Shirley's Articles / Grammar, Punctuation, Vocabulary

Rules Are Made To Be Broken

But first you have to learn them

Have you ever wondered where all the rules out there governing grammar, punctuation, spelling, and so on come from? Is there really a dictator called the Grammar Ninja hiding in a cave or bunker somewhere, thinking up evil ways to make your writing ‘wrong?’ Is he or she inventing new words to make your life miserable?

After all, we all know what ‘online’ means, but is it one word, a hyphenated word, or two words? And what about ‘off-line?’ It doesn’t look right as ‘offline,’ but if you hyphenate it, should you then hyphenate ‘on-line’ to be consistent?

These types of questions have tortured writers since the first dictionaries were compiled in what is now known as Syria back around 2300 BCE*. Oh goodness, there’s another question – didn’t we used to say BC and AD for dates? When did that change and who decided to change it to BCE (Before the Common Era)? And why? Whoops, I apologise for getting off on a tangent there, but it just frosts my cookies to think about it all.

Why do language rules change?

The reason language changes is really pretty simple: It changes because language is dynamic, not static. I know that’s cheating, because I basically said language is changing because it changes. But it’s true. New concepts, ideas, and even things are constantly being invented, and we need to have words to convey them. Do you really want to say, “I was on my computer, connected to the Internet” every time? Isn’t it much easier to say, “I was online”?

Oh my goodness, there’s another one! I put a punctuation mark outside the quotation mark. The rule says punctuation goes inside the quotation mark… or is that only true in dialogue? And if I had put the question mark inside the apostrophe, it would have looked like I was asking whether I was online or not. Good grief, this is confusing!

Is there a Grammar Ninja?

Really, who decides what is standard practice when it comes to writing? Is there a grammar committee or even the famous Grammar Ninja out there somewhere? As much as we would like to believe it, no individual or group has the power to change language rules and conventions.

So who changes them? You do! I do! We all do! But usually it’s unconscious. To go back to our ‘online’ vs. ‘off-line’ question, the verbal reference ‘online’ obviously only came into being after the computer and the Internet were invented. Someone somewhere used the word and it caught on until every computer-savvy person was using it. I can remember seeing it spelled all three ways back then: online, on-line, and on line. Nothing made me twitch so much as to see it spelled all three ways in the same report.

Eventually, everyone seemed to settle on the single word spelling, ‘online.’ But now we have ‘off-line’ and people haven’t quite decided on where they want to go with it. It’s very possible you are still seeing it all three ways.

What’s the solution?

What do you do when you are writing a company newsletter article about how the newsletter will be going online in a couple of weeks, but for the first month, you can still get it off-line? The key to finding the best usage when a rule hasn’t been established yet is to pick the one you see most often and then remain consistent throughout your document.

That’s the final word. Language conventions are dynamic and we all decide what they are. And writing is like anything else, you have to learn the rules and why they are that way before you can decide when to break them. What do you think about language conventions? Do you have any pet peeves relating to language conventions? Let me know in the comments.

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Shirley is an international bestselling author. She has established herself as a leading authority in email and business writing skills. Her international bestseller Model Business Letters, Emails & Other Business Documents 7th edition sold over half a million copies worldwide and has been translated into 17 languages. Her book Email Essentials reached #2 in the USA for publishers Marshall Cavendish International. Find out more about Shirley at

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