Readers Over Rules

The code is more what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules.

Captain Barbossa, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

While I wouldn’t choose captain Barbossa as a mentor, in the case of grammar rules, he is somewhat, mostly right. 

Sometimes some rules just don’t matter.

Don’t believe me? The Chicago Manual of Style’s editors agree. Mostly. In a book comprised of various questions posed in CMOS’s online Q & A forum, But Can I Start a Sentence with “But”?, the editors address the importance of author voice and clarity for the reader over style. 

They say:

  • “When consistency gets silly, you can rebel.” p. 2
  • “What good is a rule that says you can’t help the reader when it seems like a good idea?” p. 3
  • “You never have to do anything that isn’t helpful. If a style guide says you do, you need a better guide.” p. 5

Okay, okay, so maybe don’t have a book burning party for your style manuals. But maybe do look at them more like Captain Barbossa viewed the pirate code. They are called style guides, not style rules or style laws, for a reason. The grammar police might heckle you a bit for your choices, but what else can they really do?

Here are a few helpful ways to think about this as you write and/or edit.

  • Consider the ideal reader. If a word or manner of speech or writing won’t hit well with them, scrap it. Or, in the words of our dear Elizabeth Swann, “Hang the code, and hang the rules.” 
  • Don’t overedit. In the words of CMOS’s editors, “For good reason, writers live in fear of overzealous editors who, in search of correctness, will edit the life and voice right out of their work” (But Can I, p. 1). This applies to self-editing too. Lively words change lives; sometimes it’s best to let them be. Choose your battles wisely.
  • Don’t completely ignore the guides. While you want to keep your voice and connect with your audience, pages riddled with grammar mistakes make reading difficult—which takes us back to consideration of the reader. 
  • Be happy with your work. Some people say you can be right or be happy. When it comes to writing, I would say produce writing you can be happy with, even if it’s not all technically “right.” But shoot for “right” where you can.

Ultimately, here’s a good final checkpoint before you send your words out into the world: Have I put everything possible into making this content the best it can be?

And if you’re a Christian, like me, ask yourself one more thing: Will the work I’ve produced honor God in content and quality?

Of course, we’d love to produce flawless books and blogs with commas in all the right places, but we aren’t perfect. But in some cases, we choose not to be perfect because we’re all human, and maybe it’s those imperfections that help us connect to the content and each other on a deeper level. 

When faced with the choice, and you have to choose, go with readers over rules. 

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