5 Old School Writing Rules That Need To Retire

9 comments

I think the title (and header image) says it all, so let's get right to it.

Using a comma before “and” between two independent clauses that use the imperative form.

I did a little research, and it seems I’m not the only person who thinks that there is reason to retire the comma that appears between two independent clauses when each of the clauses begin with an imperative verb AND the coordinating conjunction and is used.

The rule states that when conjoining two independent clauses into a single sentence, connect them with either a semicolon or a comma + coordinating conjunction combo. (Reminder: coordinating conjunctions can be remembered by the acronym FANBOYS - for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so. For example:

  • Sammy put the leash on the dog; she took him on a walk.

OR

  • Sammy put the leash on the dog, and she took him on a walk.

In most cases, the comma is necessary and useful. This is one of the easier comma rules to remember, in my opinion.  However, I’m starting to think there is a case for eliminating the comma when the two independent clauses start the verb conjugated in the imperative mood (a.k.a. command form) and are connected by the coordinating conjunction and. My reasoning is this:

  1. The imperative/command verb form is unique in that you don’t need to include a subject because the subject is always you.
  2. The other coordinating conjunctions—for, nor, but, or, yet, so—indicate some sort of shift or explanation. And, on the other hand, does not signal a shift so much as an additional piece of information. Consider the difference between these two sentences.
    • Take a cupcake, but don’t eat the last chocolate one.
    • Take a cupcake and don’t eat the last chocolate one.

Consider now that I am telling Sammy to take care of the dog. I could write it like this:

  • Sammy, put the leash on the dog and take him for a walk.

I have a comma after the name, because that is who I’m talking to, but I don’t even need that.

  • Put the leash on the dog and take him for a walk.

The effect is a more seamless sentence that clearly links the two activities without a pause—which I don’t think is needed at all.

Right now, the rule has not changed, but after polling a few of my wordy friends, I have reason to believe that people will start dropping that comma without even knowing they are doing it because it’s just not needed in that context.

Using a comma before a name in a greeting (or similarly short sentence)

The grammar rule goes something like this: When addressing a person, put a comma before and/or after the name (proper noun), title, or pronoun. Examples:

  • Hello, Grandma.
  • Is this yours, Sir?
  • Hey, Sarah!
  • How can I help you, Mr. Smith?
  • Ed, is that your book?
  • Why, Ted, do you talk so much?!
  • Good Morning, everyone!

This makes sense in MOST contexts. The comma forces a short pause before the speaker directs the comment at a particular audience.

However, in very short sentences—3 words or less (though usually 2 words), it seems extraneous. I think the comma could be safely omitted in the first, third, and last example listed above because of the brevity of the sentence.

What’s more, I don’t see many people even using this comma in this way anymore. Scan through your emails and see how many of them use a comma between the greeting and your name. Not many, I’d be willing to bet.

In very short addresses of this kind, there is little pause—if any at all—between the greeting/address and the addressee. This is especially true is super short slang greetings like.

  • Hi mom!
  • Thanks Bob!
  • Hey gang!

I would, however, opt to keep the comma in a sentence like

  • Thank you, Bob!

But omit it for

  • Thanks Bob!

because the Bob in the first example in redundant—Bob and you are the same addressee. This creates a pause when you say it and creates emphasis on who the you is when you write it—so I’d keep that one.

Addressing mail (or anything) to “Mr. and Mrs. [Husband’s Name]”

Ok, here is where I call out my Alma Mater for using this archaic practice on their alumni magazine. Four times a year since I took home my degree from Hamilton College, I get a copy of the Alumni magazine delivered to my house. During this time, I have moved fourteen times, married, changed my last name, and had a couple kids. Somewhere along the way, the people who mail this magazine out and maintain the address list changed the mailing label from the name printed on my diploma: Taylor Fleming-Henning (yes, Fleming-Henning is my maiden name—now you see why I changed my name when I married and didn’t add another hyphen) to Mr. and Mrs. Maurice Houston. Um…really?

This bothers me for many reasons:

  1. I thought Ms. was the politically correct way to address a woman formally (and even that is feeling outdated and 1990s-ish in tone.)
  2. My name is Taylor, not Mrs. Maurice. If you don’t believe me, go ask my mom. And good luck to you, she’s not gonna make it easy on you. After all, she gave me a hyphenated last name way before the hipsters gave their pet pugs hyphenated last names.
  3. I’M THE ONE WHO ATTENDED AND GRADUATED FROM HAMILTON COLLEGE, not my husband. He’s doesn’t even know where Hamilton College is, and he barely cares.
  4. In a world where people are starting to refer to themselves with new, non-gendered pronouns and same-sex marriage is legal in every state, is it SO MUCH TO ASK a highly-rated, liberal arts school that prides themselves on producing forward-thinking graduates to address its alumni magazine to the person who ACTUALLY earned the degree, regardless of their marital status???? Why can’t it just say Taylor Houston? Huh?? What do they do for their same-sex married alum? What if I’d married Marilyn Houston. Would they address my copy of the alumni magazine to Mrs. and Mrs. Marilyn Houston? It makes no damned sense anymore. Stop. Doing. This.

Using punctuation of any kind in addresses and dates

Raise your hand if you have painstakingly typed your mailing address with all the periods and commas intact into the order form page of a website when you are trying to order something and the stupid page says “I know you just typed 9004 S PERIOD State St PERIOD COMMA Ste PERIOD 1054, but the US postal service doesn’t know what you’re talking about. Is this where you live??”

9004 S State St Ste 1054

Smithville IL 55602

Why bother anymore? If the organization whose job it is to get a piece of mail to me says “Hey, fuck commas and periods, we just want PLAIN addresses” then WHY am I still writing it that way? Time to modernize. All those abbreviation periods and commas are just not being used, and they don’t add anything, so let them go, shall we?

Same for dates! Is it crucial to your understanding to pause visually between the day of the month and the year?

  • September seventeenth COMMA two-thousand fifteen

I didn’t think so.

Comma rules are so confusing already. There are SO many of them. Let’s eliminate some of the more staid usages and spend energy learning where to put them when it matters!

Using e.g., i.e. or other Latin abbreviations

Let me just save you the agony of having yet another person remind you which is which. The point is, no one ever remembers. Also, Latin is dead. I think I wrote those exact words in another article. I will say it again. LATIN IS DEAD. There is really no reason NOT to say for example or such as when faced with the e.g. versus i.e. dilemma. (Not that it should be an issue—they mean entirely different things.)

I have read article after article from well-meaning grammarians offering memorization tools for these little Latin holdouts, but what’s the point? They come from a time when word space on a page was at a premium and making little latin-y abbreviations was a way to quickly communicate something without spelling it out. I now have exactly 1 quadrillion gigs of space in my Gmail account. Please, oh please, just say for example.

Also, when is the last time school children were taught i.e., e.g.¸ Sic., ibid., re., et al., etc., etc.? Go ahead, poll 10 random people in your office or family to see if they know what Sic. means and how it’s used.

And yet these Latin abbreviations appear in our news and daily communications like everyone reading it is E.B. White or Seneca. The key to getting the non-Word Nerds to give a crap about good writing is to eliminate crusty old habits created by old-school academics who thought adding Latin-esque words and grammatical constructions to the language made us sound smarter. There is a real need to create communications that can be read and understood by a wide group of people—GLOBALIZATION!—and killing our little Latin darlings will help us all do that.


What do you think? Do these rules have to go? Or will they have to pry them out of your cold, dead hands? Anything to add to the list?

Taylor Houston

Column by Taylor Houston

Taylor Houston is a genuine Word Nerd living in Portland, OR where she works as a technical writer and volunteers on the marketing committee for Wordstock, a local organization dedicated to writing education. She has a BA in Creative Writing and Spanish from Hamilton College and attended Penn State's MFA program in Creative Nonfiction. She has taught writing at all levels from middle school to college to adult, and she is the creator of Writer’s Cramp, a class for adults who just want to write!

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Comments

Tavis Highfill's picture
Tavis Highfill September 25, 2015 - 2:25pm

I disagree with you about the commas. I use them a lot (possibly too much). But that quick pause is often what I'm going for, and I don't WANT the sentence to be seamless. Why, just read that last sentence, then take the comma out and read it again. Or read THAT sentence using the same method.

I think you sound like an idiot when you say something like "Hi Bob" with no comma. If I encounter this in an email, or anywhere else, you've lost some of my respect.

I agree about the punctuation for addresses, but I can't help but use them. They're just so natural to me, and it would take me longer to force myself to omit them.

I know all those Latin abbreviations, and I'm not sure what you would replace them with (example, some English word). No, that looks dumb, doesn't it? Any linguist can tell you that Latin is absolutely NOT dead. Just because it isn't used conversationally, doesn't mean it's done with. Scientists and medical professionals still use it immensely for their terminology, and it's still useful to help us understand how all the Indo-European languages fit together.

Michelle Kidd Tackabery's picture
Michelle Kidd T... September 27, 2015 - 8:19am

I agree with all of these suggestions. To address Tavis' comment, Latin is dead. I have been mentoring young writers for about eight years now and none of them understood what the usual Latinate terms, such as i.e. or N.B, meant. Language is a living thing. It's time for English grammar to crawl out of the coffin and join the rest of us as well.

Milla Em's picture
Milla Em September 27, 2015 - 12:31pm

I agree with the superfluous commas in a greeting, but I disagree with your comments on Latin words. Latin words are necessary especially in academic writing. Yes, we absolutely need 'et al.' when referencing. In journalism and research, we absolutely need 'sic' when quoting verbatim, and you certainly can not substitute 'i.e' with ''such as''. 

Some Latin words are there for a reason. Certain phrases and technical terms are in Latin, not because people in particular disciplines are trying to be smarter than everyone else, but because these words encapsulate complex ideas into short-hand terms, making it possible (and easy) to share said ideas. There is a purpose to these words. 

In my honest opinion, the fact that a sizable number of people aren't familiar with the meaning or usage of the words you mentioned is not an excuse to exclude them from the English lexicon. 

Taylor's picture
Taylor from Portland, Oregon is reading 'Alexander Hamilton' by Ron Chernow September 28, 2015 - 10:15am

Ooh! Spirited debate! I love it. 

It's true that those Latin abbrevations and terms are useful to many, but what about those who don't understand them?

Journalism is a key discipline that uses these terms, but how many readers of CNN.com know what Sic means when it pops up in the middle of a quote? I bet not that many. I got all the way through a BA in English at a top 20 liberal arts college before I knew what that meant. Maybe that's proof of some sort of failing on my part or on the part of the education I received, but I think it's because a lot of people are NOT taught how to read the very things from which they get their information. 

I am starting to think that's why there is so much mis-information out there. How many times has someone on my Facebook shared a story from a bogus news site? They didn't think to look a little deeper to see that it's some web version of those Weekly World News-type tabloids they sell in the grocery stores. 

Transparency in langauge goes a really long way toward understanding between informer and audience. It might make all the difference to a reader to see the words that explain that the error was not the author's but rather the person who has been quoted. 

I'm not saying they should go away all together, but I'd like to see the reliance on such terms go down. 

And, damnit, people DO use these to 'sound smart'--let's not be naive! I would, and do. :) And I have been around enough academics to know they go out of their way to one-up each other, however good natured the rivalry may be. It's ok, but we'd be silly to think it's not happening. 

 

Anyone else wanna get in on this?!?!

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading absolutely nothing September 30, 2015 - 9:34am

Sic is snarky. That's why I like it.

--Ed

Taylor's picture
Taylor from Portland, Oregon is reading 'Alexander Hamilton' by Ron Chernow September 30, 2015 - 11:52am

I agree, Ed, who doesn't love a sneaky way to say, "Hey, Asshole, you made a mistake here, and I caught it. Now I'm going to show everyone what an idiot you are (and what a genius I am) by inserting this little Latin word into the middle of your shit."

But it only works if the reader gets what it means. Otherwise, they just think you, the writer, are the idiot who forgot to properly edit before submitting your story for publication. 

buriedunderbooks's picture
buriedunderbooks September 30, 2015 - 2:55pm

It's true that space is no longer at a premium, but time still is. Who wants to spend valuable moments typing out "for example" when they could simply type "e.g."? Similarly, N.B. and sic. are valuable shortcuts that prevent unnecessarily long winded explanations. In fact, N.B. works almost like formatting rather than language; it's like a big arrow or bold font instructing you to sit up and pay attention. I can't help but feel that "pay particularly careful attention to this bit" wouldn't have quite the same impact.

I completely agree with the earlier poster who said that ignorance should not necessitate their removal from the English language. Surely the answer is to educate those who don't know? Personally, if I come across something I don't understand - and I am sufficiently interested in it - then I'd look up anything unfamiliar anyway. And if I didn't care that much, what've I lost?

Susan DeFreitas's picture
Susan DeFreitas from Portland, OR is reading Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of Your Fist by Sunil Yapa October 13, 2015 - 9:22am

Some great points here! Though I always omit the comma in the first case anyway. Just stands to reason. 

Lachlan Elmslie's picture
Lachlan Elmslie November 26, 2017 - 12:53pm

That’s rules are compulsory in English writing and without these rules English is not looking like English. In the top essay writing services first learn these rules for your employs because these are basic rules of writing.