Grammar – The Changing Rules

Although they may not like it, people are now aware that nothing remains the same. Everything changes. That’s why I find it amazing when some people appear stunned to hear grammar rules and writing styles change.

But why shouldn’t they?  Grammar and writing style rules were invented to meet a specific need. When the need changes or no longer works, shouldn’t the rule?

For instance, periods did not exist until the 4th century. At that point, St. Jerome decided he needed them to make his translations of the scriptures easier to understand. I am sure he probably got complaints about the strange mark in his writing style.

When I went to school, we were told in our grammar courses to place a comma whenever you would take a breath in a sentence.  However, that only works if you speak slowly and pause in acceptable places.  If English is not your main language, this can be a confusing rule.

Now there are specific grammar and writing style guidelines for when to place a comma, e.g., in complex and compound sentences, after introductory thoughts, after connecting words of two syllable or more (therefore, however, in addition), and before the word “which.”

Heavens! Did you notice the last word in the last paragraph?  Yes, in North America, periods and commas are now placed inside the quotation marks. This is acceptable writing style. Colons and semicolons are placed outside. A woman in one of my workshops told of how she caused her son to lose five marks in an essay because of altering his punctuation to the way she learned.

You can now tell where a book has been edited by the position of the quotation marks. Periods placed inside quotation marks tell you the book was edited in Canada or the U.S.  Periods outside tell you the book was edited in Britain.

Why did North Americans change?  It was the decision of our print media who felt it was less confusing this way and less likely to cause errors in layouts.

I know that at this point you are likely saying why follow the American way. Why not stick with the British? Well, believe it or not, there is a distinct Canadian style.  Sometimes we pull from the British, sometimes the American.  For example, like the British, we place a “u” in many of our words: colour, favour, and neighbour.

And unlike both the Americans and the British, we double our l’s whenever we add a suffix to a word. Hence, travel becomes travelling and enrol becomes enrollment.

When it comes to making names ending in an “s” possessive, the Canadian way – like the American way – is to only add an apostrophe if the word is two syllables or more: Thomas’ report, Rogers’ network.  If the word is one syllable, then you must add an apostrophe plus an “s” – Jones’s diary or Chris’s meeting.

Recently, Britain has changed its rule on the possessive.  Now they add an apostrophe plus “s” to make all names possessive: Dick Francis’s book.  The British have also just removed the hyphen from over one thousand words, such asthank you, bumble bee, and ice cream. Canadians have never put hyphens in these words.

Let’s get back to commas.  When I was at school, we were told never to put a comma before the final “and” in a list.  Now it is accepted and even encouraged.  It allows busy readers to quickly interpret information. I could write: “She is skilled, professional and enthusiastic.” But if I wrote: “She is skilled, professional, and enthusiastic,” it emphasizes there are three distinct reasons we should hire her.

Semicolons – interesting pieces of punctuation – are rapidly falling into disfavour.  Many people don’t use them correctly, and they are difficult to see when reading directly from a computer screen.  You can now go your whole life and never use them.  Use periods instead.  In addition, semicolons are considered outdated with a bulleted or numbered list.  If your list consists of complete sentences, then each point would end with a period.  If your list consists of sentence fragments, there is no need for any punctuation. (Your lists will look much cleaner.)

Your question now is probably “Who makes up the rules?” In North America, the rules for spelling and style are dictated by the editorial field.  Canada’s bible is The Canadian Press Stylebook.  In the States, it is The Chicago Manual of Style.

Why is it important to know the rules of grammar – particularly if they are going to change? Believe it or not, grammar does help make a document easier to interpret.  The changes occur for a reason.  They are not done on a whim to make your life more difficult.

And good grammar projects a positive image of you and your organization.

Jane Watson is a trainer, author, and consultant in the field of written business communications at Ontario Training Network.