The changing face of grammar

Published Jun 12, 2017 | Written by Jeremy Knight

While editing a client's ebook last week, conversation in the office turned to the not-entirely-heady topic of correct punctuation.  The question up for discussion - should the full-stop at the end of a quote sit inside or outside of the quotation marks?  

Taking a quick mental trawl through my memories of post-grad journalism classes, I was pretty sure I recalled a rule that the full-stop should sit inside the quote marks, not outside.  But my colleague, also a trained journalist, was convinced she'd been taught the opposite. 

A quick google on the topic was nowhere near as revealing as we might have hoped. And, as it turns out, what I'd always considered a 'non-negotiable' appears to be a lot more fluid.  

Within the world of content writing, it seems times are definitely changing. Contrary to what we were taught at school, it's now completely acceptable (and sometimes even preferable) to start sentences with and, but or because.  This relaxation of the rules certainly makes sense if you're looking to create a more conversational, relaxed tone to build rapport with your reader.

A more recent discovery is that it's no longer considered necessary to put two spaces after a full stop - something that would have resulted in a sea of red marks on my university essays. (The old rule was apparently based on the use of old-fashioned typewriters where it was much harder to distinguish between different fonts.)

But while a more fluid, evolutionary approach to punctuation and grammar is all very well in the world of content writing, what about when it comes to helping us guide our kids through the wilderness of correct grammar? 

Last summer the Guardian's Education writer explored the rather arbitrary nature of the school examination system in an article which highlighted the differences of opinion regarding the use of the Oxford comma. This same topic was also brilliantly highlighted in a recent article by the Guardian's Elena Cresci.

OK, so grammatical correctness is definitely evolving, but isn't there still a degree to which what we perceive as traditionally grammatically "correct" colours our impression of what we read? 

How many of us have paid less attention to, or perhaps even disregarded, a message that contained punctuation or spelling errors?  Even if we didn't make a conscious decision 'not to engage' with that content, it's hard not to influenced by what could easily be perceived as a lack of care for us as the reader.

And if we're no longer so beholden to older grammatical rules how do we decide which ones to follow and which ones to bend?  

Perhaps a good starting point is to always go back to the readability of our content.  If we believe that our primary purpose as writers is to make life 'easy' for our reader, then it makes sense to write in a way that's accessible, personable and tone-appropriate - Oxford comma or no Oxford comma.


Is that a tall, dark, and handsome man standing over there? Or a tall, dark and handsome man? The vexed question of commas, where to use them and where not to, was raised at Hay festival by the linguistics academic David Crystal. Both of the above are correct, he said, but he criticised the Department for Education for not realising that, and for allowing exam boards to wrongly penalise children. He said the current guidance for schools “leaves a huge amount to be desired, especially in areas of punctuation. “There is a tendency in the question setters of linguistic naivety; they are simply not aware of the complexity of some of the decisions they are asking the kids to make.”

Published by Jeremy Knight June 12, 2017
Jeremy Knight