“The Rules aren’t really The Rules any more,” Dr. Ash said during one of our English Education classes, of those irrefutable Rules of Spelling, Grammar and Usage that are said to govern our language and how we use it.
“No, they’re the Rules,” the Inner Voice said. “It’s non-negotiable. We capitalize them because you can’t revoke them. What is she on?”
“We have customs now. Customs can change and be modified with use, letting the users of the language make choices as the language to continue to grow and expand,” Ash said.
“Absolute twaddle,” the Inner Voice said then, almost two years ago.
The Inner Voice now – well, Dr. Ash may have had a point.
Take the grandfather of all of the Rules, “I before E, except after C,” as a prime example.
We grew up with the bedrock certainty that when questions of spelling arose involving those tricky vowels, our handy mnemonic device would be there to bail us out. The I would come before the E.
The Rule said it. It had to be so.
It was The Rule, after all.
Ancient. Species. Science. Society. (To name just a few)
All I, followed by E, directly after C.
So much for the rule of The Rule.
Once the monolithic Rules come falling down, it’s easier to pick apart the lesser ones.
Why bother with putting that comma before ‘and’ in items in a series? Folks aren’t going to notice the
Oxford comma, and even fewer will know it by its hoity-toity name.
It’s unnecessary, taking up time, space and valuable ink, so journalists are taught to avoid it at all costs. Even my fellow English majors are split as to whether to teach it to their students, which is why people use the comma at will, changing usage even throughout their own writing.
Truth be told, it isn’t vital. It might provide pause for breath or reflection, so you might have time to say
“Well, that is indeed a list of items,” or some such benign exclamatory remark.
We live in the world of customs now, not rules. Customs allow change as change is needed.
Utility, not allegiance to moribund mechanical mores, is the key.
We need our language to be ready to move with us at our speed, and rules just slow that process down. Activity creates definition, and we are taught to mobilize our language to use it as we choose to, empowering us to be masters of our own lingual destinies.
Verb frequently and explicitly.
(Think of how many times you’ve used the verb “Google,” as in “Google it” in such a fashion. We use it 10 times a day around the office.)
Adjectivize words as you need them.
(Any student of Auburn University’s Don Wehrs knows this trick, as we’re empowered to use Wehrsian adjectives whether talking about the Austenian narrator or Garcia-Marquezian magical realism.) Simply do what you feel and worry about defining it later.
We create rules in order to bring structure and function to a world that lacks both, but we strict grammarians should learn not to fight against the natural order of things.
Chaos will always revert to chaos, regardless of the many preventatives and precautions in which weput our faith.
The rule of The Rules is over, and, unlike the customs that replace them, that seems doubtful to change.