Rules? Or just suggestions?

Posted on Jun 24, 2015 in Plain Language Blog Articles

Ah. Those pesky rules. If everyone would simply follow them, all would be well.

It’s not that easy, is it? But why not? Because context matters. For example, plenty of people reading this are thinking, “What kind of expert are you? You’re not even writing proper sentences! ‘Ah.’ isn’t a sentence! ‘Those pesky rules.’ isn’t a sentence! How can you hold yourself out as an expert if you don’t even follow the most basic rules of writing?”

But others will agree that ignoring the basic rules was perfectly justified in that first paragraph. Ignoring the rules shapes the style—it adds a certain tone or even personality. And if we can’t play with tone, style, and personality in a blog, where can we?

But was I ignoring the rules? Or will some of you say that my sentences fall within exceptions to the traditional sentence rules—in other words, that a different rule applies? Does it even matter?

Writing is both objective and subjective. It is science and art. “Good” writing is both measurable and amorphous. This is why plain language is hard. And this is why we need to stop quibbling quite so much about rules. I’ve read a great deal of writing that followed all of the rules but was still awful . . . it was still difficult to understand, even when the subject matter was straightforward.

Sometimes the most concise sentence doesn’t convey meaning as well as a more complex sentence. Sometimes the passive voice is easier to read and understand, even when it falls outside the usual exceptions to the rule that says we should use the active voice. There’s an ongoing debate in the plain-language world over the value of reading-level scores. Some would argue that they provide the definitive answer to whether a document is in plain language, but most of us can find abundant examples to the contrary.

The longer I’m in this line of work, the more I realize that we will—and should—continue to try to quantify good writing, but that no matter how much we learn, rules can only go so far. Language is a living, breathing part of the human experience, we need to be willing to bend those rules, ignore them, and even throw them away from time to time.

At the Clarity2014 conference in Antwerp, Josiah Fisk gave an evocative talk on the need to trust the judgment of experts, empirical data be damned. (I’m paraphrasing and probably overstating his case. Sorry, Si.) Karen Shriver gave an impassioned rebuttal, stressing the value and importance of the science of communication. They are both right. In practice, I daresay they epitomize the importance of both approaches: Josiah’s expertise is built on an enviable understanding of the science, and Karen is an incredibly gifted communication artist.

My point is this: Let’s relax just a bit on the rules. I don’t say this lightly. I am a rule follower. I’m proud of it. I have my favorite rules, and I want everyone to follow them. But I also shun a few purported rules, and I want everyone to stop pushing them. Double standards? Guilty.

Julie Clement photoAbout the author: Julie Clement has been a law professor for the past 16 years, teaching legal research, writing, and drafting. She recently left legal education to pursue private consulting. Her firm, J Clement Communications, focuses on legal writing, legal drafting, and plain legal language.

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