On Grammar, the Formalities of Writing, and Style Manuals

Last November, the American Psychological Association released the newest edition—the seventh—of its Publication Manual. As a provider of editing services for academics, I need to know what the new edition requires. Fortunately, this is also something I find interesting—even engrossing to the point where reviewing the new edition becomes quite a lengthy project as I get stuck thinking about various specific individual issues.  As a part of that process, and as a source of material for blog posts that might be useful for writers, especially scholarly writers, I’m going to write about some of the issues that seem important to me as I go. (Or at least I plan to right now—whether those loose ideas will turn into actual essays is another question.)

In my most recent posts, I was talking about analysis and how analysis leads to an expanding set of questions, and I daresay that this will happen as I start to write about the APA manual. It’s a whole book filled with loads of different issues, and all of those issues are an opportunity for discussion—why did they change that from the previous edition? Why did they keep it the same?  Of course, it’s the changes that are of particular interest, but, at a larger level, and what is my focus for this post, is the general question of style and style manuals and what is right and wrong.

In this post, I’m just discussing the general purpose of style manuals, at least I see them, and my general attitude towards issues of grammar and writing fundamentals, which present a barrier to many writers.  The general point of this post is to say that what matters in writing is what you can communicate, and formal stuff like grammar and punctuation and spelling are only of interest as a matter of how to communicate.  And also that, viewed in that light, the formal stuff isn’t nearly so dry—it’s not a set of rules, but a set of tools that can help you accomplish things that you want to accomplish.

The purpose of style manuals

I find that I am generally in agreement with the sentiments expressed by the people who write style manuals, especially with respect to their view of the whole role of grammatical rules in writing.  In the seventh edition APA manual, the chapter “Writing Style and Grammar” (chapter 4), begins by saying “The main objective of scholarly writing is clear communication” (p. 111). This principle, I think, is not always kept in mind. Certainly, I have seen plenty of feedback on drafts (mine and others) that did not seem so concerned with clear communication as with correcting grammar, regardless of whether the content was comprehensible. To some extent, this post is about dealing with a certain class of people who are unduly concerned with grammar. I call these people “petty-minded grammarians.” They lose sight of the content being communicated, of issues in communicating those ideas and focus on grammatical “rules” that are actually just conventions developed to help writers communicate more effectively. Some of those rules may be given the force of law by an authority—as the APA manual has the force of law when it comes to certain submissions—but they are not abstract rules about English. And they are secondary to the main purpose: communication. In my opinion, critiques of writing should focus on the ideas first. Only once the ideas are in place should focus shift to the formalities like grammar and spelling (at least insofar as giving feedback is concerned). The ideas and the formalities are not entirely independent, of course—the formalities develop to help with the expression of ideas—but it is certainly possible to critique the two separately. And the ideas should always receive the primary attention.

Misguided views of grammar

I remember once getting into an online exchange with a petty grammarian who said “Oh the rule is simple,” abut a “rule” that was not, in fact, so clear as she made it (nor, indeed, was it a “rule” of a general sort). The conversation started when a friend of mine—a professional writer—made a comment about the difference in usage of “which” and “that” between UK and US English. The petty grammarian chimed with a claim that the rule is simple—totally missing the fact that the conversation started with a professional writer talking about how the rule was not, in fact a rule, but was a matter of usage that differed across groups.  I responded that, in fact, the rule was not simple, at least not according to the different sources that might count as authorities.  Among them, I cited Fowler’s Modern English Usage, expecting that someone who knew so much about grammar would be aware of a major and influential usage manual. The response of “What’s Fowler’s?”, didn’t lead me to greater respect that petty grammarian. (If you’re going to claim expertise/authority it’s a good idea to know what published experts have said.) Anyway…

I can’t assume that all petty grammarians are this ignorant—I can imagine more than one reason someone might focus on grammar instead of content.  But certainly, anyone who has read many style manuals (a reasonable expectation for someone who wants to claim knowledge of the “rules” of written English) would know know that style manuals themselves don’t generally agree with simplistic views of rules that can be easily followed.  Their concern is for effective communication through the medium of writing. And anyone who has read descriptive usage manuals, more along the lines of Fowler’s or Strunk and White (though both certainly have a prescriptive aspect), know that these guides make suggestions for how to write better rather than presenting a set of absolute rules to follow. And anyone who knows of the existence of the many different style manuals, knows that if the “rules” were that simple, there wouldn’t need to be so many different manuals. The preface of the 16th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style explicitly states that it chose to simplify rules for which they had previously given multiple options because they wanted to simplify the work of writers and editors. That is to say that previous editions had recognized the variation in what people actually did and acceptable variation on convention and the new edition left that variation out not because it was wrong, but because making the rule simpler made things simpler for writers and editors.

In short, real authorities—works like Fowler’s, Strunk and White, The Chicago Manual of Style, etc.—recognize both the complexity and variability of grammar and other formalities, and also their appropriate role as an aid communication. People who focus on grammar first are directing their attention in the wrong direction—they are misguided as to what is important in writing.

Grammar can help

I don’t want to suggest that grammar isn’t important. Far from it. Grammar and other formalities are extremely valuable. They can be the difference between acceptance and rejection. If you have a brilliant idea and express it in poor writing, it’s more likely that the brilliance of the idea will be missed by readers. So if your purpose in writing is clear communication, you might well be interested in grammar and the rules of style as tools to help you communicate effectively, but that’s a very different thing from following a set of rules.

Quite simply, communication is difficult. It’s particularly difficult if you’re discussing complex issues—and what issues aren’t complex?  There are all sorts of fine shadings of meaning that are important.  Communicating those fine shadings requires a delicate and precise tool, and stylistic and grammatical conventions can help support delicacy and precision.  Conventions spring up out of a desire to help communicate these nuances of meaning.  Thus APA formalizes conventions, saying, for example, “APA style reserves ‘which’ for non-restrictive clauses and ‘that’ for restrictive clauses” (section 4.21; The manual also explicitly acknowledges that this usage is not universal). Their purpose is to “help make your writing more clear and precise” (section 4.21). And, indeed, this makes sense: if your readers expect “which” as indicating a non-restrictive clause, it removes potential ambiguity in a text’s meaning.

Writing is a tool for communication, and so what matters are the underlying ideas. If the ideas are muddled, it doesn’t really matter if you’re following the rules of grammar or not. Beautifully written nonsense isn’t good writing (at least not in non-fiction writing; beautifully written nonsense. like that of Lewis Carroll, e.g., can have artistic value. But still, it’s not the grammar, punctuation, and spelling that make Carroll’s work—it’s the imagination).  If the ideas are clear, minor failures in grammar are more an annoyance than anything else.  Admittedly, this annoyance can quickly balloon into disrespect for an author: a reader confronted with numerous errors in grammar, spelling, and punctuation may well choose to dismiss a work, even if they can follow the argument.  I’m not arguing that people should just ignore all conventions of grammar, etc. Bad spelling and grammar inhibit communication in a way similar to difficulties created by mumbling in speech, so they are valuable to someone who wants to communicate ideas. But the ideas are the primary concern.

Conclusion

Style manuals and conventions of writing interest me for what they suggest about different ways of communicating. And, because I have looked at and used many, and need to know what current editions say, specific changes become interesting in their own right.  It was one of these changes (a change in what is accepted as the generic third-person singular pronoun) that inspired me to write because I imagine that in the near future more than one petty grammarian will “correct” someone based on an outdated notion of what that “rule” is. But that kind of petty view of language and writing is not what style manuals are about.

Languages evolve as cultures evolve. The changes in the language prescribed by the APA manual are a reflection of these changes and of the attempt to communicate effectively about our changing world. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s a heck of a lot more interesting than memorizing some rules. 

Jargon, complex prose, and the writing process

Recently I was speaking with a writer who bemoaned the fact that in her field of study people (including her) tried to write complicated, jargon-filled papers. This was not a new idea—I have heard that in many fields, especially those that value post-modern philosophies that writing complex prose is a matter of pride, or perhaps of ego: I have heard it suggested that writing prose that no one can understand will actually earn the author respect because people will assume that they’re just so smart. (Of course, there are also many who mock these same authors as being bad writers.) Many famed scholars are known for their difficult prose—Judith Butler and Jacques Derrida are particularly renowned for these issues.

I don’t know what other writers are thinking when they write—at best I can interpret the words they have chosen—but I believe that often difficult and complex writing is the product of honest attempts to clearly convey complex and difficult ideas.

Consider, for example, legal writing—another field notorious for difficult, jargon-filled writing.  Do we want to assume that that lawyers and judges write difficult prose because they want to impress everyone with their erudition? It seems much more likely to assume that lawyers and judges want to be understood, but the nature their work involves significant complexity that is difficult to communicate.

The way I see it, ideas are complex. And, in the world of scholarship and research in which new understanding is sought, it seems possible that a new idea—a new perspective—will not easily be conveyed in the language that developed to express old ideas. I’ve struggled to understand some very difficult writing that, in the end, rewarded me with very interesting ideas. Those ideas might possibly have been written in clearer and simpler language.

But, as the post title suggests, I’m more interested in this question from the point of view of the writing process. Getting back to the writer I mentioned in the opening paragraph and the idea of trying to write complex prose, I want to speculate on the impact of such an attempt to the scholarly writing process.

It seems to me that trying to write complex and jargon-filled prose adds a layer of difficulty to an already difficult task. Doing good scholarship is hard. Analyzing data and developing theoretical explanations for observed phenomena is hard. Exploring logical concerns with theories is hard. Coming up with a clear, coherent, and consistent explanation for anything is hard.

Not only is it hard to come up with good explanations, it’s also hard to write clearly about those ideas.  Perusing any user’s manual will demonstrate how easy it is to write unclearly about something that is often fairly simple. So, if you’re a scholar trying to develop explanations/theories, your job is made difficult both by the conceptual complexities and by the difficulties of writing.

To me, it seems like trying to write complex and jargon-filled prose adds yet another layer of complexity and difficulty.  Not only do you have to figure out the ideas that you want to express, but you also have to work to make the expression complex. it’s an extra layer of effort.

Therefore, my suggestion is always to try to write as clearly and concisely as possible while also paying attention to important details.  My belief is that if you focus on the ideas and the details, and you try to be as clear as possible, there’s a good chance that you’ll end up with difficult convoluted prose anyway. For my part, I try to write clearly and often end up with weak and muddy prose.

I don’t know what Butler was thinking when she wrote, but it’s easy for me to believe that she (and other scholars who write difficult prose) was doing her best to be clear, and that at some point she said “I have to stop working on this project to move on to another.” What was left was no exemplar of elegant prose, but it was not (necessarily) the product of an attempt to obfuscate.

For a writer who is struggling, I think the most important thing is to focus on what  you want to say and on expressing that as clearly as possible.  Trying to meet some stylistic standard is secondary and only worth your effort once you’ve gotten a good handle on the ideas that you want to express.