Professional writers evaluated twenty usage principles that editors rated unimportant, and the results show that at least eight are still worth emphasizing.
Many editors classify certain usage principles as less important than others. By analyzing how professional writers rank the same principles, we can gauge the relevance of the principles. Many deserve continued emphasis in classrooms and style guides, and others are ignored enough in modern usage to justify changing the rules to accept them.
In the article “The Relevance of Selected English-Usage Principles,” published in Technical Communication, Devern J. Perry (1996) explores the relevance and intentional application of 20 specific English usage principles—principles classified as unimportant by editors and instructors in a previous study. For this follow-up study, Perry surveyed 383 professional writers from the Society of Technical Communication (STC). The survey asked the participants to rate the 20 principles on a scale of importance from 1 to 7, with 1 being “unimportant” and 7 being “of vital importance.”
Perry’s analysis of the results indicated that professional writers frequently and intentionally use 8 of the 20 principles. Perry proposes that these 8 principles “should continue to be highlighted in style manuals and should be emphasized in English grammar classrooms”:
- Using a plural verb with nouns joined by “and”
- Using a pronoun only after a clear antecedent
- Using “who,” “whom,” and “whose” to refer to humans
- Using a possessive pronoun to modify a gerund
- Avoiding incomplete comparisons
- Avoiding misplaced modifiers
- Using parallel adjectives (i.e., don’t mix a noun or a verb into a list of adjectives)
- Surrounding nonessential clauses with commas
Perry recommends that the other twelve principles be reevaluated for relevance in classrooms and for use in style guides. He also suggests that it might be time for two principles in particular—splitting infinitives and using “while” to show contrast—to be accepted in current English usage rules.
Based on Perry’s (1996) research, editors and editing instructors will benefit from adhering to usage guidelines that professional writers value, including the eight items listed above. In addition, writers and editors could start changing their usage to allow for the use of split infinitives and the use of “while” to show contrast. They can also help update style guides, training manuals, and textbooks to acknowledge these two principles. Making these changes will enable written communication to adapt to the ever-changing English language and appeal to a broader modern audience.
To discover more about valuable usage principles, read the full article:
Perry, Devern J. 1996. “The Relevance of Selected English-Usage Principles.” Technical Communication 43, no. 1 (February): 39–50. https://www.jstor.org/stable/43095118
—Sarah Riley, Editing Research
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Find more research
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