“There are many realities. There are many versions of what may appear obvious. Whatever appears as the unshakeable truth, its exact opposite may also be true in another context. After all, one’s reality is but perception, viewed through various prisms of context.”―Amish Tripathi, The Immortals of Meluha
There’s this belief that grammar is uncompromising.
That’s part of what makes it so scary to the common person: How can we know what the right thing to do is, all the time?
But here’s an editorial secret I’ll let you in on: Grammar isn’t permanent. It can change — and is, in fact, always changing.
What does that even mean?
Take, for example, the old spelling rule and jingle many of us learned in school.
“I” before “E,” except after “C.”
This little rhyme was created to help us navigate the tricky letter-gymnastics that make the “ie” and “ei” letter combinations sound like different letters completely.
Well, what if I told you …
They don’t even teach “I” before “E,” except after “C” in school anymore — because there are more exceptions to the rule than there are “correct uses.” In fact, you’d be running three to one odds when making a guess that “ie” is the right way to spell something!
As Merriam-Webster puts it:
To make the above jingle accurate, it’d need to be something like:
I before e, except after c
Or when sounded as ‘a’ as in ‘neighbor’ and ‘weigh’
Unless the ‘c’ is part of a ‘sh’ sound as in ‘glacier’
Or it appears in comparatives and superlatives like ‘fancier’
And also except when the vowels are sounded as ‘e’ as in ‘seize’
Or ‘i’ as in ‘height’
Or also in ‘-ing’ inflections ending in ‘-e’ as in ‘cueing’
Or in compound words as in ‘albeit’
Or occasionally in technical words with strong etymological links to their parent languages as in ‘cuneiform’
Or in other numerous and random exceptions such as ‘science,’ ‘forfeit,’ and ‘weird.’
That isn’t nearly as catchy though.
And not even editors are immune to the wiles of such mnemonics!
I’m a member of a number of different online forums and help desks where editors will often post a piece of writing that is challenging them for one reason or another. (Hate to break it to you, but we editors are but mere humans as well. Devastating, I know.)
The question will often be posed with a copy and paste of a particular phrase or sentence, and “should it be X or Y?”
I will inevitably ask in the comments “What is the full sentence? What does the sentence before say? What comes after?”
Because here’s the thing with grammar and perfect prose: You need to know the context to determine which rule to use.
Similar to Merriam-Webster’s terrible (but accurate) “New ‘I’ Before ‘E’” poem, it all depends on what you are doing with the letters and words.
What if you are trying to determine whether the subject of a sentence should use a plural modifier (ELISA WHAT?!)
An example would be “The population was in danger due to their/its poor health practices.”
Which do you use? Their or its?
There are rules in grammar books and online repositories that will tell you both answers are correct. Even style guides labeled this one as an “Eh 🤷; it really depends on which definition you are using for the word population, and either could be right, but its is more commonly used.”
Which means you have to step away from the three words you think are important (population, their, its) and look at the context of the writing.
Are you writing about the people themselves, or the grouping as a whole (and less about the people.)
The rules of grammar and editorial style are important, but they are always changing — and changeable.
It’s often more important to pay attention to the context around a rule and then determine the best way to go.
Like a longer message? This is from a June 2020 edition of my weekly newsletter, The Writing Rundown — and you can get in on that action if you want more! Just enter your information here, and I’ll be poppin’ into your inbox before you know it. 🏫