when is an error not an error?

People … feel emotional about the past. Thousands of comments followed the post. At stake here is really the arbitrariness of so many rules of writing. We respect most of them merely for the sake of consistency.

— Russell Smith (The Globe and Mail,19 Jan 2011), regarding a column about style and typography.

Many grammatical and stylistic “rules” have been drilled into us since early school days. However, a good portion of these are not real errors – the best of our writers make them (Shakespeare, Austin, E.B. White, Orwell).

It doesn’t help that popular style books state the “rules” (The Elements of Style; “Politics and the English Language”), while simultaneously breaking them. This fills writers with self-doubt and confusion.

Q: Which of these are errors?

  • Splitting an infinitive.
  • Ending a sentence with a preposition.
  • Beginning a sentence with a conjunction (such as “and” or “but”).
  • Using the passive voice.

A: None of them.

Compare:

  • Donors have pledged $100 million to dramatically increase learning opportunities for undergraduates. (Split infinitive. Are we bothered? No.)
  • Donors have pledged $100 million to increase dramatically learning opportunities for undergraduates.(Better? I think not.)

Should you revise this sentence?

  • Spell check won’t help you when you have the wrong word to start with.  (Are you worried about the preposition at the end of the sentence? Don’t be.)

So, should we enforce these “rules”?

Yes, sometimes. Consistency is important—it makes the voice neutral, especially even when multiple writers are involved in a project. Adhere to your style guide. And remember that readers are armchair editors who have been warned about the very same “errors.” They will judge you, especially if they notice inconsistencies. People really, really, really, really care about matters of style, grammar, spelling, and the like.

There are people who embrace the Oxford comma, and people who don’t, and I’ll just say this, never get between these people when drink has been taken.

— Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots, and Leaves

So, break the “rules” if it makes sense – but pick your moments.

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