Writing Rules

Executive summary: I have had enough of misrepresentation by experts of what other experts have to say about grammar. (Added July 16, 2018)

The current concern of this blog is still the subject taught in school called grammar. Every aspect of school would seem to cause anxiety in somebody. Decades after they have left school, how many persons have nightmares of missing an examination? My mother was such a person, and I think her brother too. I seem not to be such a person, though I once dreamt of missing a plane.

How much support of current US President Donald Trump is due to memories of belittlement by teachers at school? A similar question may be raised about UK government minister Michael Gove’s saying, “people in this country have had enough of experts…”; and about the rise in Turkey of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has perceived a special threat from the Peace Academics.

On that last matter, see my essay of March, 2016, “Academic Freedom.” In this blog lately, I am criticizing some of my fellow academics; but I criticize them for their own criticism of fellow academics and thinkers. Thus I say Geoffrey Pullum was stupid to decry, in 2009, the “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice” offered by Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. Still I have respected Pullum’s recommendation of Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, by Joseph M. Williams.

I thought Williams’s book might be more “democratic” than Strunk and White’s, in the sense of being aimed at a broader audience. That broader audience might include students whose parents didn’t go to college or grow up speaking English. Now I have doubts. In his final chapter, called “Usage,” Williams writes of

Three Kinds of Rules

1. Some rules characterize the basic structure of English… No native speaker of English has to think about these rules at all.

2. Some rules distinguish standard from nonstandard speech… The only writers and speakers who worry about these rules are those upwardly mobile types who are striving to join the educated class of writers and speakers…

3. Finally, some grammarians try to impose on those who already write educated standard English particular items of usage that they think those educated writers should observe—don’t split infinitives; use that, not which for restrictive clauses…

From the style of #1, Williams seems to think he has no readers who are not native speakers of English. In #2, by referring pejoratively to “those upwardly mobile types,” Williams seems to think they are not readers either. These appearances are confirmed a page later, after Williams describes again his three kinds of rules:

1. Some rules account for the fundamental structure of English…

2. Some rules distinguish the dialects of the educated and the uneducated…

3. And some rules belong to that category of rules observed by some well-educated people, and ignored by others equally well-educated…

Ordinarily, the first set of rules concerns us not at all. And if you are interested in this book, you probably aren’t much concerned with the second set either. It is the third set of rules that concern—sometimes obsess—already competent but not entirely secure writers. They are the rules of usage out of which the Pop Grammarians have created their cottage industry.

In faithfully transcribing Williams’s words, I have noticed that they violate Strunk’s Rule 3: “Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas.” The last clause in the first quotation above reads,

use that, not which for restrictive clauses.

Here the phrase “not which” is parenthetical. A comma ought not only to precede it, but also to follow it. I must have been taught such a rule in school. I find it as part of Rule 12d in the Harbrace College Handbook (8th edition, 1977), used in the ninth-grade English class at my college-preparatory school for boys in Washington:

Commas set off nonrestrictive clauses and phrases and other parenthetical and miscellaneous elements, such as transitional expressions, items in dates, words used in direct address, and so on. Restrictive clauses and phrases are not set off by commas.

This all seems unobjectionable and even natural to me now, and I do not recall any difficulty with it.

I did sometimes have difficulty with rules. When in eighth grade we were supposed to learn logical rules for commas, like Strunk’s Rule 3 or the Harbrace Rule 12d, I insisted for a long time that commas simply showed where we paused in speech. The general Harbrace Rule 12 reads,

Use the comma (which ordinarily indicates a pause and a variation in voice pitch) where it is required by the structure of the sentence.

In effect, though I was to become a mathematician, I clung for a long time to the parenthesis in Rule 12 here, refusing to learn the structure of sentences. A classmate recalled that I had made our teacher very angry this way.

Let me clarify that we did not use the Harbrace College Handbook in eighth grade, or Strunk and White ever in school. I do not remember clearly what we did with Harbrace in the ninth grade, but our teacher called it Harby. It is organized for efficient use, consisting of 34 chapters, each discussing a different kind of rule, which a teacher can then (though ours did not) refer to by number on a student’s corrected paper. The rules are tabulated, abbreviated, symbolized, and summarized on the endpapers. To discover the possibility of thus organizing a subject can be a pleasure to some of us; but just to be given the organization as an accomplished fact may not be so appealing. As William Strunk wrote, and I quoted in my previous article,

each instructor has his own body of theory, which he may prefer to that offered by any textbook.

In memory at least, I admire teachers most when I think of how they did have their own body of theory.

Returning to Joseph Williams’s three-fold classification of rules, I ask where Strunk’s Rule 3 lies, or Harbrace Rule 12d. If Williams really did mean to violate the rule as he did, and the fault did not lie in a “production error,” then the violated rule must lie in the third class, “observed by some well-educated people, and ignored by others equally well-educated.” On the other hand, perhaps Williams is not so well-educated that he has got over a lingering resentment about how he became educated. (I use the present tense here, but Williams’s dates are 1933–2008.)

Three pages after the three-fold classification of rules, Williams says, “we can recognize four kinds of ‘rules’ of usage.” I cannot tell whether he means to subdivide the earlier third class of rules, or to replace the whole earlier classification. He does not give a new, four-part list. The remainder of the chapter is divided into seven sections with the following unnumbered heads:

Real Rules
Optional Rules
Special Formality
Bêtes Noires
A Special Problem: Pronouns and Sexism

These heads are in the same font as regular text; I distinguish them as heads, only by their lack of terminal punctuation. Perhaps Williams is being sloppy by giving seven kinds of rules when he has promised only four; however, because of his attitude towards rules, I wonder whether he is not just trying to annoy those of us who might be called anal-retentive.

Williams must have perused more rule-books than I have. He does not refer specifically to Strunk and White, but his readers would benefit from contemplating the words of the former, quoted by the latter in the New Yorker article that now serves as the Introduction to The Elements of Style:

It is an old observation that the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric. When they do so, however, the reader will usually find in the sentence some compensating merit, attained at the cost of the violation. Unless he is certain of doing as well, he will probably do best to follow the rules.

Under the heading “Folklore,” Williams includes the rule of H. W. Fowler in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, whereby, among relative pronouns, “which” is for non-restrictive clauses, and “that,” restrictive. According to Williams,

[Fowler] spent more than a page discussing the fine points of this rule, and then, a bit wistfully perhaps, added (p. 635), “Some there are who follow this principle now; but it would be idle to pretend that it is the practice either of most or of the best writers.”

Williams may have been working from his notes; otherwise he might have avoided at least one error here. Before the wistful passage that Williams quotes, Fowler spent parts of two pages discussing the rule; but those parts together make less than a page of content.

I think Williams is also wrong to say that Fowler was discussing “the fine points of this rule.” He was discussing his general theory of rules, as illustrated by the problem of dealing with the mess that English gives us with the three words “who, which,” and “that.”

There is no natural logic to these relative pronouns. Fowler details their peculiarities. For example,

  • “who,” fully inflected, has the cases “whom” and “whose”;
  • “which” must make do with “of which” for possession;
  • “that” cannot even do this.

We are constantly faced with the problem of whether to use “that” or “which” or “who.” If we do not know what to do, then we may benefit from a rule. Fowler proposes one: use “that” for defining clauses, “which” or “who” for non-defining. This means we have to be able to tell the difference. Fowler explains the difference briefly (it is the difference between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses in Harbrace Rule 12d above), and then he says, “There is no great difficulty…about deciding…”

Is there indeed no difficulty in deciding whether a clause is defining or restrictive? Williams suggests no difficulty. He just delights in quoting Jacques Barzun, who, a page after recommending Fowler’s rule on relative pronouns, violates the rule by saying,

Next is a typical situation which a practiced writer corrects “for style” virtually by reflex action.

According to Williams, Barzun has allowed stylistic exceptions to Fowler’s rule; Williams says not what they are, but only that Barzun’s quoted sentence is not an example. Williams goes on:

When someone who offers up a rule immediately violates it, we know the rule has no force.

What does this mean? US Republicans—perhaps Not All Republicans—tout slogans like “Family Values” and “All Lives Matter,” then violate them. I don’t think the rest of us then feel free, or even want, to violate the slogans, as we would interpret them.

Does Williams think Barzun wrote a good sentence? Not seeing it in context, I don’t find it a very good sentence. It may be a case of ambiguity: its relative clause is not clearly either defining or nondefining. I might rewrite the sentence, at least replacing “which” with “where,” though the problem would remain of whether to precede this word with a comma.

Near the end of his book, Williams suggests,

…most of us choose among these items [i.e. grammar rules] not because we believe that we are defending the integrity of the English language or the quality of our culture, but because we want to assert our own personal style… It is an impulse we ought not scorn, when it is informed and thoughtful.

Of course. Being informed and thoughtful is the key. Since May in this blog, I have been suggesting that we ought to think about what it means to be a law of nature. We ought to think also of what it means to be a rule of grammar. Misunderstanding here can lead to the oppression of schoolchildren and their later misguided rebellion.


  1. Posted July 15, 2018 at 9:11 pm | Permalink | Reply

    In the specific area of human activity, namely, mathematics education, I fully suport this statement by Michael Gove: “I think that the people of this country have had enough of experts with organisations from acronyms saying – from organisations with acronyms – saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong, because these people – these people – are the same ones who got consistently wrong.” Unfortunately, too many of so-called experts in mathematics defend very narrow vested interests: continuation of state funding for their research projects, their consultancy work, etc., and do not dare to contradict minister for schools in a face-to-face meeting.

    • Posted July 16, 2018 at 1:50 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Thank you Sasha; you have inspired the “executive summary” I am going to add now!

  2. Jill Leonard
    Posted July 16, 2018 at 10:08 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I was at the Walters recently and saw this painting for the first time. Allegory of Grammar

    | | | | | |


    | | | | Allegory of Grammar

    As in the companion “Allegory of Arithmetic” (Walters 37.1917), this personification of the liberal art of Gramm… |



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