Why Do You Obsess about the Writing Rules?

Maybe I obsess about the writing rules because I want to be part of Strunk & White's posse.“Why do you obsess about the writing rules?” The question wasn’t phrased exactly like that, but it was asked of me. I was asked why I’m concerned with the writing rules.

I had to pause before answering. The rules are so innate (even though I don’t and won’t ever know them all) that I can’t recall when I became fascinated with them. I know they weren’t always a part of it; like anyone else, I had to learn the building blocks of sentences. I learned new spelling and vocabulary words, diagrammed sentences, memorized prepositions. Even then I enjoyed the way words sounded and the way they could be put together to form sentences, paragraphs, and stories. Did the rules become a part of my writing life during those years?

I doubt it. I dreaded diagramming sentences, especially the convoluted ones designed to stymie the best of the best. When then? Junior high literature with Mrs. Borsberry, the teacher who introduced me to metaphor and foreshadow and irony? Or was it Miss Barrientos with her dissection of Beowulf?

I don’t know. I only know that Dr. Pogue’s words, given during an undergraduate American Modern class, brought comfort: “If you obsess about ‘a,’ ‘an,’ and ‘the,’ you’re meant to be an English major.” Suddenly, I was not alone in my obsession with words and rules. Other people were as obsessed. I just hadn’t met them yet.

Dr. Pogue’s words probably served as some sort of catalyst, but I have come to believe my obsession is in no small part due to reading and writing poetry. In poetry, each word counts. Each punctuation mark counts. Everything matters, even the white space. What is the effect of a dash or an ellipsis? What sound does that punctuation mark make? How should the poem end? Should it taper or break? How will the poem sound when read aloud? Do the words crash and tumble into each other? Do they splinter? If they do splinter, why? What point does it serve? Is it meant to complement or juxtapose? How should the poem appear on the page? How does the form inform the content and vice versa?

My obsession with the rules has nothing to do with an obsession for obsession’s sake. If that were true, I’d have temper tantrums any time the rules were broken. My obsession is rooted in sound and rhythm. It is founded upon a belief that punctuation affects those two things. It rests upon the idea that words and punctuation affect not only sound and rhythm but also meaning.

Photo: Laura Olin (CC BY NC 2.0)


  1. I always loved to read, and I love to write, but it was those type of details that drove me crazy. To me, they were taking something very simple and making it way too hard…like math…:). Hooray for you that it caught your fancy, you do good…:)

    • bdorman264 Haha! I’ve decided I should have studied linguistics or etymologies when I was in school. I think I would have enjoyed the subjects.

  2. John_Trader1 says:

    And thankfully for the rest of us we have people like you to keep our writing intellect afloat. You can’t see it, but right now I am waving my writing geek flag under my desk.

  3. Sound and rhythm…I love that.  Metaphor for life for me!  

    • SocialMediaDDS Have you seen that Twitter allows line breaks now? I’m sure it will be irritating as all get-out, but the part of me that is such a word nerd loves it.

  4. Kim Phillips says:

    I don’t stress about things like split infinitives; that one is really arcane anyway. But in general, the rules are there for clarity of THOUGHT. If I were still a manager of other people, and a job applicant couldn’t be bothered to learn the basics of writing, I’d wonder what else s/he couldn’t be bothered with.

    • Kim Phillips I can’t remember the company, but the owner vets potential employees by making them take a basic writing and grammar test. If they can’t pass it, he doesn’t bother interviewing them for the reason you mention.

      • Kim Phillips says:

        Erin F. Kim Phillips Good for him. Judging by a lot of the business writing I see, not every employer is doing that.  ;0)

      • Erin F. Kim Phillips I had a boss who asked about a half dozen people interviewing for a data analyst position in the marketing department of GEICO, what is 2% of 200. All six got it wrong.
        He was disgusted.
        I had been writing SAS code all morning and was on a roll. He walked up to my cubicle and asked me, “What is 2% of 200?” to which I replied, “four, what is the square root of 3?”
        “He said 1.73 and left.”
        I never stopped typing.

        Later he told me that my response had brightened his day considerably.

        I’m a big fan of having standards. I am sure the owner of the company you mentioned gets better than average people by setting the bar a little bit higher than most.

        • ExtremelyAvg Erin F. Kim Phillips My mom likes to say that if you raise the bar, people will rise to meet it. They often will, especially if you empower them to do so.