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A Word, Please: When it comes to grammar usage guides, keep an open mind

A packet of Wrigley's gum.
Grammar rules are similar to a teacher telling a student not to chew gum — they don’t apply everywhere, writes grammar expert June Casagrande.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Years ago, I told readers about the rule for using “that” and “which.” I explained that “that” is for restrictive clauses that narrow down which noun you’re talking about, as in “The car that I bought was red.” And I explained that “which” is for nonrestrictive clauses, which you can lift out of the sentence without losing any clarity about the noun you’re talking about: “My car, which I bought last year, is red.”

Then I learned I was wrong. I wasn’t wrong to follow this rule. I was wrong to tell others to follow it. My mistake: I didn’t understand that guidebooks for editors, notably the Associated Press Stylebook, contain rules just for people editing in that style, and these rules don’t necessarily apply outside the newsroom.

It’s like a teacher told me “Don’t chew gum” and I spent years running around telling people it’s wrong to chew gum. I didn’t get context.

Fast forward to 2022 and a column in the Guardian newspaper by subeditor Susan McDonald:

“After more than two decades as a subeditor, I know language is alchemy and there’s no exact prescription for good writing,” McDonald writes. “But I also know grammar is central.”

Translation: “My editing experience qualifies me to school you people on grammar rules.” Then she does.

“There’s a simple rule for ‘that’ v ‘which,’” McDonald writes, laying down the law for restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses. She adds, “Some of the grammarati point to an irregular restrictive ‘which’ that can replace ‘that’ but I’m yet to be convinced.”

Grammar columnist June Casagrande offers a primer on how to punctuate and capitalize holidays throughout the year.

I remember when I was “yet” to be convinced. Then, suddenly, I was. All it took was a little research to understand that style rules are not universal rules. That is, just because my AP Stylebook says I must use “No. 1” instead of “number one” or “number 1” in an article I’m editing, it doesn’t mean that you have to do the same.

To learn which language rules apply to everyone, turn to a reference written for everyone, like a dictionary or a usage guide.

“Although some handbooks say otherwise, ‘that’ and ‘which’ are both regularly used to introduce restrictive clauses in edited prose,” writes Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.

If one guide prohibits a usage another allows, neither has the authority to tell you the other’s advice is wrong. You can choose.

Still, when you’ve spent years believing your way is right, it’s hard to let go even when faced with evidence to the contrary. Take, for example, McDonald’s position on the Oxford comma, which is the optional comma before “and” in “red, white, and blue.” To prove the Oxford comma is superior, she uses a popular argument, that it creates “an essential distinction” between these two sentences: “I dedicate this book to my parents, Martin Amis, and JK Rowling” and “I dedicate this book to my parents, Martin Amis and JK Rowling.”

See how, without the Oxford comma, it’s unclear whether Amis and Rowling are the writer’s parents? That makes a pretty strong case, huh? Sure, until you think about it a little harder. Replace “parents” with “father” and the argument falls apart: I dedicate this book to my father, Martin Amis, and J.K. Rowling. Are the father and Amis one and the same? You can’t be sure. But if you take out the Oxford comma, it’s clear you’re talking about three people and not two: I dedicate this book to my father, Martin Amis and J.K. Rowling.” Point being: Oxford commas have downsides, too.

McDonald lays out more wrong rules. “In my book, ‘different from’ is correct, ‘different to’ and ‘different than’ are not.” Setting aside McDonald’s comma splice, that raises the question: Is she really suggesting you must write: “My sister is different from I am” instead of “My sister is different than I am”?

So what’s the lesson here for you? When a professional editor starts preaching grammar rules, take our words with a grain of salt.

June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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