Should items in bullet points be capitalized? Do they need punctuation? People often have strong opinions about matters like these, but most of the time, what they’ve come to see as rules are actually just styles and personal preferences.
That may not seem like a big deal to you, but many people get remarkably worked up about it. And as someone who creates copy for a wide range of companies and an even wider range of people, it’s a constant issue. Rarely does a month go by without someone taking me to task for violating the “rules.” Shouldn’t I know better? After all, I claim to be a professional writer.
What makes it even more bemusing is that one client’s prohibition is another’s standard. A great example is what’s known as the Oxford (or serial) comma. That’s the comma that should or should not (depending upon your stance) be added before the conjunction in a series of items. Is it “bacon, lettuce, and tomato” or “bacon, lettuce and tomato”? You’ll find a fairly even split among people, but the one thing they share is a strong conviction that their way conforms with the rules, and the other is an unforgivable error. (I tend to use the Oxford comma out of a belief that it adds clarity. To some, that makes me an apostate.)
So where do these intense beliefs originate? I’m convinced it’s with English teachers, and not all English teachers — just the variety that inspires terror and a demand for absolute fidelity with their standards.
Now, you’ll find no bigger fan of English teachers than this writer. I had some who were absolutely brilliant, taught me concepts I use daily, and introduced me to authors who are still among my favorites. And middle and high school English teachers face the unenviable task of convincing bored students that reading and writing are not only important, but can be enjoyable.
However, there are those who believe their take on grammar and syntax rules is absolute and infallible. In their fervor to instill those rules in their students, they perform a disservice. First, they convince those students there is only one correct way to write. Second, they terrify the students to the degree they become convinced they’re poor or incompetent writers.
I’ve presented writing workshops for many business audiences, and when I tell attendees “that” English teacher was wrong, you can still see the terror in their eyes. Their fear of splitting an infinitive or dangling a participle and receiving a paper bathed in red ink is still strong. Other attendees insist that the AP Stylebook or some other guide is so sacred it must have been delivered by God right after wrapping up work on the Ten Commandments.
Your teachers weren’t wrong when it came to schoolwork. The academic world still uses a rigid, formal framework in which things like starting a sentence with a conjunction or ending it with a preposition are sins. But — and this is an important “but” — that style of writing is used only in the academic setting. In the outside world, it’s perfectly acceptable to use a looser, less formal approach. In fact, it’s preferable, because it’s more communicative.
In other words, you’d lose points for using a contraction on an essay test or a theme paper, but when you’re writing a report, an email, a blog post, or a memo, things like contractions actually make what you’re writing more conversational and understandable.
Do stylebooks matter? Absolutely, but it depends on the environment and who you’re writing for. Stylebooks provide guidance into the best choices for particular situations. If everyone in an organization uses the same stylebook, writing will be more consistent. But again, that doesn’t represent inviolable rules — it’s just the preference the organization’s leaders have expressed.
In addition, language isn’t static. The English we use today is vastly different from the English of the early 70s, which was unlike the English of the 1940s, which was distinct from the English taught in schools in the 1910s. Language changes as our worlds change, so there’s a good chance that at least some of what “that” English teacher taught you no longer applies. A great example is the increasing use of “they” as a single pronoun covering any gender, which has only become widespread in the last couple of years.
My advice is to choose a style that works for you and stick with it. And instead of focusing on obsolete rules from a terrifying teacher, concentrate on communicating clearly. That matters more than all the rules.
Scott Flood creates effective copy for companies and other organizations.