Nathan Bransford, Author

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Guest Blog Week: Are You a Word Nerd or a Grammar Rebel?

Suzannah Windsor Freeman is a writer and blogger at her site, Write It Sideways.

I recently came across this amusing post on Humorous Reminders of Common Writing Mistakes, which made me ask myself this very question.

Reading through the list of writing faux pas, I kept vacillating between, “Oh, I would never do that!” and, “Uh oh, I do that all the time.” Once, I would have referred to myself as a definite Word Nerd (because I must admit to the guilty pleasure of reading the dictionary).

Today, I’m not so sure.

So I stopped to consider what separates Word Nerds from Grammar Rebels, and what unites them in their love of language. This is what I came up with:

Word Nerds are well-educated in the technical aspects of language and believe we should obey its rules.

Grammar Rebels are also well-educated in the technical aspects of language, but they believe it’s okay (and sometimes necessary) to break certain rules.

So, what’s the one thing Nerds and Rebels can still agree on?

There are certain language rules that must never be broken. Ever. (Well, except if you’re writing dialogue and your characters can’t speak English properly.)

Here’s a list of rules that both groups of writers agree shouldn’t be broken:

* Spelling: Unless you’re talking about the difference between American and British English, spelling is not a matter of preference.
* Double Negatives: Say, “I don’t have any cash,” not “I don’t have no cash.” If you ‘don’t have no cash,’ you actually do have cash.
* Semicolons: Semicolons separate two clauses that are related to one another, but which could be used on their own. Alternatively, they can separate items in a list. Don’t use them for any other reason.
* Apostrophes: There’s no juggling these little guys. Use them only to show possession or in a contraction.
* Commas: Commas should only be used when necessary and they must be put in the right spot.
* Redundancy: Snow can just be snow–-not ‘cold snow’ or ‘white snow.’ All snow is cold and white.
* Quotation marks: There are hard and fast rules about how to use quotation marks. Learn them and use them correctly.
* Punctuation: Periods, question marks and exclamations should only be used where they’re meant to be used. No swapping allowed.
* Formal writing: If you’re writing a business letter, an formal essay or a work document, adhere to the commonly accepted rules of grammar.

Can you think of any others?

Now, for the rules Grammar Rebels routinely break:

* Split infinitives: It’s okay to say, “I’m going to pick Johnny up from school,” instead of the proper “I’m going to pick up Johnny from school.”
* Run-on sentences: I’ve seen this done in fiction to produce a stream-of-consciousness type feel.
* Sentence fragments: Your sentences don’t always have to be complete with subject and predicate. Like this.
* Beginning sentences with conjunctions: You can start sentences with and, but and or for emphasis. But don’t do it all the time or it gets annoying.
* Contractions: You can freely use contractions in any kind of informal writing. We use them everyday in speech, so they’re somewhat necessary.
* Ending sentences with prepositions: Usually you can end with a preposition and it sounds fine. In cases where it sounds better to use the more formal structure, use that instead.
* Paragraphs: Paragraphs length is up for experimentation, but variety is the key.
* “They” as a singular pronoun: You can use they or them to mean one person, informally. In fact, you probably do it all the time when you’re talking. “What did the person on the phone say?” “They said to call back in an hour.”

Which camp do you fall into? (Or should I say, “Into which camp do you fall?”)

I highly suspect there’s a little Rebel in all of us. In fact, I’m almost willing to guarantee you’re less of a Word Nerd than you might think.

When is it okay to break the rules? When is it not?


Cheryl said...

I'm a rebel. What's the fun in following all the rules all the time? :D

Anonymous said...

I think using "they" in place of s/he just makes for a smoother read and/or conversation. But, I won't deny that a little part of me dies every time I hear it.

Grammar Rebels Rule! ...with limitations.

booksandbiscuits said...

Sorry to be a pedant, especially in the first comment, and especially as I'd like to consider myself a grammar rebel, but as far as my understanding goes, your example of a split infinitive isn't strictly speaking a split infinitive at all. To split the infinitive would mean putting an adverb between the 'to' and the 'verb' bit of the verb - ie 'to boldly go' instead of 'to go boldly', or 'to quickly pick up' instead of 'to pick up quickly'. Though I guess in your example, as the infinitive includes the preposition, you are also splitting the infinitive, just not in the way I'd always understood it.

I don't have a problem with split infinitives particularly, just thought I'd point out the other way of doing them! Otherwise, good post!

R.M.Gilbert said...

I lean toward rebellion. That's why I married my high school sweetheart.

Arabella said...

All right, I'm a word nerd rebel! I know the rule about double negatives, but I also know that English has a long history of double, triple, and quadruples negatives before the logic nerds decided it was wrong.

As for singular 'they' and 'their', there is also a historical precedence for their use--if Shakespeare did it, then it is a long-used convention and, therefore, not ungrammatical (double negative, anyone?)

I cringe when I read books loaded w/ fragments. I can't abide having to read three short sentences to get the sense of what should have been one long, tasty sentence. I crave long sentences w/ multiple clauses.

Ammie said...

Being a Grammar Rebel lends more artistic leeway, or so I've believed since long before I was truly educated. The joy of learning and following grammatical rules is bending them, thus flirting with language and enjoying its vastness and vitality. Prove to everyone that you know the rules. Then break them.

Emily White said...

Good post! I'm a rebel. And I like to think it's on purpose, too. ;)

Gretchen said...

Definitely a grammar rebel here, but I kind of enjoy it. It's more fun to break the rules when you actually know you're breaking them!

Although, I'm really not a big fan of run-on sentences. I guess I can see that they have their place. I adore fragments! And starting sentences with conjunctions.

Great post!

C.S. Gomez said...

Absolutely a grammar rebel. I love it.

However, that being said... In the section on contractions it says: "We use them everyday in speech." Shouldn't that be "every day"?

:D Even a rebel has his limits.

D. Antone said...

I am doing my absolute best to become a word nerd. I've been told that my ability to write comes from an inherent sense for creativity. Unfortunately, that sense doesn't come with a mastery of the rules to back it up. I'd like to think my efforts to improve are paying off.

Nick said...

"They" really bothers me if the gender is already known, like with Facebook requests. You would think they could figure out how to say his/her or he/she based on the gender tag on the account. Of course, being more of an unknown entity makes the use of "they" a lot less annoying (I provided an example in this paragraph!). Sometimes we must be specific though.

ryan field said...

I think I'm on the fringes of both.

This was another great post.

Mireyah Wolfe said...

I am definitely a rebel. *nods* I adore sentence fragments. I do try to observe the usual grammar rules eighty-five percent of the time, though. :)

Seamus said...

Rebel I must, but it ain't easy. I was first introduced to the concept that English could actually evolve in college. My mother not only formed my moral conscience but, with equal vigor, had conditioned me to believe that there was only one true English language. (It sort of goes with early potty training.) Anyway, I completely understand the need for us to come up with a suitable replacement for "he/she" and I can stomach an occasional preposition at the end of a sentence, but with each little inch toward grammatical anarchy my mother howls from her grave and grips me somewhere at the base of my skull.

Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist! said...

I'm a mix of both

Scott said...

Rebel when it works, but I find a lot of rule-breaking weakens the prose. For instance, sentence fragments can drive me insane. They can come off very chatty, gimmicky, anxious, lazy and lightweight if overused. And overuse of anything screams "amateur" to me.

I like to mix it up, but for me nothing beats a strong, proper sentence.

GK said...

I'm a total grammar rebel. Language is fluid, we gotta change with the times, down with "whom"!

But I have specific opinions on certain things. Like your lack of serial commas made me twinge. This is more because sometimes serial commas are absolutely necessary ("To my parents, Ayn Rand and God" being the famous example), and even when they aren't, it provides an amount of clarity and consistency to the writing as a whole.

In essence, I'm a grammar rebel who insists on sticking to what makes logical sense rather than absolute rules. I'm a Vulcan grammar rebel.

Kay Theodoratus said...

Am wondering. Is it easier for a grammar rebel to develop "their voice" than a word nerd?

Anonymous said...

Great post except I have a rhyme I heard from my kids going round and round in my head now.

"Do not eat the yellow snow. That is where the huskies go."

Snow is usually white, but old snow isn't always.

Anabel said...

I have to say rebel. I'm from Puerto Rico, so English is my second language. Although I speak, read and write prefect in English I am more inclined to break certain rules. I also have an annoying habit of writing new for knew, but I have my good grammar guardian angel - Brooke - that picks them up.

annerallen said...

Rebels rule! Great post. It's a fun way to look at the unglamorous subject of grammar. Thanks for the important reminder that some rules can't be broken, or we don't look like rebels, we just look clueless.

But I think the most important thing to remember is we can't rebel unless we know what we're rebelling AGAINST. So learn the rules and then rebel away!

Livia said...

So I've heard that the split infinitive rule isn't even based on English. It's a rule to make English more like Latin, because in Latin you can't split an infinitive.

Terry said...

This post was helpful for an accidental rebel such as myself.

I'm afraid I sometimes cross the line from rebellion to total anarchy, unfortunately not on purpose.

Crystal Posey said...

I like this post! :)

Oh, and nice layout for the blog. I'm usually reading you in my google reader.

Melissa Pearl said...

Excellent blog :) I am mostly definitely a rebel. Thanks for spelling it out so clearly.

Kristi said...

I agree you have to have a firm understanding of the rules before you can rebel against them. In dialogue, I'll use split infinitives at times because that's how the typical person speaks. I also use the occasional sentence fragment but cringe when I end a sentence with a preposition -- I usually end up changing it. Oh yeah, I love em-dashes too which was definitely not taught in my English classes -- I'm old though, maybe they do now.

Great post!

Mira said...

Cool. I just read a whole book on grammer, and you said exactly the same thing in terms of what rules to bend and what rules not to bend.

I think that means, you really know your stuff. :)

As for me, well, I do the best I can. If there's a gene for grammer compliance, it never made it into my DNA. I can get some basics, but commas ellude me. I just like to throw them in everywhere and anywhere. And it doesn't matter how many times I look it up, I can not tell the difference between effect and affect.

So, I just alternate between them, so neither feels left out.

Ha, just a joke - I'm trying, but it's just not my strong point. So, I appreciate the reminders.

D. G. Hudson said...

I'm definitely a Grammar Rebel, having ingested Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and Ken Kesey.

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, illustrated the power of using grammar to leverage the mood of a story.

IMO, spelling and word definitions are very important, but grammar rules tend to change over time. What was once accepted can sound stuffy a few decades later. Writers should be aware of the rules first to know when they can break them.

An interesting post, Suzannah, which prompted me to check out your blog. said...

It took more than one grad course in advanced linguistics for me to realize there are no rules when it comes to language, spoken or written, but one: avoid ambiguity, if possible... or learn how to use it well when it isn't.

Rules are prescriptive.
Grammar is descriptive.
There's a difference.

As long as a statement, written or spoken, is understand by it's intended audience, even be it an audience of one, it is "correct".

If I had to choose one rule to incorporate in all writing (by one person) it would be consistency. But, heck, it never hurt Berryman none. Henry and Bones agree.

Genella deGrey said...

Into which camp do I fall?

I'm in the "Thank God for editors who have all the rules memorized" camp. Regular grammar rules seem hairy enough, but when I have to flip over to British English, I'm done for.

Rick Daley said...

I'm a Libra, and as such I am a little bit of both. Balance is important to me.

One point of clarification on the color of snow: I live in central Ohio, and while the snow that falls from the sky is white, once it is on the ground it has a tendency to take on a dingy gray tone, with the exception of the spots in my yard that are yellow, thanks to my schnauzer.

Other than that, awesome post!

Ryan said...

Great post!

I was looking for something about colons, m-dashes, and using three periods(...)

Sometimes, I'm conflicted on what to use when I want that long pause or to emphasize something.

Anassa said...

Definitely a rebel. If I was ever a proper word nerd, the linguistics BA drilled that out of me. I believe written language should reflect spoken language, and that ease of reading should be chosen over strict adherence to The Rules.

Brooke said...

Thanks Anabel ;>

Definitely a rebel. Nothing wrong with breaking rules... but you have to know them to understand how to break them.

Anonymous said...

I say, use any weapon in your arsenal! Rules and rule breakers apply where the author deems them necessary.

Personally, I love a quirky character whose persona includes creative spelling and/or pronunciation.

Mary Jo in Gretna

Arabella said...

GK said: "Down with whom!" Um, why would we want to get rid of that? It makes sense to know who is doing what to whom. Not everybody is the subject, you know. Should we also dispose of "me"? I know; we live in a narcissistic world where we all think we're the active players, but it just isn't true!

Southpaw said...


Arabella said...

p.s. Livia is right about the split infinitive. It was an attempt to Latinize English--simple snobbery, I'd say! This is why being a word nerd is so much fun.

Kelly R. Morgan said...

Grammar rebel. I might even chuckle at a malapropism if it's clever. Only once though. Spelling mistakes or incorrect words altogether (lose vs. loose)are right out.

Melissa said...

Great post!

I like/use both styles depending on what I am writing (or whether I remember the proper rules.)

On a side note, I agree with some of the other comments about snow. I currently can see some really ugly brown/black spotted snow outside my window that has yet to melt away. I am hoping a layer of new white snow comes and covers it up soon so it can look pristine again. =)

Anonymous said...

Except, you know, when the snow is pink...

Stephanie Thornton said...

As a teacher I force my students to be nerds. They have to learn the rules before they can break them.

But I'm a rebel. :)

emma said...

As others have said, that's not quite a split infinitive you have there; it's a split verb phrase, which you should also avoid when you can. Sometimes it doesn't make sense NOT to split an infinitive. (Or to NOT split, if you like.) I'm not a grammar rebel or a total grammar nerd, but the rules exist for one reason, really: to make possible for you to make clear what you're trying to say. Sometimes you can break the rules and still do that, and sometimes you can't. The trick is in being able to tell the difference.

Jess said...

Good post. I would consider myself a word nerd for following the "unbreakable rules", but since I also think that the "breakable rules" NEED to be broken for decent fiction, I suppose I'm actually a grammar rebel!

The exception: academic and related writing.

Shawn said...

Grammar isn't a science.

Grammar is a series of cults.

At the very least you throw in with the cult that makes the most sense to you and try to abide by their rituals.

...And then you sneak into opposing cults' headquarters in the early hours and spray hideously misspelled epithets on the walls.

maine character said...

As a Grammar Rebel,I’m big on sentence fragments. BIG. Especially 'cause I was such a properly neutered nerd for so long.

Thermocline said...

People talk in split infinitives. Writing that doesn't use them in dialog sounds awkward or overly formal to my ear.

Melanie Avila said...

I do every one of the grammar rebel non-rules. :) But I consciously choose to do them, so it's okay.

Sandy Shin said...

Great post!

I have always considered myself a Grammar Rebels, though not in such terms. As a beginner, however, I try to follow rules whenever possible, because I am still testing my own boundary of what's acceptable. It's one thing to break a grammar rule intentionally; it's another thing entirely to break a rule because of ignorance.

Chuck H. said...

I'm a fat, hairy old man who rides a motorcycle, so what do you think I am? A word nerd, of course.

WV: dinke - I am not!!

Suzannah-Write It Sideways said...

Hi everyone,

Thanks for all of your great comments so far. I realize now I could have gone on forever about rules we keep and rules we break. There are so many I didn't even think to include.

@C.S. Gomez: Yes, everyday should be 'every day.'

@GK: I'm all for serial commas. I think the lack of them here was a cut and paste error. My italics didn't show up in a few spots either. But yes, serial commas all the way!

@Kristi: I love em dashes too. They're just so darn useful.

@Mira: Know my stuff? Sometimes. But I make tons of stupid mistakes,as several people have pointed out today!

@Shawn: You are so right. Grammar IS a series of cults. Certain rules are very near and dear to people's hearts.

RE: White snow.
I guess snow is white until it isn't anymore. Hmmm. Thought provoking. I stand corrected.

RE: Split infinitives.
I stand by the subtitle, but my example was wrong. I seem to feel a need to always come up with my own examples, but I think from now on I'll just steal someone else's.

RE: Write It Sideways
Thanks to everyone who's mentioned checking out my site. I appreciate it!

Scott said...

Grammar Rebel . . . and proud of it! Oops, must be a punctuation rebel as well.

Joseph L. Selby said...

I'm guessing your exclusion of a comma in your rule about commas was deliberate? Publishing houses have their individual styles, so the use of commas is always in contention as those styles violate their own rules (use commas to separate some but not all prepositional phrases, etc.).

I stick to this rule: Use commas to delineate a list (including the serial comma), to separate prepositional phrases that begin a sentence, and to separate independent clauses joined by a conjunction.

Ink said...

Rebel with a cause: good writing. Hey, whatever works.


...ain't be got no weapons!

PatriciaW said...

Can be a rebellious nerd? Or, a nerdy rebel? I venture into rebellion but not too far. Still don't like sentences that end with prepositions (blame my mother).

Richard Gibson said...

I'm afraid I'm a word nerd, but perhaps that's because I'm a scientist and (so far) write nonfiction. But I'm also all for breaking the breakable rules when useful and appropriate. Some things make me crazy, like "they" or "their" for a singluar, but split infinitives just seem to roll off my back. Does that make me a partial rebel? (I hope so!)

shadowkindrd said...

Grammar Rebel ALL THE WAY!

Except I don't agree with the double negative thing. That's a dialect issue in some cases, not just bad grammar.

With the whole "they" issue, well, English is a living, growing language, and I suspect that the push for a neutral (vs. neuter) singular third person pronoun that came out of the feminist revolution has a lot to do with the search for that previously unnecessary pronoun. Every attempt to make up a pronoun, like hir or other *cough*ridiculous*cough* suggestions have been pretty much summarily ignored by the language speakers at large. Instead, they've substituted "they" instinctively, shifting the language. I'm good with that. No, it's not right according to the rules of grammar. But it is right according to the rules of language shift. I think the grammarians are going to have to pucker up and take this one.

Thomas said...

I suppose "Grammar Rebel" is an acceptable term for it, but I've always preferred to see myself as an Ungrammar Connoisseur: Someone who can recognize the moments when words that aren't meant to go together like that might be surprisingly pleasant. Like Remy discovering flavor combinations in Ratatouille, except that I don't (most of the time) pull my words out of the garbage.

Word Verification: rogype - Sarah Palin's new internet telephony service

Elana Johnson said...

I think I'm a combo of both. I've been trying to fix all my split infinitives, and now I don't need to. So thanks for that!!

But my spelling is usually right, and I'm a comma girl through and through. But Rules? Yeah, I break 'em if I can for stylistic and voice purposes.

Pepper Smith said...

Grammar Rebel.

Henri said...

Not all snow is white.

Dan H. said...

I am a grammar rebel in doses and in appropriate context. I am a member of a writing group on FaceBook and this debae happens often. A lot of young writers think it is 'cool' or 'clever' or 'real' to be 100% rebel and that the rules of grammar are stupid, pointless, or out-dated. I disagree. As Ammie said on this blog at January 20, 2010 8:36 AM, prove you can follow the rules, play with them, and break them - but follow them too!

wrrriter said...

I lived in Chicago, and snow is not always white, especially after it's been on the ground for a while. Other than that, nicely done!

Lisa Lane said...

I agree with your two lists: there are some rules that one must adhere to without exception, but there are also rules that should be left to the writer's discretion.

I still tend not to use split infinitives, even though I know their use is becoming more acceptable, but that's just because I had that "rule" drilled into my head for so many years. I think many readers (and writers) will find this blog post very valuable.

Marsha Sigman said...

Ohhhh, I'm a rebel with a cause.

Dave and Cheryl said...

I agree with everything except “White Snow” being a given. Half of the time in Michigan the snow is slushy and dirty brown.

Dave and Cheryl said...

I agree with everything except that “White Snow” is a given. Half of the time in Michigan the snow is slushy and dirty brown.

Aimee said...

I don't mind breaking the rules, except I always use full sentences — unless it's dialogue — and I try not to end sentences in prepositions. That just annoys me.

Laura said...

just a random drive by comment: I can't stand when writers write dialogue without contractions. I've seen in print, and I just think, "Really?"

Please don't do it. It makes you sound stilted and inexperienced.

Loved the post. I think I'm a word nerd when I'm teaching and a grammar rebel when I'm writing fiction.

Josin L. McQuein said...

All snow is not cold and white. Just check your yard after you've let the dog out in the morning. :-P

Suzannah-Write It Sideways said...

RE: White snow

I mentioned before that I stand corrected about 'white snow.'

Snow is white...until it isn't anymore!

I meant it only as an example to show redundancy.

Some better examples might include, "I, myself," and "I, personally."

Nathan Bransford said...

I'm with Suzannah - snow is white until it's not. White snow is redundant. Yellow snow is descriptive. Also gross.

Suzannah-Write It Sideways said...

Thank you for that clarification, Nathan ;) You make more sense than I do.

Jen P said...

Good post. @Kay Theodoratus - I agree with your thought on voice.

For a long time I worried that if I made grammatical errors, no agent or editor would be interested.

I spent a great deal of time making a great deal of effort to write 'properly' using 100% correct grammar, even if it felt awkward to me.

Then I realised, not only did it feel awkward, it read awkwardly. It was terrible. And it was very slow to write. I abandoned that approach, and I could write again. The story flowed, characters came alive again.

Grammar is important to me - but now it's the vine on which the grapes grow and come to fruit - it's the critical supporting structure, but worthless on its own. So I try not to get caught up on it.

A P Mullaly said...

Not to belabor the snow (Although of course thats exactly what I'm going to do), but the Inuit have something like 200 words for snow. Now there's a culture who really, really, really likes to be specific about their cold, white stuff.

Anonymous said...

I have another rule we should all agree upon. Rebel though I am, my teeth clench everytime I see "that" used to refer to a person where "who" or "whom" should be used.

Mary said...

I recently picked up a book that had been praised by squillions of reviewers. I couldn't finish the first ten pages. The voice was a little too right for the story and the characters. It truly reflected their lack of education and was loaded with appalling grammar. The book even lacked chapter breaks. And I had to wonder, was the writer really a talented rule-breaker, or were the critics who praised the work blinkered, seeing only what they wanted to see?

Rachel Fenton said...

I refuse to be pigeon-holed!

Dreamstate said...

I'm a rebel. Except for one thing. Fewer is for numbers, less is for volume. 'More movies, less commercials'? Wrong wrong wrong.

Kate said...

I'm a proud rebel, except for using they to replace a single person. I'm with Anon 8:16 on that one.

Anonymous said...

The color you picture snow depends on where you live. People who live in climates with never melting snow may see snow as dirty. Newly fallen snow is white. Ten day old snow isn't. In California it may always be white IDK.

Abby Stevens said...

I'm definitely a grammar rebel. Some rules are just meant to be broken!

Paula B. said...

I didn't think I was a rebel, but by your definition I seem to be one.

What really, really bugs me is the current trend of making anything and everything into a verb. How do you feel about that?

Heidi Thornock said...

I would consider myself a rebel. But I also appreciate an important clarification you point out at the beginning. Both groups KNOW and UNDERSTAND the rules. Rebels just also know how and when to break them.

I taught high school English and frequently told my students that they needed the grammar rules so they would know how to effectively break them. That's what it's all about. Effect.

Samantha Clark said...

I'm definitely a rebel. Writing should be an art, and there's nothing wrong with a little creative rule-breaking. But to break the rules creatively, you have to know what they are first.

Suzannah-Write It Sideways said...

@Paula: Yes, I agree it's annoying when people randomly make verbs out of nouns. One thing I hear in Australia is "costings," where "costs" should be used. As in, "The costings for the required texts will be $100." There may be a correct use for "costing," but I don't think that's it.

@Kate: Just curious--if you don't use "they" for a single person when you don't know his or her gender, do you use "he/she," or "(s)he," or what? It's not too bad if you only have to use it once or twice, but when you use it too often in any given piece, I think it starts to look clunky.

@Dreamstate: I wholeheartedly agree. Fewer/less should be used in their proper contexts.

@Anon 2.11: Yes, "that" shouldn't be substituted for "who," although I think it's easy to slip up when you're talking. In written form, it wouldn't be acceptable.

@AP Mullaly: How very interesting. My son was looking up Ojibwa words one day and he found they have a ridiculous number of words in their native language for many of ours.

@Thomas: "Ungrammar Connoisseur." I like it :)

Jil said...

I had a very strict grammar teacher who instilled the rules into me until they hurt, and I'm glad, because now I can break the heck out of them when needed and to good effect.I am a strong advocate of learning rules well, then doing whatever is needed to make one's writing easily read, understood and felt.
That he/she/they thing, though, drives me nuts!

Dara said...

I've got little, if any, word nerd in me. I know basic grammatical rules but once you start throwing "split infinitives" and "predicate" at me, I have to go and look it up to see what that means. Even if I know it by seeing it, I never can tell you what the correct definition of it is :P

So I'm definitely a rebel.

annerallen said...

Speaking as one who grew up with two Grammar nerds for parents (one PhD in English lit, one PhD in Classical Latin,)I heartily agree with statement that grammar is a cult. Or series thereof. It's also about geography. And most of all, about the class system.

Lisa Nowak said...

Commas. Those pesky commas. I defy anyone to find two people who will put all the commas in the same spots. The rules have changed over time. Beyond that, not everyone agrees on the new rules. I've seen published books in which various different comma rules were used. So I do my best with them and try not to sweat it.

Anne-Marie said...

Rebel here, and it's okay to be a rebel, unless you're a rebel without a clue.

As a Canadian, I have to disagree with the snow rule- white snow brings to mind the freshly fallen, pure variety, which might need describing, as it differs greatly from the days-old slushy type.

My grammar pet peeve is the inability of some to use "it's" and "its" correctly. I see it in newspapers and it drives me bonkers.


ann foxlee said...

Huh. Woulda said Word Nerd until I heard the definition of Grammar Rebel-- definitely a Rebel here :-)

CKHB said...

I think someone already beat me to this comment, but we city-dwellers know that not ALL snow is white! Falling snow, yes. Snow on the ground, not so much.

I prefer "grammar wonk." I don't think I break any rules, because whenever I stray from traditional grammar, it is in fact merely a permissible BENDING of the rules. Sentence frags are allowed. Using the "word" its' is unforgivable.

I have to say that I find the vast majority of "grammar rebels" to be unreadable. I imagine that this blog will tend to attract people who have a better-than-average sense of what they are doing with the language, but usually if someone says they are breaking the rules to express their creativity, it's because they have no idea how to use the rules to their best advantage, and they don't know which ones are dealbreakers. I could claim to be a fashion rebel, but the fact is that I have no fashion sense. You know?

Strunk and White said that you can deviate from the rules if you are "certain of doing well." And you have to KNOW the rules in order to know whether you are doing well... or very very badly.

Suzannah-Write It Sideways said...

@CKHB: Yes, someone already beat you to the snow comment. There's been quite a lively discussion going on about it, actually!

As Nathan has said, far more eloquently than I have, "Snow is white until it's not. White snow is redundant. Yellow snow is descriptive."

Yes, snow can be dirty, slushy, gray, yellow--you name it. But, when it falls from the sky, it's white. Which means, at least in my mind, you don't need to describe the colour of it unless it deviates from the norm.

Of course, whatever works for you, do it.

ryan field said...

Some better examples might include, "I, myself," and "I, personally."

These are good examples. They actually freak me out.

Ashley A. said...

I really like this post. And your blog is mighty fine.

I can get quite pissy in an editorial role. I clench my jaw at comma splices, and I grind my teeth at every use of the singular "they." I also read books like Eats, Shoots & Leaves and Ella Minnow Pea for pleasure. But I love – love! – to flout the rules. In a knowledgeable way, of course.

Totes srs.

The Editors said...

Grammar Rebel,
I am currently working on a story in which one of the characters speaks in a very formalized, old fashion way (for numerous reasons) and it is a pain to write dialogue for them. Spoken and informal language changes so fast that to not break some of the rules of proper English when speaking makes one sound odd.

mary bk said...

Rebel. Me. Yep.

But, it depends on the voice of the character/narrator.


Rebellious grammar helps create the voice of the character.


Dan said...

This is a great post! I love the part about spelling not being a matter of preference. So true ...

I'm definitely a rebel. My girlfriend and I argue over split infinitives all the time (she's an English teacher and a word nerd). I like using them in my writing and she goes through with her red pen and marks all the "errors."

Rebels unite!

Jan Markley said...

Excellent post! I just did a post on my blog about my on again-off again relationship with grammar. It's called I never met a comma I didn't splice!

Matilda McCloud said...

I think I'm a word nerd. I write sentence fragments sometimes, but I agree with Scott--a few go a long way.

Kaitlyne said...

I'm a rebel as well.

Technically after a couple of days the snow usually isn't very white anymore. Usually more of a grubby brown haha. :D

mkcbunny said...

I'm about 3/4 nerd and 1/4 rebel. I break about half of those listed Rebel rules all the time, on purpose. But (see, starting with a preposition) I'm a nerd when it comes to certain ones, such as using "they" in a singular context. I don't like run-on sentences, either, but they can be done as a conscious style choice and be effective.

I guess I'm a Rebel according to certain modern choices, but I'm a nerd when I disagree.

Most important, I think, is that people who brake the rules know they're breaking them and why. I am forgiving as a reader when I believe the voice and see that a particular choice was made. I am not forgiving when it just looks sloppy.

Rebecca Woodhead said...

I set up Word Nerd Army - - so I should say that I am a word nerd. In truth, I am more of a grammar rebel. It is tricky. Some of the time I write for English readers and sometimes for American. The grammatical rules are different. I strive for a neutral space but there is none. Our common language can be a pain in the rear.


Adam Heine said...

I'm definitely a rebel, but I knew that before you defined. But nice job summarizing those rules that even we rebels refuse to break!

shadowkindrd said...

@A P Mullaly:

No, the Inuits DO NOT have 200 or some other ridiculous amount of words for snow. This is where bad quoting will get you. The original source for this information had listed somewhere around 4 ords. Then someone quoting that source said "several". The quote from that source went to "many", and pretty soon, the outrageousness was off and running rampant, and we now have to deal with this urban legend.

Check out the following link for a good run-down on how the blasted thing got started:

lora96 said...

I'm a Grammar Rebel but with numerous nerdy pet peeves.

Such as "an apostrophe does NOT mean 'Look out here comes an S!'"


Masculine assumption. I can be a feminist and still say "he" to denote a person rather than "they" which is plural. Cannot stand that.

Fragments, though, are my friends.

I love Strunk and White's snarky little bible with epigrams such as "The word is 'inflammable' unless you are worried about the safety of illiterates."

Heather said...

Rebel, sorry mom!

Dominique said...

I've got a touch of the rebel in me. I love beginning sentences with conjunctions. That's just how my mind seems to function.

Marilyn Peake said...

After years of writing papers in college and graduate school, I found it somewhat difficult to write informally when I first started writing fiction, e.g. using sentence fragments or writing my Bio in first person rather than third person. After editing a few books for spelling and grammar, I’ve learned to look up words that I’m not completely sure about, e.g. words that could be compound words or hyphenated words to make sure I spell them correctly.

I’m definitely a rebel, though, in feeling that creative writing should allow for playing with words and that "white snow" is perfectly acceptable. Several examples:

Margaret Atwood: "The future lies before you, like paths of pure white snow. Be careful how you tread it, for every step will show."

Walt Whitman: "I am an age old tree. I am stars in white snow."

From the poem VELVET SHOES by Elinor Wylie:
"Let us walk in the white snow
In a soundless space"

I understand why "white snow" might seem redundant, but I like how it conjures up a more pure and sparkling image than the simple word "snow".

Marilyn Peake said...

A P Mullaly and shadowkindrd –

I found the linguistics of Eskimo words for snow fascinating when I read about it in graduate school. Here’s an interesting article on the subject:
Counting Eskimo words for snow: A citizen's guide. Lexemes referring to snow and snow-related notions in Steven A. Jacobson's (1984) Yup'ik Eskimo dictionary.

Suzannah-Write It Sideways said...

Thanks for all of your comments, everyone. And thanks, Nathan, for running my post! You have a wonderful community of readers here :) said...

For the heck of it, here's my favorite sentence from a college grammar/usage book:

"The passive voice should be avoided."

Unless you're writing textbooks, one assumes. said...


No, the Inuits DO NOT have 200 or some other ridiculous amount of words for snow.

Probably they do. But it goes like this: English speakers hear two words spoken in Inuit as one word of a foreign language. What casual translators see as a word is actually a phrase, ex:

deep snow
crunchy snow
metling snow
slick snow
deadly snow

etc. Unless you're translating spoken German. Then, of course, six words are one word.

Thomas said...

Speaking of favorite sentences, there's a line in Roger Zelazny's Amber series that is perfectly grammatical but so ugly my brain shudders every time I see it:

"He didn't say that he had had your tires shot out, but he knew that that was what had happened."

Lydia Sharp said...

I was hoping this one had been selected. Excellent post.

Anonymous said...

I am definietely a rebel. But I am always trying to learn the rules better.
I realize that the language one reads and listens to can creep into your own use of language.

Recently, the second Star Wars series movies were on television running back to back. By the end of the two I watched (again), the way Yoda talks was driving me crazy.

Breaking the rules to the point of it becoming like the playing of a jingle over and over in my head is annoying to me.

I like it so much more if it feels original and not repetitive.

Peter said...

I agree with everything on these lists except the last one about "they". This is yucky language. It reminds me of some very awkward dialogue in "Chasing Amy" when the female character tries to disguise the gender of her new lover by using "they" instead of he or she. I suppose this thing happens all the time, but that doesn't make it a pleasant experience.

Anonymous said...

I get totally lost in lay, lie, laid, lain, lying, laying.

I need examples again and again to refer to.

But the lay/lie thing just makes me dizzy.

Anonymous said...

Next contest should be a 100 word "Bad Writing Contest"

Nicole said...


I love a good fragment.

Nona said...

When I was eight I asked my parents for an unabridged dictionary for Christmas -- and they bought me one. Anybody who owns a book that requires its own table is a word nerd, but boy did it help my Verbal on the SAT's . . .

jessi said...

Upgrade me to a rebel, if I have to choose! Is there such a thing as organic grammar? :) Predicate who? Split infini-huh? I just know if it sounds right, and when in doubt, I look it up.

HowDidYouGetThere said...

I don't see myself a s a rebel as much as I see grammar as a powerful tool, a tangible aspect of a character or an entire work.

It's a key element in setting style. If I wanted my writing to reflect a by-gone era such as the Shakespearean age or the Roaring 20s I'd (try) to use the grammar of the day.

But writing in the present I'm just not comfortable being too prim. Going over board in either direction would alienate readers, don't you think?

Anonymous said...

On the spelling rule:

There's an excellent picture book by Margaret Wild and Anne Spudvilas called "Woolvs in the Sitee." It's one of my favorites.

Genella deGrey said...

Nathan, it's time to blog about snow nerds.

Perry Robles said...

I live in the middle way.

As an English Literature major I wrote many papers that observed standard MLA format. Further, I used the proper register to write linear argumentation papers that proved, fortified or furthered my point.

As I labor on my Master's in Creative Writing I break the rules, morph them and shape them into whatever I chose. I delight when I use one-word sentences.

Two systems. Both valid. And different. I live in the middle way. I meld them when warranted and separate them when necessary.

I guess that makes me a nerd rebel...

Because I know the rules, I can break them.

However, only when warranted

Anonymous said...

In my own writing, I'm most definately a rebel. In reviewing papers for English class, I'm a word nerd all the way - to the point of driving my friends and teachers crazy when I nit-pick too much! What really bothers me is when people use words in ways that make little sense, as if they pulled everything out of a thesaurus instead of thinking for themselves, or at least checking with a dictionary.

@Ghostfolk: I find that passive sentance hilarious! I'll have to tell my teacher.

Jim said...

To go boldly where no individual has gone before. That's where it's at.

Anonymous said...

It is my opinion that in all cases one must be flexible. I believe in breaking rules when it is necessary. That said, sometimes I think people break rules just to break them, and that irritates me.

I'm an Appalachian Writer, and many of my characters are Appalachian as well. I want authenticity. So yes. I may have a character say, "I aint go no cash." That is how a mountain man from Eastern Kentucky would say that sentence.

As to the show issue, it may be true that all snow is cold, but all snow is not white. That's important to remember. (Don't eat the yellow snow!)

I believe that all rules were made to be broken, or at least bent. The trick is to know when to break them and when not to. Not to be redundant or anything, but in my opinion that's what makes a good writer.

Denise :)

Tyler said...

I'm a Rebel, born and bred; I've actually gotten into a fight with a girlfriend over the way I use commas. She's not my girlfriend anymore, but the commas had very little to do with that.

Anne said...

"* “They” as a singular pronoun: You can use they or them to mean one person, informally. In fact, you probably do it all the time when you’re talking. “What did the person on the phone say?” “They said to call back in an hour.”"

um, NO. i'm down with the rest of them, but this one is not ok. ok, sometimes it's ok, but almost always it's not. 'they' is just wrong, and the correct usage is rarely awkward– i'm a feminist, but i usually use he OR she, not he-or-she or s/he. makes things less awk AND allows for self-righteous indignation at other people's poor grammar.

Karen said...

A writer friend recommended your blog and I feel I've found a real gem. I am going to start sending students here for some eye-opening ideas on writing. Thanks.

Heidi Quist said...

Interesting post, though I have to point a redundancy--punctuation listed at the bottom of a list consisting mostly of punctuation rules. Um. Yeah. What am I? A mix of both, though, as noted, leaning more on the word nerd :)

kate wiseman said...

WORD NERD. Take it or leave it.

and check out my blog post on vocabulary blogs, freerice, being an english language fangirl, and much, much more.

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