“Correctness” in Writing

In thinking about correctness, it’s important to recognize that some rules are more important than others.

Essential Rules of the English Language

Joseph Williams helpfully distinguishes three kinds of rules in Williams and Bizup’s Style.[1] First, there are rules that are basic to English, such as “the car” not “car the.” For example,

INCORRECT: I thought whether true claims not.

CORRECT: I hadn’t thought about whether the claims were true.

If you’ve gotten most of your formal education in English, you probably observe these rules routinely. If your writing has mismatches of number (singular/plural) or tense, it might be due to haste or carelessness rather than unawareness. Similarly, capitalizing the first word of a sentence and ending with appropriate punctuation are basic rules that most people comply with automatically when writing for a professor or in other formal situations.

Slogan printed on a wall: To break the rules, you must first master them.

Rules of Formality

Williams’ second category is comprised of rules that distinguish standard written English from the informal variants that people use in their day-to-day lives. Most students with middle-class and non-immigrant backgrounds use informal vernaculars that closely parallel standard written English. Students with working-class or more modest backgrounds or who are members of transnational and multi-lingual communities may use informal variants of English in their everyday lives that are quite different from standard written English. It’s an unfortunate reality of social inequality that such students have to expend more effort than their middle-class English-speaking counterparts to master the standard conventions. It’s not really fair, but at least the mechanics and rules of formal writing are documented and unambiguous. Learning to communicate effectively in different social contexts is part of becoming an educated person.

Some examples:

INFORMAL: We ain’t got no more of them cookies.

FORMAL: We don’t have any more of those cookies.

INFORMAL: My coat, my phone, and my keys was all lock in the car.

FORMAL: My coat, my phone, and my keys were all locked in the car.

INFORMAL: u shd go 2 café b4 wrk bc coffee

FORMAL: You should go the café before work to get some coffee.

The informal versions are clearly English, and they’re widely understandable to others. The first and second examples contain choices of tense, number, and punctuation that are inappropriate in standard written English even though they don’t actually impede communication. Most students already understand that these first two categories of rules (rules fundamental to English and the rules of standard written English) are obligatory for formal writing.

Rules as Folklore

There is a third category of rules that Williams notes and enthusiastically criticizes; he calls them “invented rules” because they usually arise from busybody grammarians rather than enduring patterns of customary language use. Some invented rules Williams calls “options”: those that your reader will notice when you observe them and not care if you don’t. Here’s an example of the fabled don’t-end-a-sentence-with-a-preposition rule:

OBSERVING THE RULE: With which concept can we analyze this problem?

IGNORING THE RULE: Which concept can we analyze this problem with?

Some grammarians would claim that only the first version is correct. However, you probably have the (accurate) impression that professional writers are much more likely to choose the second version. This rule does not reflect real-life customary practice, even in standard written English.That’s why Williams calls it an “invented rule.” Most of your professors are fine with the second version above, the one that ends a sentence with a preposition.

A pair of hands holding an open book against a background of blurred printed pagesWilliams calls the second sub-category of invented rules “folklore.” They’re invented rules (like “options”) in that grammarians think writers should observe them, but, in reality, no one does. Williams gleefully lists instances in which the very grammarians who propose these rules go on to unselfconsciously violate them.[2] You may have heard of these rules, but they’re widely considered absurd.

For example, some grammarians are dismayed that people use “that” and “which” interchangeably, and they argue that writers should use “that” to indicate restrictive elements and “which” to indicate non-restrictive elements. A restrictive element is one that makes a necessary specification about something; a non-restrictive element is one that simple adds extra information. Consider these two examples:

Version 1:

The party that Alex went to was shut down by the police.

Version 2:

The party which Alex went to was shut down by the police.

For almost all readers, versions 1 and 2 are saying the exact same thing. For the persnickety grammarian, version 1 is specifying the party that Alex went to, and not the party that, say, Jordan went to, while version 2 is simply inserting extra information about Alex’s attendance at the party. According to these grammarians, “that Alex went to” adds critically needed information (restrictive) while “which Alex went to” adds bonus information (non-restrictive).

As Williams and some others explain: it’s bullshit. Professional writers use commas and carefully chosen words to do the job of distinguishing restrictive and non-restrictive elements, and they choose whichever relative pronoun (“that” or “which”) sounds better in context. You could observe the distinction between that and which if you like, but no one would notice. More importantly, observing this invented rule wouldn’t necessarily make your writing any clearer, more concise, or more graceful.

One Particular Folklore Rule to Follow

There is one rule that Williams calls “folklore” that you probably have to observe in college papers nonetheless: that is, the rule that you can’t start sentences with But, And, So, For, or Yet (or other coordinating conjunctions). Browsing through assigned readings and articles published in major newspapers and magazines will quickly lead you to texts that violate this so-called rule. Here are two examples:

From the front page of the New York Times January 7, 2014:[3] “But since the financial crisis, JPMorgan has become so large and profitable that it has been able to weather the government’s legal blitz, which has touched many parts of the bank’s sprawling operations.” And a little further down we see, “Yet JPMorgan’s shares are up 28 percent over the last 12 months.”

From a news article in Science, December 21, 2007:[4]  “Altered winds blew in more warm air from the subtropics only in models in which mid-latitude oceans warmed as observed; apparently, the warmer oceans altered the circulation. And that ocean warming is widely viewed as being driven by the strengthening greenhouse.”

Whether or not to start sentences with conjunctions will ultimately come down to a matter of your instructors’ preferences. Thus, you shouldn’t start sentences with “And,” “But” or other coordinating conjunctions unless you’ve been specifically invited to.

There are countless other rules beyond the ones discussed here. The point of these examples is to show that you don’t have to observe every little rule you’ve ever heard of. There are some elements of mechanics that you have to master. These practices will gradually become second nature. It’s sometimes hard to know at the outset which rules are standard, which are options, and which are folklore. With the help of a good handbook and your instructors, you’ll learn them over time.

The larger point here is that that observing rules isn’t about traversing a minefield of potential errors; it’s just about learning and adopting the practices appropriate to your audience, which is one of the first rules of writing well.

  1. Williams first described invented rules in J.M. Williams, “A Phenomenology of Error,” College Composition and Communication, 32, no. 2 (1981): 152-168.
  2. J.M. Williams, Phenomenology of Error
  3. Peter Eavis, “Steep Penalties Taken in Stride by JPMorgan Chase,” New York Times, January 7, 2014, page A1.
  4. Richard A. Kerr, “Global Warming Coming Home to Roost in the American Midwest,” Science 318, no. 5858 (2007): 1859.