Change – the only constant (Part 2)
As we wrote last month, change is constant. Not only vocabulary, but grammar and punctuation also change, albeit quite slowly.
Part 2: Grammar
Changes in grammar “rules” evolve fairly slowly over time. How much grammar use has changed since you learned the basics at school will largely depend on how old you are. In fact, it likely depends how old you are as to whether you were even taught the basic grammar rules at school at all! A whole generation seems to have fallen through the cracks during a widespread trend in the 70s and 80s to omit any formal teaching of grammar, due to the belief that focusing on correct grammar would destroy children’s creativity and willingness to write. Despite this, most reasonably educated people of that generation still speak and write with perfectly correct grammar, even if they would be at a loss to explain why they write that way, which suggests that somehow we learn this by osmosis, or from our parents as we learn to speak, or by reading?
Of course, for those of us who write for business or academic purposes, using correct grammar is essential. As we’ve stated many times before – the main purpose of grammar and punctuation is clarity. Disregarding grammatical norms can result in writing that is very difficult at worst – and confusing at best – for the reader to understand. This is a basic failure of communication and therefore does need to be addressed.
So, if you did learn grammar at school, what has changed? Mainly that the rules are more relaxed. For example, you may have been taught not to end a sentence with a preposition or not to start a sentence with a conjunction; yet we break both these rules frequently, and with good reason. Often, ending a sentence with a preposition is just fine, trying to reword the sentence to avoid that would be plain awkward. Consider:
“Yes, she’s the person I was thinking of!”
To avoid ending the sentence with of, we would have to say:
“Yes, she’s the person of whom I was thinking.”
Hmm, does that sound natural to you?
Similarly, you perhaps learned that we should never split infinitives. Never say ‘never’! “To go boldly where no man has gone before…” is grammatically correct, but “to boldly go...” just has far greater impact. Common sense, clarity, and context should always prevail.
Then there are hyphens. Some countries hyphenate certain compound nouns such as socioeconomic, for example – others do not. The same applies to words with prefixes like non.
Hint: it’s really advisable to check a dictionary published in the country you’re in – or that your intended audience is in – regarding these words. For example, often Americans will omit hyphens in words with ‘non’ prefixes while British and Canadians use them, e.g., nonprofit (US) /non-profit (Canadian); the same applies with nonpartisan/non-partisan, nonproductive/non-productive, and nonstarter/non-starter, to name but a few.
(But that rule doesn’t work all the time – both countries omit hyphens in nonconformist, for example – go figure!)
The same thing applies to compound nouns; Canadians hyphenate socioeconomic, Americans don’t. (British speakers are apparently undecided with the Cambridge dictionary omitting the hyphen and Collins using it, so your guess is as good as mine on that one!) But it’s not even that simple; for example, both countries omit hyphens for sociolinguistics. Check your dictionary – it’s a minefield out there!
Then there’s the issue of hyphenating modifiers. The most sensible approach is to use hyphens whenever not doing so would lead to confusion. For example, when you talk about the owner of a small business, you likely don’t intend people to think that the business owner in question is short in stature. Therefore, you would write a small-business owner; the hyphen makes the meaning clear.
But what about well designed; user friendly; short term; etc.? We adhere to the rule that if these word pairs precede the nouns they modify, they are hyphenated; if they follow the noun, they are not, thus:
This a well-designed building. / The building is well designed.
We have a new, user-friendly website. / Our new website is user friendly.
The short-term plan is to vaccinate those most at risk. / We plan to vaccinate those most at risk in the short term.
However, while the Chicago Manual of Style would agree with us, Associated Press style suggests that these word pairs should also be hyphenated when they follow the noun if they also follow any form of the verb to be Thus:
She is a well-dressed woman/ The woman is well-dressed would both be correct, as would … his beliefs are well-founded or ...our new website is user-friendly.
So, you really need to know which style guide your intended recipient prefers also!