital letter and end with a punctuation mark.
*In English, basic sentence structure consists of subject, verb, object. Disrupting this order will make a sentence sound weird to a native speaker.
*A sentence needs to express a complete thought, otherwise it’s a dependent clause.
*A single subject requires a single verb (or predicate). For example: The dog is cute. If you use “the dog are cute”, you’ve broken a basic grammar rule.
Style, on the other hand, is a collection of suggestions on ways to use language so as to refine and improve the readability and understanding of the written word. That sentence, by the way, was grammatically correct but maybe not the best choice stylistically. It’s long and could cause confusion. Sentences that are grammatically correct aren’t automatically the best ways to convey information. That’s where style choices come in. They fill in the gaps left behind by grammar and help refine language to improve understanding. Style is flexible and can depend on a particular house, publication, field, or editor. It also takes reader expectations and context into consideration.
Style changes—sometimes rapidly—while grammar only changes very slowly. Some good examples of stylistic issues are:
*Whether one or two spaces are included after a sentence within a paragraph (this changed to one with the rise of computers and word processing programs).
*Ending a sentence with a preposition—this actually isn’t a grammar rule.
*Whether or not to begin sentences with conjunctions is also a style question; there’s no grammatical prohibition against it.
*Use of active voice versus passive voice—active voice might be preferred in most cases, but passive voice isn’t grammatically “wrong”.
One place where I see grammar and style often confused is in comma usage. One hotly debated “comma rule” is the Oxford comma (also known as serial comma or series comma)—this is the comma that comes before the conjunction in a list. For example: dogs, cats, and pigs. In my school days, this comma was always used and taught to us as a rule. Years later, this comma was dropped by many publications (the story, as I heard it, was that newspapers dropped it to save valuable column space, and this passed on to other types of publications).
Adherents to this new “rule” are adamant that the comma before the conjunction is no longer correct. Except it isn’t a rule. It’s a style choice. Whether to use it or not differs depending on the guide you consult.
So how does this affect the average writer?
First, writers should try to learn the difference between basic grammar and style choices. This will save you many headaches and heartaches. It will also give you some perspective when an editor insists something needs to be written a certain way. If it’s grammar, you should probably listen. If it’s style, you’ll need to decide if the change is in keeping with your voice and/or changes the meaning of your prose.
Comma style choices can often change meaning and so must be watched. You might be using passive voice on purpose and changing to active voice would destroy the point you’re trying to make. Splitting your infinitives could have a better dramatic effect and therefore be better stylistically (“…to boldly go where no one has gone…” just sounds more exciting than “…to go boldly…”).
Second, if you’re writing for a publisher or a particular publication, knowing their house style will make your life easier and your work look very professional. It’s important to remember, though, that no one style is “right” or “wrong”. These guides are put together to make things consistent within house. But again, the “rules” are choices made by the publication, not necessarily “rules” of grammar.
Third, when in doubt, default to a commonly used style reference book (for example, The Chicago Manual of Style’s most recent edition is frequently used for book publishing style questions). This will get you close to the style most editors are expecting to see.
Finally, if you choose the self-publishing path, understand that for consistency, and your own piece of mind, you will have to make style decisions which may or may not adhere to other style guides. This will be a particular issue when hiring editors. These style decisions might just be preferences (like whether or not to use the comma before a “too” at the end of a sentence—some editors hate that comma; others consider it required). The decisions might also affect your voice in a serious way. The last thing you want is to have your voice destroyed by a well-meaning editor. In fact, it might behoove you to write up your own “house style guide” which will not only keep you consistent but will be something you can share with anyone you hire. This will make their jobs easier as well as save you a lot of STETing and/or rejecting in Track Changes.
For any writer trying to ensure readers “get” the picture they’re attempting to convey, both style and grammar are extremely important. However, it’s also important to know the difference between the two. Grammar “rules” should generally be something you adhere to so that readers can easily decipher your prose. Style is flexible and will change. Understanding both, will allow you to tell stories in the clearest language so that readers can immerse themselves in your worlds. And when you choose to break a “rule”, be it style or grammar, you’ll know exactly what you’re doing.
For more on this topic, start with these two articles: ♥
Isabo Kelly is the author of multiple fantasy, science fiction, and paranormal romances. Most of her work, including her most recent fantasy romance WARRIOR’S DAWN, has benefited greatly from someone else having a style guide in place. For more on Isabo and her books, visit her at www.isabokelly.com, follow her on Twitter @IsaboKelly, or friend her on Facebook www.facebook.com/IsaboKelly.