In a post a year ago I presented an inventory of some of the major bogus rules of English grammar and usage. They are also the subject of a series of short videos I am making at baltimoresun.com.
But these zombie rules, which can still be found in some textbooks and usage manuals, are not the end of it. English teachers and journalism instructors are the source of bizarre, arbitrary, idiosyncratic “rules” for which there is no foundation whatsoever.
Sometimes it’s an attempt to make the Associated Press Stylebook carry a load heavier than it is meant to bear. The one that Bill Walsh and I like is that you must always write “a half-mile,” never “half a mile.” But AP doesn’t actually say that you can’t write “half a mile’; it just prefers that you write “a half-mile” as a hyphenated compound.
Once in my editing class I asked what a paragraph is, and a student confidently shot up a hand and said, “Five sentences,” universalizing an oversimplification from some basic composition class. I suspect that some of these supposed rules being cited are a result of the students’ mishearing or misapplying something they were told. But we can’t rule out pedagogical malpractice.
There is even more outré stuff than that abroad. An editor writing at a closed discussion site (who gave me permission to cite this) once encountered a recent journalism school graduate who said that a journalism professor told her that AP demanded two spaces after a colon.
So I invite you to crowdsource. Tell me the most egregious instruction about grammar and usage you have been told by a teacher, supervisor, or colleague. I would prefer testimony from direct experience rather than hearsay, but something your child said their teacher told them will do.
Commenting at baltimoresun.com can be laborious, but this post is linked at Facebook and Twitter, where piling on is easier. You can also write to me privately at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will not disclose your name without your permission.
If you furnish a rich harvest, I will gather it in for another post.