Much of this site is devoted to addressing issues of grammar, mechanics, and usage. As with any such resource, certain values and beliefs about language underpin the content on these pages, and we believe that visitors deserve to know what those values are:
- Whether we like this fact or not, the world is full of people who will judge those whose writing does not reflect standard written American English (SWAE). Knowing that most people have had very little formal instruction about grammar, mechanics, and usage, we delight in providing clear and easy-to-understand explanations that do not oversimplify complex issues. We try to avoid making blanket declarations about what writers should always or never do and instead endeavor to provide our intelligent readers a full range of thoughts on a topic so they can make their own decisions based on their particular writing context(s). The wise writer avoids surface errors that might distract a reader and that can undermine—however unfairly—the writer’s credibility.
- Languages are dynamic; they change. The rules that govern the use of language, therefore, also change. We celebrate those changes while recognizing that not everyone does. We also recognize that in high-stakes writing situations (a cover letter for a job, for example), sometimes it’s best to play by the rules that many people think are important even if we suspect they are no longer (or never were) relevant.
- Many so-called (and highly revered) “rules” are, in fact, shibboleths: They are used by those who consider themselves “in the know” to make an arrogant and unfounded claim of superiority over those who are not privy to the same depth of knowledge about those rules. Other so-called “rules” are not, in fact, rules at all but matters of style that vary from one discipline or context to another. (See our post on style manuals.) Still others are made up; they are merely myths that have been passed along as truth for so long that they have become entrenched. (“Never start a sentence with and, but, or because,” for example, or never split an infinitive. Poppycock and balderdash!)
- While some rules are really matters of style and others are shibboleths, it is also true that an understanding of syntax—of the ways words, phrases, and clauses come together to make meaning—is essential to becoming a good writer. The best writing is focused, logical, coherent, clear, and convincing, and when writers understand sentence structure, they are better equipped to produce writing that meets those criteria.
- Grammar is not the same as usage or mechanics. Punctuation is a matter of usage, not of grammar. Knowing where to put an apostrophe and deciding whether to spell out a number or use a numeral are matters of mechanics, not of grammar. Spelling is not a matter of grammar but a matter of, well, spelling. We are avid readers and pretty good writers but abysmal spellers; we were born for spell check (and for GPS, but that’s another topic). Grammar refers to the structure and system of a language: to syntax (sentence structure) and to the relationship among the various parts of a sentence and an awareness of how those parts come together to make (or to obscure) meaning.
- Words matter. We have zero tolerance for racist, sexist, homophobic, or xenophobic language or for rules that reflect or reinforce those ways of thinking. Most recently, for example, we have embraced the notion that it is better to use a plural pronoun to refer to a singular noun than to reinforce the socially constructed gender binary. Likewise, we find it distracting when restaurants servers and gym class instructors refer to groups of mostly women as guys. Would they, we ask, refer to a group of mostly men as gals? We think not, and we invite our visitors to consider how some rules merely serve to reinforce repressive ideologies.
- We are in the process of assembling an advisory board to keep us in check and to help us continue to learn from the best. If you are interested in sharing your expertise in this capacity, please let us know by sending us your resume or CV and a brief note about your interest.
- To those of you who have been following this site since it began nearly 20 years ago: Yes, we are—at long last—attempting to monetize this site in the hopes of one day being able to retire. We hope the ads aren’t too annoying. We have included a page of items that we recommend, too, but rest assured that we will never recommend a book or a website unless we have vetted it and believe it to be helpful. If you believe your book or website—or one you love—should be on the page of recommended resources, send us a copy or an email and we will be happy to consider adding it.
We welcome respectful and informed debate and challenges to statements made on this site, and we are open to amending or even deleting a post—especially if we are convinced that it is (however unintentionally) advancing a shibboleth or overlooking an important part of the bigger picture. We are all learning, and it is our hope that this site can be a place that inspires lively and helpful discussion.