Philosophy

Certain values and beliefs about language underpin the content on this site, and visitors deserve to know what they are. We are sharing them here, in no particular order (and with the caveat that they are subject to inevitable and ongoing revision):

  1. Languages are dynamic; they change. The rules that govern the use of language, therefore, also change. If you don’t agree, you may not like the advice proffered on these pages.
  2. 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 “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 the notion that all good essays must have five paragraphs. Poppycock and balderdash!)
  3. Dialects, which have their own sophisticated rules and systems of organization, are not inferior to standard written American English (SWAE). Those who speak or write in dialect should not be shamed for doing so. Nearly everyone code switches to one degree or another, and the ability to do so actually represents mental agility and sophisticated contextual awareness. We are not in the business of judging people when their dialect differs from our own.
  4. Reality check: Despite the truth of numbers one through three above, the world is full of people who will judge those whose writing does not reflect SWAE. The goal of this site, therefore, is to provide information to help level the playing field. Knowing that most people have had very little formal instruction about grammar, mechanics, and usage, we delight in providing explanations that are clear but which do not oversimplify complex issues. You will notice that 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).
  5. While some rules are really matters of style and others are shibboleths, it is also true that an understanding of syntax—of the way 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 it avoids those surface errors that distract a reader and can undermine—however unfairly—the writer’s credibility.
  6. 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. I am an avid reader and pretty good writer but an abysmal speller; I was 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), to semantics, 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.
  7. 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. We are driven to distraction when servers in restaurants or gym class instructors refer to a table or a room full of mostly women as guys. Would they, we ask, refer to a table or room full of men as gals? We think not, and we invite our visitors to reconsider how usage sometimes serves to reinforce repressive ideologies.
  8. We are recovering prescriptivists and have been for many decades. Sometimes we lapse and fall back into prescriptive habits of thinking about language. We are, therefore, 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 CV and a brief note about your interest.
  9. 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. Rest assured, however, 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.