One day I would like to create a website of style advice for writers. It would be unlike most style guides because it would try to teach good writing. Most guides for writers are all about: bad, wrong, lazy, ugly, silly. The only concession they make to good writing is the implication that good writers don't do any of the bad things. Most such guides are rubbish.

I would show you meltingly lovely, juicy pieces by Jane Austen or Dickens or Joyce or some noders here, and elaborate on why they're interesting, why they work, how fascinatingly balanced or imbalanced or surprising they are; or whatever it is that makes them stand out.

The only rule would be that There are no rules. If someone tells you you've broken a rule in your writing, they're wrong. There's no such rule. No matter what they say, they're wrong. So does this mean that anything goes? Not at all. My concern is with good and bad writing, and some is much better than others. If you're trying to give pleasure, it should be beautiful and interesting; if you're trying to persuade, it should be intelligent and truthful; if you want to be published it should conform to local conventions.

Spelling and punctuation are basically conventions: there are styles that are used in books, and writers or editors need to be aware of them. To heed them if they want to be conventional, to break them if they want to be unconventional. The same considerations apply on the Internet: it might be conventional in one place to write in leetspeak or lower case. I don't care what you choose to do; it doesn't matter; there aren't any rules about it. This is not what my style guide will be about.

I want to tell people how to make their language more beautiful and more interesting.


Linguists use the word 'grammatical' in a special technical sense. To a linguist a sentence is grammatical for a speaker if it can be generated by the speaker's early-childhood knowledge of the language (plus maybe some words the child didn't know). Perhaps we shouldn't have appropriated the word 'grammatical' for this, but devised some new technical term, like 'generable' or 'generatively accessible'. Because we're treading on the toes of other people who also use the word 'grammatical', and mean something quite different by it.

As these other people use it, something is grammatical if it conforms to some rules that are out there somewhere, perhaps collected in books by people who know where to find them, and these rules apply equally to everyone who speaks the language, no matter what they learnt in early childhood. No linguist is interested in these rules. There is no branch of linguistics that studies them. We regard them as a folk fiction, puzzling and annoying, because belief in these folk rules actually prevents people from understanding their language properly.

You've got a gall bladder, right? Or a pancreas? So you can tell everyone how it works, and you're bound to get it all correct. Same with language. If you speak a language, you must be able to explain how it all works, right?

Back to my style guide. There are no rules, so all the rules those other people believe in are irrelevant. A linguist is like a doctor: we might not know much about how the human being works, but some of the things we've found out are true and surprising. There really are rules available from books if you're a foreigner learning another language. A foreigner has to learn that you can say 'Mary speaks fluent French' and 'Mary speaks French fluently', but you can't say *'Mary speaks fluently French'. And if I seem to be contradicting myself by saying 'rules' and 'can't', let me rephrase it: as a matter of empirical fact, native speakers actually do commonly say the first two, and virtually never say the last.

Good and bad language again. Stylistically bad language is often analysed as having problems with grammar. Well, if it's written by a foreigner this might be true: adult foreigners seldom attain the fluency of a five-year-old child born to it. But mostly, bad writing is by natives. Now I think people occasionally do make grammar mistakes in writing, for a variety of interesting reasons. One is that they start long sentences and forget half way through how they started. Another is that they get confused by those fictitious rules that prevent understanding: they think (wrongly) that there's some rule about singular 'they' or a final preposition; so they mangle a natural sentence into an awkward one.

From my experience as an amateur critic on writing sites, here and elsewhere, I find much of the problem is with editing and reading. After you've done all the writing, you need to edit it; and each time, after editing it, you need to read it again to see how it sounds. I'm thinking a little more of fiction here, but it's generally applicable: how good does it sound, and does it convey what you want to convey? Now my style guide would go into a lot more detail, and discuss many subtleties, but for now I just want to look at sentences that are clearly, unmistakably wrong.

But there are no rules, and I can assume the writer hasn't made any mistakes in grammar. It's something else that's making it wrong, and that something is (often) what is seldom properly discussed in those other style guides: it's context. This is what I feel I can contribute as a linguist.


'Wearing a frilly pink dress, John saw Mary.' -- That's wrong, ludicrously and unbearably wrong. Unless you do mean it to say what all your readers will read it as saying, you have to change it. This is obvious with this example, but in real writing I see things like this, a little less obvious, but still standing out like a sore thumb as conveying the wrong meaning. Yet people write it, and can't see anything wrong even when it's pointed out. But I'm pretty sure most readers read it the way I do: so how can I explain this? Now there's no real grammatical rule about the modifier clause attaching to either John or Mary, and I don't think there's even one of those fictitious rules about it either. (If there is, I don't care.)

What one of those bad style guides would tell you, however, is that this is a misplaced modifier or a dangling participle, or some such, and they're bad. Well that style guide is wrong. It's not the construction that's bad, it's the context. The same sort of construction in the right context can be perfectly unambiguous and normal.

'With its pink ribbons and lacy frills, John saw that the dress would be ideal for Mary.' -- Now there is, technically, still a grammatical ambiguity here, and it's possible to notice and smile at the thought of John in ribbons and frills, but that's clearly not what the sentence says. Readers aren't robots, they know that dresses have frills and ribbons, and that the word 'its' at the beginning is going to hook up with an inanimate object later on. You've got a choice of two things the modifier could theoretically be attached to, and you choose the obvious one. This is how language works.

People often have what seems to be an essentialist view of language: they think that a word must mean some definite or precise thing, and that therefore any use of the word that doesn't fit that must be somehow less perfect, less 'correct', in need of apology. But this is not how language works. We understand usages.

'John saw Mary in the telescope.' -- No problem with this. The meaning is clear and straightforward. Of course if Mary's an astronomer, the context might show that he actually saw her inside the giant telescope. There's no such thing as the meaning of the word 'in' that tells us what 'in the telescope' means regardless of context. Compare 'John saw Mars in the telescope' and 'John saw an insect in the telescope'. No problems there.

A typical error of essentialism is to think of one canonical use of a word, and to try to insist on it. Think of a sentence using the word 'in'. Probably you get some picture such as 'the toy is in the box': enclosure within a three-dimensional object, as if 'in' meant 'inside'. So some people confronted with the variable usage of 'in the telescope' (note, none of the examples I gave were ambiguous) would assume that this really means 'inside the telescope', and that the other usage is less admissible, and should even be changed to something else: perhaps 'through the telescope'. But if the planet is Thrandor and the astronomer is Thurston, you can't say 'Mary saw Thrandor through Thurston's telescope.' You just mustn't say that, except for laughs, as it sounds dreadful, and is definitely not good writing. The context here is not world knowledge (about how big insects or telescopes are), but sound.

This is going off the point slightly, but to see how wrong the impression that 'in' = 'inside' is, look at nature. You might write off 'in a moment' or 'in a hurry' or 'in the background' as figurative, but look at 'in the sea', 'in a field', 'in a ditch', 'in the air', 'in the hedge'. Even with enclosing objects: compare 'the flowers are in the vase' and 'the bee is in the vase'.

Context is pervasive. Sentences aren't built out of words like blocks. We understand what 'in' means in one place by its context; we understand what 'in the vase' means likewise. We understand so-called dangling participles in the same way. Unfortunately, 'Wearing the frilly pink dress, John saw Mary' just does give the wrong impression, because it's so easy to think of John wearing the dress; but we do this because we're so used to sentences that go 'Wearing..., Mary...', and this one isn't different enough. Stylistically, it needs to be tweaked somehow. But there are no rules about how to do so. Only taste, judgement, choice, rereading with a fresh mind. Read not for what you wanted it to say, but for what it does say when you read it.

This is not my style guide, and I haven't given any guidance on particular points, but I have sketched the kind of approach I would take and why.