With One Bound,
They Were Free

Many successful adults spend years haunted by memories of perplexing grammar and usage rules that were thrust at them in school. The good news is that many of these arcane rules never had any validity at all. And many that did are interpreted much more flexibly now than even 20 years ago.

We begin E-EDITORís alphabetical guide to shaking off the shackles with a look at three arguments that crop up in every editorial office with monotonous regularity.

An: People spooked by the ghosts of the schoolroom often try to insist on “an hotel” and “an unique”. The justification for “an” is simple. It is there because of the lack of a consonant sound at the start of the next word. So if you honestly pronounce “hotel” “oatel” or “unique” “oonique”, feel free. Otherwise, just follow the important general rule of not writing anything that will unnecessarily trouble the reader and draw attention to itself.

And: When Mrs Thompson taught you to write, she told you not to start sentences with “And” and “But”. But this was primarily to stop “What We Did On Our Holidays” from turning into an endless list — “And then we did this. And then we did that. And then we went home.” No adult writer is going to string such elements together like that. In modern writing, there is absolutely nothing wrong with using an “And” at the beginning of a new sentence to pick up the threads of an argument before carrying it forward, especially as this will often help you to keep your sentences short. The excellent New Oxford Dictionary of English tackles the “Donít start with an ĎAndí” school head-on, pointing out gleefully that “Writers down the centuries, from Shakespeare to David Lodge and the New York Times Book Review, have readily ignored this advice.”

But/however: Starting a sentence with “But” is deeply troubling to many would-be business writers. They rush to change it for “However,”, magnifying all the little shifts of direction that “but” can signal into great, portentous reversals. “However” should only be used when what comes next is a flat and unexpected contradiction of the previous idea, or when you are about to unleash a massive irony. Business writing has far too many howevers and far too few buts, just as it has far too many writers seeking gravitas and far too few seeking simple, easily-read, unpretentious clarity.

The next batch includes some more old favourites, again calculated to bring out the worst in any passing pedant.

Can: There are few occupations more pointless than going out of one's way to insist on the now largely artificial distinction between "can" and "may". Grandparents and elderly schoolteachers may relish the opportunity to relive their schooldays by resurrecting snatches of dialogue from an earlier educational era, when "Please, Miss, can I go to the toilet?" was invariably met with some rapier-like riposte along the lines of "Indeed, you can, Alfred. The question is whether you may." "Can" is now so universally and naturally used that choosing "may" often sounds false and self-conscious. Putting the whole example into the negative provides a useful reminder of how rare "may" has become — "can't" is used all the time, but when did you last hear someone say "mayn't"?

Cannot: "Cannot" was once looked down upon by the posh and the punctilious. Indeed, we remember being told that it just didn't exist. As you may have noticed, though, it does. Or if it doesn't, nobody's told most native English speakers — or the revered New Oxford Dictionary of English. The NODE labels "cannot" a contraction of "can not" (though only the space has been contracted) and points out that both forms are used and acceptable, but finishes by saying that "cannot" is by far the more common.

Cheap: There used to be a theory that calling something "cheap" necessarily cheapened it. People would twist and wriggle and do anything to avoid the word. So we ended up with "inexpensive" (a little like banning "wet" in favour of "not dry") and the vulgarly circumlocutory "reasonable". But the point about "cheap" itself is that any commodity that has no significant variation in quality is better if it is cheap. We all want cheap petrol, cheap motor insurance and cheap flights to Europe, even if we're not so keen on cheap perfume, cheap furniture and cheap jokes. "Cheap prices", though, are still unacceptable, and always will be. Talk is cheap, but prices can only be "low".

Commas in lists of adjectives: When do you need to start dropping commas into a list of adjectives that all apply to the same noun? Despite what you were told as you sat at your school desk, the answer is not "Every time there are two or more adjectives." In adult English, it depends on the sense. If the effect is cumulative and the heaped-up adjectives are all on a similar theme, it is right to insert a comma after each one but the last. So you would want two of them in a phrase like "a looming, momentous, overpowering presence". But there is no rule that says you need to break up "a new wooden storage cupboard" or "an expensive digital translation system" by separating off each of the descriptors. Doing this unnecessarily, in slavish obedience to some half-remembered edict, can introduce a further set of problems (is "cordless phone", for example, a compound noun or an adjective+noun combination?). It can create some odd effects, too, as the presence of the extra commas encourages the reader to search for a deeper significance in the connections or contrasts between the chosen adjectives.

Complete: "Complete" used to be one of those words — like "equal", "perfect", "infinite", "ideal" and "unanimous" — that had the more sadistic pedagogues writhing in ecstasies of anticipation. They'd hover at the front of the class, ready to pour their withering scorn on the first unfortunate child to come out with a phrase like "really unique" or "almost equal". But they were wrong. Yes, wrong. Even the pedants of their era (the stiff-necked Fowlers, of King's English fame, and the grumpy Eric Partridge) admitted that "almost complete" and "nearly unique" made sense. The trap the teachers fell into was to confuse these with examples like "more complete" and "most unique", where the comparative and superlative were wrongly applied to absolutes. Now the argument has moved on. Today's New Oxford Dictionary of English coolly points out that, though these adjectives have mathematically absolute core meanings, they now have established secondary meanings that are not so rigid. "Unique", for example, can just mean "very remarkable or unusual". So "a really unique opportunity" is OK. "Unique", in this context, does not relate to the absolute concept, "so the use of submodifying adverbs is grammatically acceptable".


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