Zombie grammar rules are the so-called ‘laws’ of language that are no longer, or never were, valid. Yet, like the undead they refuse to lie down and die, and so continue to haunt those of us who work in editorial services, probably until we, ourselves, pass away.
Zombie rules can be among some of the first things we were taught about language and grammar (for example, I was taught in primary school to never start a sentence with ‘and’), so are particularly memorable, while others used to apply, but the way we use language has outgrown them.
So we must realise that zombie rules will always exist. Just like in the movies, as soon as one ‘zombie’ is dispatched another appears in its place, but we also need to keep on top of which rules are outdated so we can properly keep our clients informed of which rules to use and which ones to lose.
Zombie rules can sow a lot of confusion among writers, proofreaders and copy-editors. As well as encouraging a hard-edged, or elitist, approach to language use, they can also start disagreements between wordsmiths (which, to be fair, is never that difficult a thing to do).
As editors and proofreaders, our best weapon in identifying and defeating zombie rules is to keep our knowledge of how the English language is changing as current as possible. Dictionaries – and online dictionaries in particular – are key resources. The Cambridge Dictionary, Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster produce regular updates, blogs and commentaries on how their entries for words and terms are evolving. Books about language are also invaluable in the fight against zombie rules, as they give background and context.
Some examples of zombie rules which are no longer applicable in English:
1. Never split an infinitive (‘to be’ or ‘to see’).
This zombie rule, which persists even after Star Trek’s “to boldly go”, is not something to worry about these days.
2. Don’t begin a sentence with a conjunction (‘and’, ‘but’, ‘or’).
But that’s also perfectly fine
3. Only use ‘more than’ and ‘fewer’ when discussing countable quantities.
These days, ‘over’ and ‘less’ are used more or less interchangeably for these terms, as long as the meaning is clear.
4. Always use a singular verb with ‘none’.
Either a singular or plural verb can be used, depending on the meaning and context.
Holding your fire on zombie rules: client style and preference
Despite now being armed with anti-zombie tactics, all of us need to realise that style guides and client approaches will vary. If you’re confronted with a client wielding a zombie rule in the wild, all you can do is inform them that many old rules don’t apply any more, or at all, and you can give examples.
For instance, some publishers still prefer not to split infinitives, and once you know which ones you can honour their wishes as you would with any style guide.
Sometimes you may wish to make more of a stand: when it comes to avoiding the singular ‘they’, you may want to make a stronger point about ensuring that their language keeps up with current usage, such as being non-gendered. The CIEP has factsheets that can help with this dialogue.
The evolution of language
As editors and proofreaders it’s part of our job to monitor how language is changing so we can advise our clients on the best way for them to communicate with their audience. The job is both about knowing what’s right, and also knowing what’s right for the people your client is communicating with. Language is fluid, which is why working with it can be fun and creative. Those of us working with language have to stay on our toes, and a big part of that comes back to understanding the needs of each distinct job as it comes along, especially if it means wiping out those pesky zombies as we go. Yes. proofreaders, you too can be heroes. It’s all part of the day job.
Image by julien Tromeur on Unsplash