Playing it safe is a dangerous game

Here’s an argument I sometimes hear:

Sure, some of the so-called “rules” of English that you hear about are silly and pointless – don’t split infinitives and so on. But there are still a fair few people who believe in these rules, so it’s worth toeing the line to avoid annoying them.

This sounds like a reasonable, pragmatic position: play it safe. But there are two problems with it.

First, playing it safe takes a lot of knowledge, concentration and time. If you want to keep the complainers happy, here are just a few of the imagined “common mistakes” that you’ll need to avoid:

  1. A/an: When the following word begins with an h sound but the second syllable carries more stress than the first, use an, not a: an historian, an horrific, an habitual, an heroic.
  2. Above: Do not use this to mean more than.
  3. Acquiesce: One acquiesces in something, not to it.
  4. Acronym: An acronym is not just any set of initials but a set that is pronounced as a word: NATO and AIDS but not BBC or USA.
  5. AD: Place it before the year, not after.
  6. Admit to: While confess may or may not have a to, admit never should.
  7. Aggravate: This does not mean annoy; it means make worse.
  8. Agnostic: To be agnostic is to believe that knowledge (typically about the existence of god) is impossible. It is not to be doubtful or noncommittal.
  9. Alibi: This is a legal defence based on having been elsewhere at the time of the crime. It does not mean any excuse that allows someone to escape blame.
  10. All of: The of is usually a redundancy (except when followed by a pronoun, e.g. all of them) and should be omitted wherever possible.
  11. Alright: Do not use. The correct form is all right.
  12. Also: Do not use also as a sentence-opening adverb.
  13. Alternative: There can only be two alternatives. Three or more are options.
  14. Among: Use whenever there are three or more objects; for two objects, use between.
  15. And: Never start a sentence with and.
  16. Anniversary: This means the date marking a number of years since an event. Three-year anniversary is redundant; three-month anniversary is just wrong.
  17. Anticipate: This does not mean expect; it means act in expectation of.
  18. Anxious Do not use this to mean eager where there is no sense of unease.
  19. Anymore: Do not use. The correct form is any more.
  20. Appeal: When appealing against a decision, the against is not optional.
  21. As: The use of as to mean because can be confusing and therefore should be avoided.
  22. As [adjective] as [pronoun]: The object form of the pronoun is wrong in he is as tall as me and similar comparisons. Use the subject form instead: he is as tall as I.
  23. As such: This means in this capacity. Do not use it to mean in principle or therefore.
  24. At about: The at is usually redundant; delete it.
  25. Attorney-General: The plural is Attorneys-General, not Attorney-Generals.

These “rules” are all opinions that are noteworthy enough to be discussed in usage guides by Bryan Garner, Jeremy Butterfield, Pam Peters or Merriam-Webster. I’ve been highly selective: those books’ A sections are on average 95 pages long. And the alphabet also has other letters.

This list is a mixture of exaggerations and misunderstandings, relics and myths, personal preferences and reasonable tips. Judged against the standard of usage, there’s not a single rock-solid rule among them.

There are maybe five of these “rules” that make me twitch with distaste when I see them broken. But so what? My personal twitching doesn’t define the boundaries of good English, and nor does anyone else’s; other twitchers could pick their own pet peeves from the list.

To keep us all happy, you must follow all the “rules”. You must find out all the things that various people believe are wrong and spend time restricting your language to fit.

But this leads to the second problem with playing it safe: many of the “rules” can cause offence when you follow them.

There are maybe eight on my list that I often or even always prefer broken. In a couple of cases this is because the “rule” is based on ham-fisted linguistic analysis. A treaty among the countries of Europe? No: it has to be between.

In most cases it’s because I find the “rules” make language stilted, archaic or prim. An historian? He is as tall as I? Sorry, but I’m twitching. And I’m not alone. You can’t satisfy the people who have reactions like this while satisfying the people who insist that a historian and he is as tall as me are wrong. You have to disappoint one group.

Don’t assume that the louder group is the larger. People who think they’re right are more likely to write angry letters of complaint; people who simply don’t like the tone usually just stop reading. And if general usage keeps ignoring the rule-mongers’ efforts, that suggests the other group is larger. If so, the “rule” is, pragmatically, a bad idea.

And that’s the danger of following every “rule” that has a clique of enforcers: by armour-plating your language too heavily, you weigh it down and make it weak.

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  • Tejaswi  On August 28, 2015 at 10:26 am

    I am pedantic, maybe it does matter a little to me. But keep twitching 🙂

  • Franca Serrau  On August 28, 2015 at 1:05 pm

    Mr Butterfield once said that “Language is democratic”. I agree with him, but sometimes, when I hear how my language (italian) is ill-treated I wince. A very good article, by the way! It makes me realise that the path to my knowledge of English is a very long one!

  • paulabroome427  On August 28, 2015 at 1:43 pm

    I wince most with any definitional rule that attempts to “contain” a word, e.g., “agnostic means this…and only this.” We know that words, language, does not stand still, does not revolve about some unchanging center, but constantly shifts and turns and on occasion drops of out sight and sound.

  • Donna Condrey-Miller  On August 28, 2015 at 4:00 pm

    The longer I am an editor the more I am likely to break rules as much as I may enforce them. I started out being a stickler, I suppose because I thought that is what I was supposed to do, but I soon realized in some cases following the rule just made the writing bad.
    One rule that I break and maintain depending on the context is not ending a sentence with a preposition. Many times getting the proposition back in line before the end makes a better statement, but by now with our usage so often ignoring that, sometimes it just sounds phony.
    Did anyone ever read a case of Winston Churchill complaining of the rigid adherence to this rule? His quotable response was something like: “This use of language is something with which up I cannot put.”

    • neurotypinot  On September 1, 2015 at 1:03 pm

      close; it was “. . . is something up with which I cannot put.”

  • Mike Booth  On August 28, 2015 at 4:43 pm

    Excellent article. So much to learn; so little time. (Though I’m only 72.) I’¡ll tell you what gets me: the way feminism is trying to make us all sound ignorant. “Everybody has to bring their own lunch.”

    • neurotypinot  On September 1, 2015 at 1:06 pm

      I think you’re referring to the last of a singular, gender-neutral pronoun. If that’s the case, this has been an ongoing debate. Personally, repeated abuse of “he or she” annoys me immensely; in my academic papers, I would avoid it by alternating he and she (using “he” in the first paragraph, “she” in the next, etc.).

      • neurotypinot  On September 1, 2015 at 1:06 pm

        lack* not last

      • Tom Freeman  On September 1, 2015 at 3:21 pm

        I’m afraid I’m one of those witless barbarians who are perfectly happy with using “they”, “them” etc for a single person. Sorry! All I can say in my defence is that it’s extremely common, six centuries old, and very very useful:

      • neurotypinot  On September 6, 2015 at 3:11 pm

        I agree; using “they” is perfectly appropriate to me (unless I’m editing something for work), and seems to fit in seamlessly when used in a context like “Everyone should remember to bring their notebooks,” even though “everyone” is singular. It’s a little more glaring in other places, like if replacing “everyone” with “a/the person” or something similar.

  • Anthony Martin  On August 28, 2015 at 4:45 pm

    Well done. I enjoyed reading this. Maybe the important thing is being aware of the rules, rather than always adhering to them, so that we can be like water, my friend.


  • kirizar  On August 28, 2015 at 5:25 pm

    I was all set to take offense (sorry, American spelling here) and be up-in-arms about some of those nitpicking examples and then I read the entire post. Feathers are de-ruffled and all is well with my linguistic happy place.

  • Lyagushka (Meirav)  On August 29, 2015 at 8:50 pm

    Yes!!! exactly. exactly that.

    If you force your language into the straitjacket of all those made-up rules, you end up sounding horribly stilted, thus making people twitch for all the wrong reasons. As you’re bound to annoy some people, why not annoy the ones who are misguided?

  • j0egreen  On August 31, 2015 at 1:37 pm

    In asserting “A treaty among the countries of Europe? No: it has to be between” you’re falling into your own trap. What do you mean, it *has* to be? You can only say that it makes you twitch less.

  • Andy Hollandbeck  On August 31, 2015 at 3:09 pm

    j0egreen: I’m pretty sure Tom meant that “treaty between” pronouncement as an example of “ham-fisted linguistic analysis.”

    There are some rules, yes, but they aren’t set in stone. The English language is like the Wild West, and editors are the sheriffs. The good ones know when to let minor transgressions slide and when to pull a gun.

    • j0egreen  On September 1, 2015 at 12:53 pm

      Andy: you may be right (although I haven’t a clue what kind of ham-fisted linguistic analysis he was referring to). In that case it would have been clearer if that part had also been in italics.

      Hah, I happily ended a sentence with a preposition. I mean I happily used a preposition to end a sentence with.

      • Tom Freeman  On September 1, 2015 at 3:30 pm

        I suspect Andy may be being charitable! My point is that “among” and “between” aren’t interchangeable, but the “two vs three or more” version of the rule is an oversimplification of what’s really going on. And that version, followed unquestioningly, can cause genuine trouble. See the link in the post for more details.
        But on reflection the example I gave isn’t as clear-cut as I thought. How about “a treaty among Britain, France and Germany”? This – I hope – takes us beyond twitching and into brain-doing-a-backflip territory…

      • j0egreen  On September 2, 2015 at 2:03 pm

        (Why is there no reply link on Tom’s posting?) I think you’ve muddied the waters. I have absolutely no problem, not the merest hint of a twitch, with “a treaty among Britain, France and Germany”. Why should I? Though stylistically I might prefer “amongst”. And if I were the original writer I might have written “agreed to by” or even simply “by” instead. I glanced at the linked article on between/among(st) but hope to give it a bit more attention later (translation: if I have the time and don’t get swamped by more urgent things IRL, hence not very likely really). Meanwhile I have no problem with “between” for more than two things in the right circumstances, e.g. the centre of a compass is between the four cardinal points.

        But I will restate my original assertion, which seems unchallenged by this discussion: in the context of this blog article, you have no right to say that it *must* be “between”. You may only justifiably state your preference. Who decides which so-called rules are to be observed to the letter and which have no plausibility? (Or were you in fact only pointing out someone else’s unjustifable assertion?)

      • Tom Freeman  On September 2, 2015 at 5:01 pm

        The decider of rules is general usage and general reactions to usage. By this standard, the “between = 2, among = more” rule is rubbish. I think we’re agreed there.
        But I’m also saying that, by the same standard, “between” and “among” are not always equivalent. For instance, I like your compass sentence – but I definitely wouldn’t put “among” in it. “The centre is among the four points” would seem as weird as “I gave it at him” – not just to me, I suggest, but to most people.
        And, given that nobody is in charge of the language, majority twitching is where we find the things worthy of being called rules. (But inevitably there are grey areas.)

  • trinityroberts  On September 19, 2015 at 2:25 am

    Reblogged this on .

  • redpola  On September 20, 2015 at 7:17 am

    “How many people should the bouncer admit to the party?” 🙂

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