creepy and bold illustration of a house with trees and then a pond in the foreground. Three zombies represented as if walking past house.

Zombie rules… don’t rule

Being a member of the CIEP is great. Not only am I part of a wider industry network, making connections and having access to resources for learning, it means I am also introduced to new ideas and concepts in language and grammar.

I say “new”; I mean ones I hadn’t heard of.

I’ve mentioned elsewhere in my blog that I never really learned English grammar, having had the misfortune to go through secondary education in the UK during an odd phase when the government didn’t think it might be useful.

I mean, one can go too far – see the recent controversy over teaching eight year olds about fronted adverbials, a concept most teachers hadn’t even heard of before they were told it was necessary for schoolchildren – but understanding the structure of language can be useful to aid communication; is especially useful when learning foreign languages; and is even more useful when forging a career in, oh I don’t know, writing and editing.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I recently learned about zombie rules, a concept I really wanted to pass on to you. Yes, you.

Zombie rules, as I discovered via the CIEP, are “laws” of language that either never existed or are no longer valid.

The latter alternative is thanks to the ever changing nature of language, its evolution through use. Such evolution can be difficult to adjust to, especially for those who were raised in a generation of education when grammar was taught, and the rules were laid out as being hard, fast and incontrovertible.

[Personally, I think different platforms and media require different language. I’m quite comfortable with the evolution of language in blog posts and fiction, for example, though that does leave my own voluble writing style looking decidedly Victorian; but I like formal media such as news writing and company reports to be more conventional. What do you think?]

The former alternative – that some zombie rules never even existed (sorry, we’re back there, several paragraphs ago) – was something I learned many moons ago via the wonderful Bill Bryson. One of the points he made in his book Troublesome Words, and one of the few that stuck with me, was that split infinitives are not a thing.

I’ll explain.

Some hardcore grammarians aver that splitting infinitives is a big no-no. “To boldly go” is a split infinitive, which I assume means hardcore grammarians can’t watch Star Trek without flinching.

An infinitive is a verb, preceded by the word ‘to’; eg, to go, to walk, to push. A split infinitive happens when you place an adverb or adverbial phrase between the ‘to’ and the verb, eg, to boldly go, to casually walk, to gently push.

Bill explained how a split infinitive was not and could not be a thing – it was a rule invented by Victorians, who said that since infinitives aren’t split in Latin, they shouldn’t be in English.

But this is a nonsense, since the reason Latin infinitives are not split is because they cannot be. A Latin infinitive is one word! For example, ‘to walk’ is ambulare, ‘to push’ is ventilabis.

The myth of the split infinitive is only one zombie rule – there are many more listed in the CIEP’s link below.

But* why am I bothering with the concept of zombie rules and why are they a problem?

Here’s what the CIEP says:

“Zombie rules stalk the language landscape, disorientating editors and proofreaders, restricting writers’ ability to express themselves as they would like, encouraging an elitist approach to language use and causing fights between wordsmiths.”
Fights between wordsmiths are really ugly affairs to be avoided at all times, involving broken pencils, torn pages and syntactic insults.

I think it’s the repression of writing style that makes zombie rules undesirable.

I read masses of Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope as a teenager, and went on to study 19th century literature. I mean, I’m not knocking these guys, and they certainly directed my own writing style – ie, long-winded – but there isn’t a huge degree of variation of writing style in that period.

Nowadays, however… the diversity of style and tone is just a delight. And that’s because we don’t have to stick to turgid rules to tell our stories.

The thing is… rules are great to form a foundation, a sort of building structure for writing, a frame to support the novice.

Children learn language because they are led by rules. They apply the rules they absorb to find their own way. (As an aside, when I was little, I thought “cheese” was plural, so would ask for a chee with my apple.) When a child unconsciously applies the rule they don’t even know is a rule to the sentences they construct, it’s really quite incredible to hear.

But once language is embedded and communication comes naturally… What need for hard and fast rules? Why break pencils and sling insults over a split infinitive.

Disclaimer: there are some rules I do find hard to give up. During a period freelancing at the Financial Times, the editor told me not to use the word “over” in a sentence such as “over the past 10 years”.

“You go over a fence,” he said. “It’s ‘during’ a period of time.” He was an FT editor. That rule sticks.

In fact, as I scroll through the list of zombie terms the CIEP says are unnecessary, there are several I use and would feel uncomfortable giving up!

And here’s the kicker – I would feel uncomfortable giving them up. But it doesn’t mean all writers should be forced to abide by these rules. In my own writing, I’ll stick to the language I know and with which I am comfortable. But as an editor, I rejoice in other voices, in rule breakers and diversity, and am happy to adjust to the evolution of language.

I’m going to carry on picking and choosing my rules, but you go ahead and kill those zombies dead.

* I just broke a zombie rule!

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