Some Grammar Push Back

Spell and grammar check function as forms of profiling. Ninety percent of the time they make suggestions that I ignore, but they catch things often enough that I leave them engaged.

One of the biggest things that gets flagged is passive sentence construction, confirming the bias that the passive voice is always something to avoid. But depending on the subject or subjects of the previous sentence and your intentions for the new sentence, passive construction can be the best choice and can facilitate clarity and flow.

There are a number of other biases and truisms out there, many tracing back to the deified Strunk and White, that make no prescriptive sense. Here are a few.

1. Commas: The (newish) conventional wisdom is that fewer commas are always better. But the standard for any sentence is clarity, and if commas help, then they should be used. This is why I prefer the serial comma. Commas can also help a sentence attain the rhythms of spoken language. I even enjoy nineteenth century writing, where they used an insane amount of commas and clauses.

2. Exclamation points: Many editors say they should never be used, that the writer should be able to achieve the desired effect without them. But why? I think the actual problem is overuse of exclamation points. Otherwise it makes no sense to remove a tool from the tool box.

3. Sentence length: The shared opinion is that shorter and punchier is always better. True, we don't want flab, but the real goal should be the use of sentences of varying length. Plus, verbosity can be fun on occasion. The skills of classical rhetoric even encourage word and phrase repetition in some cases to increase impact and lyricism.

4. Sentence fragments: These only need to be avoided if it's clear you don't know what you're doing. Great writers use fragments whenever they wish. Spoken language utilizes fragments all the time.

5. Mainstream opinion is shifting away from the previous gospel that infinitives should never be split or sentences end with a preposition. This is good. Many unnecessary contortions are no longer needed.


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