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When Style and Grammar Rules Elude You

Photo by Spencer Ritenour

Few things are as annoying as not being able to find something, especially when it was within sight only moments ago. But at least in most cases you know what you’re looking for—keys, dog, car—and you’re pretty sure it exists.

Searching for a style or grammar rule can be tougher. You don’t always know whether there actually is one, much less what it’s called, and those are serious impediments to figuring out where it might be hiding. In years of reading questions e-mailed to the Chicago Manual of Style Online Q&A, I’ve surmised a few reasons why writers can’t find a rule, and some strategies for bringing one to bay.

So why can’t these readers find what they’re looking for?

—They haven’t actually looked. Like children whining that they can’t find their socks, they write “I’ve looked everywhere and I can’t find how to make the plural of a word in italics.” The more patient ones among us will explain how to type “plural italics” in the site’s search box or look in the index under “italics: plurals of words in” or “plurals: words or phrases in italics.”

—They don’t know what to look for. This I understand, because it regularly happens to me. Should it be cause or causes in the sentence “It’s you who cause(s) trouble”? What’s the name of this grammar issue? What words would you look under in a reference book to read about it? I have no idea. (Never fear—I’ll have one by the end of the post.)

—The rule doesn’t exist. When I’ve tried everything and come up dry, I begin to fear that I’m obsessing over something everyone knows but me, a rule so obvious and basic that it goes without saying. I have to remind myself that it’s more likely that there simply is no rule. I wish I had a list of all the alleged rules we’ve been asked to confirm at the Q&A. Like the one that says you can’t put an illustration in a preface. Or that “said Julie” must always be changed to “Julie said.” Or that because must always be preceded by a comma.

Looking things up, like all skills, gets easier with practice. Here are some ways to find grammar and style rules when you aren’t sure what you’re looking for.

—Check a dictionary. Dictionaries aren’t just for definitions. Many of us have an intuitive grasp of grammar without being well educated in its lingo. The examples in a good dictionary are useful for putting names to vague notions, like whether as in a given sentence is an adverb, a pronoun, or a preposition. The usage notes and discussions—sometimes extensive—will tell you that it’s fine to use since to mean because, and just how many centuries that’s been the case. I tend to use Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate (hard copy or online), because that’s my house dictionary, but if you prefer the one you got in college, that’s fine, too. Even if you don’t find the answer you’re seeking, the labels and terms found there might help you search.

—Search online. When I don’t know the grammatical term for what I’m seeking, I’m amazed at how often I can learn it by lamely typing related words into a search engine. To find an answer to the “It’s you who cause(s)” question, I googled “who singular or plural.” A quick scan down the list of results suggested a more refined search of “‘it is you who’ singular or plural,” which led me to a chat-room discussion identifying such constructions as “clefts,” which made it easier to consult more trusted sources.

(Need I caution that online discussion forums brim with misinformation? There’s no danger when it’s obvious: “U r all wrong the correct answer is you just WRONG.” It’s the ignorant smooth-talkers you have to beware of. But even their phony blustering might jog your memory of a grammar term you’ve forgotten, and sometimes you can use that to navigate to an authority.)

Once you know what you’re looking for, you can go directly to an online grammar or style site or forum. There are too many to mention here, but you can easily find them by typing “online grammar” into a search engine. University sites are a good place to start. The University of Chicago Writing Program has a page of suggestions, and one site will typically lead you to others. (Note that some forums are open only to members or subscribers.)

—For a low-tech option, consult a grammar or usage manual. If you don’t know what your issue is called, start with the table of contents. The broad categories indicated by chapter titles will help you zero in on your topic. If you know your issue is in the “Spelling and Hyphenation” chapter, you can probably figure out which subsection you need and skim to your topic from there. If the chapter titles offer too many choices (where would you look, say, for advice on apostrophes with plural abbreviations? Spelling? Abbreviations? Punctuation?), then try the index, where the relevant page number is likely to appear under all of the relevant words.

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Readers with questions about academic writing, editing, and publishing may e-mail Carol at AskCarolSaller@gmail.com.

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