language is not blessed (or cursed) with the equivalent of
the Académie Française, a more or less official body in France
that regulates the French language. Differences about correct
grammar are sometimes hotly argued within the Académie, but
outside their decisions are accepted as law. English grammarians
also are continually arguing with each other. There is of
course broad agreement on many things. However, when there
isn't, you can pretty much do as you like.
Over my 40-year career as a writer, I have purposely chosen
to "violate" some aspects of English grammar
that many people consider to be inviolable. Why? Because I
believe their rigorous application often impedes emphasis
and/or understanding. I would like to share some of these
with you. You may never have thought about them before, so
here is your opportunity. Once you have reflected on the matters,
you may accept or reject them as the mood takes you.
Although a native of Southern California, I have been living
in Brussels, Belgium, for the past 34 years. In Europe,
British English is generally preferred to American English,
so I am quite accustomed to seeing the language used somewhat
differently from what I knew before I came here.
vs. Present Tense
One of my particular pet peeves
is something I hear daily on the BBC, the prestigious British
Broadcasting Corporation. This is not a condemnation of
British vs. American English. It's just that I became aware
of the practice while listening to the BBC. Americans do pretty
much the same thing.
What am I talking about? The annoying, even ludicrous stricture
that if a sentence starts in the past tense, it must remain
in the past tense.
example: The United Nations this morning reported
that malaria "was" still a worldwide health menace.
To me, it makes much more sense to say: The United
Nations this morning disclosed that malaria "is"
still a worldwide health menace.
Or what about this: The
President asserted that the economy "was" going
to remain strong at least until 2011. Again, it makes much
more sense to say: The President asserted that the economy
"is" going to remain strong at least until 2010.
This practice is relatively harmless; nevertheless, I cringe
at it. Clearly, the speaker didn't mean to suggest that the
situation was likely to change almost the instant he had uttered
his statement. He was projecting into the future. So while
he may have said it five minutes ago (past tense), it seems
ludicrous to paraphrase his statement in the past tense, which
only diminishes its force. If you believe that casting the
beginning of a sentence in the past tense, then the rest in
the present or future tense is bad grammar, you are in poor
company. When the logic of the situation calls for it, many
good writers and speakers ignore the "rule". The
above examples were in fact taken from two the world's leading
international daily newspapers.
of bullet points is to make thoughts and information stand
out. So why go against the current by not capitalizing the
first letter of each point? For example:
A. Our system helps people:
-- write better;
-- write faster;
-- write persuasively;
-- reduce errors;
-- reduce formatting problems.
B. Our system helps people:
-- Write better
-- Write faster
-- Write persuasively
-- Reduce errors
-- Reduce formatting problems
You will notice that in addition
to capitalizing each bullet point, example B also eliminates
the semi-colons and the period. What logic is there
for putting in commas semi-colons, and periods? The fact that
the next line is a new bullet point, i.e. clearly a new thought,
makes such punctuation unnecessary, and even distracting.
Of course, it can be contended that each bullet point is a
continuation of the main sentence, so starting with a capital
would be incorrect. Likewise, each bullet point is the end
of a thought, so punctuation is necessary. Valid arguments,
for a grammarian. However, for a writer whatever weakens
the power of bullet points negates the reason for using them
in the first place. Capitalizing and inserting punctuation
both tend to weaken bullets points, and therefore should be
grammatical pet peeve may not be grammatical at all. It
has to do with how people are introduced in a document. I
am not certain there is any "rule" governing this;
it is more a matter of choice.
A. The president of the International Federation of Tuba Players,
John Jones, has just celebrated his 18th year of service.
B. John Jones, president of the International Federation of
Tuba Players, has just celebrated his 18th year of service.
Both A and B are legitimate ways of introducing John Jones.
Some good writers choose the one, some choose the other. I
would like to argue that in most cases, B is probably preferable
because it is more "natural". After all, at a party
you wouldn't say to someone, "I would like to introduce
you to the president of the International Federation of Tuba
Players, John Jones." Preferably you would say, "I
would like to introduce you to John Jones, president of the
International Federation of Tuba Players."
is full of a heresy that many grammarians would be happy to
chastise me for -- and have.
You may have noticed that many of the paragraphs are quite
short, even only one sentence. I am certain that you didn't
learn paragraphing like this in school and would have been
marked down if you had tried it.
Some people who use "ungrammatically" short paragraphs
claim that they help maintain reader interest, because readers
dislike large blocks of text. This is true. However, there
is an even better reason for using them. Short
paragraphs help to dramatize certain key idea, thereby enhancing
The first paragraph of this section is a case in point. The
sentence starting "This article is full of a heresy that
. . ." could easily have been combined with the next
sentence starting "You may have noticed that many of
the paragraphs are quite short . . ." to form a single
paragraph. This is probably what most grammarians would do
and insist that others do, as well. However, some of the emphasis
of that first sentence would have been lost, to the detriment
If you have doubts about using such unorthodox paragraphing,
look at any leading newspapers and magazine for reassurance.
Short, dramatic paragraphing is one of the things that make
these popular publications so easy and enjoyable to read.