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Break out of the grammar trap:

Distinguish between essential and nonessential rules of grammar, punctuation, and usage

How much attention should technical communicators pay to formal rules of grammar, punctuation, and usage?

Does incorrect grammar, punctuation, or usage detract from the value and usability of your group’s publications? Does your audience care, or even notice, if formal rules are broken?

Why have rules?

Grammar is the arrangement, relationships, and functions of words and the ways they are put together to form phrases, clauses or sentences.

Punctuation marks are signals that help readers to understand the ideas in a passage and read more quickly and efficiently.

Rules of grammar, punctuation, and usage can be essential or nonessential—or even fake! Writers and editors need to pay attention to the essential issues, but can spend less time on nonessential issues—particularly in the face of tight deadlines—and they can safely ignore the fake issues.

Essential rules are those that are necessary for clear, unambiguous communication.

Nonessential rules are those that are not required for clarity and unambiguity.

Fake rules may actually be matters of word choice, style, or conventional usage, not rules of grammar; they may be things many of us were taught were wrong, but which are in fact acceptable variations.

Some rules, such as those about dangling participles and not ending sentences with prepositions, are nonessential because readers can figure out the meaning; but they are still important rules to follow in those cases where following the rule would make the writing easier to understand. For example, split infinitives are acceptable in English ("to boldly go"), but if you replace the adverb (boldly) with a long adverbial phrase, the meaning becomes more difficult to decipher.

I’m sure all technical communicators would like to produce perfect documents, but we rarely have the leisure to do so. Business realities too often require compromises from writers and editors, so we place accuracy and usability ahead of minor issues of grammar and punctuation—as I think we should.

Of course, a minor issue to me may be a major issue to you; some audiences may have an unusually high percentage of people who won't trust your facts if they think you're misusing the language; and some of your technical reviewers will focus on the grammar instead of the facts. All of these scenarios provide good reasons to pay attention to grammar rules, or at least not abuse them too blatantly or frequently.

Examples of essential grammar and punctuation rules

Essential rules are those that are necessary for clear, unambiguous communication. Some examples:

Examples of nonessential grammar and punctuation rules

Nonessential rules are those that are not required for clarity and unambiguity. Some examples:

Examples of usage and fake rules

Style and usage issues may be written into a style guide as "the way we do things here," to improve consistency in a company's publications, but editors and writers need to recognize them as choices, not rules of English grammar.

Another good reason to include some usage rules in your style guide is to clarify what's negotiable in your company and what's not negotiable.

Some examples:


Copyediting is important, but it is only part of an editor's job.

Distinguish between grammar, punctuation, and usage rules that are essential for clear, unambiguous communication, and those that are not essential or even irrelevant.

Recognize that many things we were taught to consider as "rules" are actually style choices or conventions of usage, and that deviations are not necessarily "wrong" but rather "not the way we do it here."

To improve consistency in a company's publications, put some grammar and punctuation style choices into the style guide.

[Note: An earlier version of this article is archived here:]