Writing Rules

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

An ongoing concern of this blog is the subject taught in school called grammar. See for example

  • the previous post, “Writing and Inversion,” about how a supposed rule against the passive voice might be better understood as a rule to avoid certain inversions of order (namely those inversions that add words and torpor);

  • the post before that, “A New Kind of Science,” presenting a theory that grammar is properly neither prescriptive nor descriptive, but “criteriological,” because it examines the criteria that we apply to our own speaking and writing;

  • an early expression (from six years ago) of some of those ideas: “Strunk and White.”

Grammar causes anxiety. 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? Quite a few, it would seem; see the evidence appended to this post. My mother and her brother were such persons, as I learned when growing up. 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? Similar questions may be raised about

  • UK government minister Michael Gove’s saying, “people in this country have had enough of experts …”;

  • the rise in Turkey of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has perceived a special threat from the Peace Academics.

On that last matter, see my blog essay of March, 2016, “Academic Freedom.”

In the blog generally, I may criticize some of my fellow academics; but I criticize them for their own criticism of fellow academics and thinkers. Thus in the article “Strunk and White” listed above, 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 bought Williams’s book, and in this post I focus on some of his advice.

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 that Williams has such an audience in mind. In his final chapter, called “Usage,” Williams writes (on page 176) 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 …

This may not be much evidence to go on; but judging from the style of #1, I’m not sure Williams has considered the possibility of having 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.

Appearances are corroborated on the next page, 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 about rules of usage, I have noticed that they violate a certain rule: “Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas.” Indeed, in the first block quotation above, giving the first list of “Three Kinds of Rules,” look again at the last clause (itself a rule):

use that, not which for restrictive clauses.

Here the phrase “not which” is parenthetic, but is not printed that way. Since a comma precedes it, a comma ought also to follow it, at least if one agrees with the rule that I stated, “Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas.”

That rule happens to be Rule 3 of Strunk’s original eight “Elementary Rules of Usage.” It is still Rule 3 in the version of The Elements of Style edited by E. B. White, although some of the other rules have been changed.

I find the same rule also as part of Rule 12d in the Harbrace College Handbook (8th edition, 1977), used in the ninth-grade English class at my private, college-preparatory school for boys in Washington. According to the Handbook:

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.

Surely I was taught this rule in earlier years too. The rule seems unobjectionable and even natural to me now, and I do not recall any difficulty with it.

Yellow cover of Harbrace College Handbook 8

Williams or a copy-editor does seem to have difficulty with the rule. I wonder why.

I have had difficulty with rules myself. In eighth grade, when 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 and even a logician, I clung for a long time to the parenthesis in Rule 12, refusing to learn the structure of sentences. A classmate later recalled that I had made our teacher very angry this way.

Front endpaper of the Harbrace handbook

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, Stanley Willis, 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. 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.

Back endpaper of the Harbrace handbook

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.”

In that case though, 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.)

After the three-fold classification of rules, Williams says (on page 180), “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.

Title page of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage

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.

Fowler’s Modern English Usage, opened to the article on “that” as a relative pronoun

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” 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. This is where Fowler comes in. He proposes to use “that” for defining clauses, “which” or “who” for non-defining.

To use such a rule, we have to be able to tell the difference between defining and non-defining clauses. Fowler explains the difference briefly (it is the difference between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses in Harbrace Rule 12d above). 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 Simple and Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers (1976), where Jacques Barzun recommends Fowler’s rule on relative pronouns on pages 67–8, but violates the rule on the next page by saying,

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

Barzun has allowed stylistic exceptions to Fowler’s rule. Williams thinks they do not apply to the quoted example. Then he continues:

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

What does this mean? Some persons have touted slogans like “Family Values” and “All Lives Matter,” then violated those principles. I don’t think the rest of us then feel free, or even want, to violate the slogans, as we would interpret them.

If somebody recommends a rule, but then breaks it, that says nothing about whether the rule would nonetheless be worth following.

Does Williams think Barzun wrote a good sentence? It may have the flaw 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. For the record, Barzun continues with an example:

“He had ordered seasoned lumber of a superior quality to that formerly used.” The sentence is clear and solid enough, but it is smoother and neater if one transposes: of a quality superior to that.

Near the end of his own 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, starting with “Effectiveness,” 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.

Edited July 25, 2020; October 22, 2021; and October 15, 2022. On October 3, 2022, a tweet by Khalil Andani quoted a tweet by Will Stancil, pointing to “Why Adults Still Dream About School” (The Atlantic, September 22, 2022), by Kelly Conaboy, confirming what I suggested at the top of the post, that nightmares of school are common:

I suspect the school-stress dream is quite a common one. Even among nerds.

Deirdre Barrett, a dream researcher at Harvard University and the author of Pandemic Dreams and The Committee of Sleep, confirmed my suspicion. She rattled off a few common school-dream variations: The dreamer has to rush to an exam after having overslept, or they can’t find their classroom, or they prepared for an exam by studying the wrong subject, or they sit down for an exam and the text is in hieroglyphics, or they show up to school nude. “It’s a really common theme,” she told me. “And it’s common not only for people who are still in school … It’s a very common theme for people who are far into adulthood, who have been out of school forever.”

Conaboy also passes along speculation about the “evolutionary purpose” of dreams of school. She herself guesses that the “purpose” is “reminding aging dreamers that being young was actually not that fun.” However, according to Deirdre Barrett,

If feelings of inadequacy prompt you to have an anxiety dream, and if that anxiety dream prompts you to study harder, you might just have a better chance of “surviving” AP calculus—or a big work presentation. That, Barrett said, has “an evolutionary purpose.” (“In general,” she quickly added.)

Perhaps the notion of “evolutionary purpose” is easily misunderstood. Collingwood seems to give a good account, by way of describing the thought of Immanuel Kant in The Idea of History:

Even philosophers, Kant observes, wise though they are believed to be, are not wise enough to plan out their own lives and live according to the rules they have made for themselves. Thus, if there is a general progress in the life of mankind, that progress is certainly not due to a plan made for his own guidance by man. But none the less there might be such a plan, namely a plan of nature …

That we should have anxiety dreams is nobody’s plan, but we may imagine that it is. Perhaps we are bound to imagine this. Collingwood continues, a bit later:

… according to Kant, the idea that nature has purposes is an idea which we cannot indeed prove or disprove by scientific inquiry, but it is an idea without which we cannot understand nature at all. We do not actually believe it in the way in which we believe a scientific law, but we adopt it as a point of view, admittedly a subjective point of view, from which it is not only possible but profitable, and not only profitable but necessary, to look at the facts of nature.

I don’t think Darwin refutes any of this, but that will take another blog post to go through. Again, Fowler is clear that our language does not follow a plan, unless we come up with one:

The relations between that, who, & which, have come to us from our forefathers as an odd jumble, & plainly show that the language has not been neatly constructed by a master-builder who could create each part to do the exact work required of it, neither overlapped nor overlapping; far from that, its parts have had to grow as they could.


  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… |



7 Trackbacks

  1. […] Chapman’s habits are not necessarily virtues, but they ought to be known by anybody who thinks correctness of language is to be decided once for all by certain authorities, represented by one’s teachers in school. See my post “Writing Rules.” […]

  2. By A New Kind of Science « Polytropy on September 7, 2018 at 9:26 am

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  3. […] recalled in Chapter XXVIII, “The Forms of Political Action.” In the post called “Writing Rules,” I looked at and exemplified the ire that different opinions about language can raise, […]

  4. By NL XXXVII: Civilization As Education « Polytropy on September 20, 2018 at 7:48 am

    […] Huck, and like Michael Gove, in the truncated quotation that I repeated in the post called “Writing Rules,” Collingwood too has had enough of experts. He blames Plato for corrupting us into thinking […]

  5. By NL XLV: The Germans « Polytropy on February 21, 2019 at 9:14 am

    […] “Writing Rules,” I took issue with some academics’ ideas about teaching grammar. Collingwood himself […]

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    […] is also foolish acceptance that experts get to judge the correctness of our language. On the contrary, we get to decide whether we have said what we wanted to say. Language may be a […]

  7. […] Tarzanca, “Tarzanish,” for crude speech). However, actual speakers are not obliged to follow rules laid down by grammarians. See also the brief 2014 post, “Graffiti […]

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