When I first started law firm life, several colleagues dropped by my office to ask my opinion on key issues: Did I prefer one space or two after a period? And, what were my feelings on split infinitives? How about justifying versus non-justifying text? I think my grammar and style preferences generally disappoint people in all camps.

Follow the partner’s rules

I believe in adhering to the grammar and style preferences of the person for whom you are working. If the lead partner on a case likes one space between sentences, I’m a one-space gal. Two spaces? Not a problem. Just tell me how many pieces of flair to wear, and I will do my duty.

My philosophy in this respect began on the playground: I was always a fan of four square in elementary school. In four square, you bounce a rubber ball to advance through squares until you achieve the coveted position of “first square.” Once you make first square, you have the power to create customized rules like “no cherry bombs,” or “all players must speak in pig latin.” In fifth grade, getting to the first square was the bee’s knees—an honor that came with real power.

I began to link my four square experience to the legal profession during my clerkship. When working for a federal judge, there is no doubt as to who gets to make the rules. I mean—one of us was appointed by the President and one of us wasn’t. I have no problem putting the POTUS appointee in the first square.   

In a law firm, things can get a little bit more ambiguous because there are multiple partners with multiple preferences. People begin looking around for an objective answer—there must be “correct” rules of grammar. What does the Chicago Manual say? How about Strunk & White? Articles espousing the benefits of one space over two pop up in our office about once a year, create a brief commotion, and then disappear until Slate or the Atlantic decides it’s time to drag the subject out again for another go.

But what do I think?

For every current rule of grammar and style, a good researcher can find an example of an author’s rejection of the rule to excellent effect. You prefer short, pity sentences, but would you condemn Faulkner? You say two spaces after a sentence slows the reader down? I have no trouble flying through my original type version of Pride and Prejudice (nor did I have any trouble reading the entire 1950s Nancy Drew series at a record pace in fifth grade).

But suppose my time in the first square does come some day? What will I choose? I’ll probably choose one space between sentences because it seems to be the new normal. I never want to distract a reader with a stylistic choice that jars (for the same reason that I wear a black or blue suit to court so that I won’t distract the judge from my argument with an unusual fashion choice.)

Reject Rules to Good Effect

That said, in writing, sometimes we do want to jar a reader (although not likely with the number of spaces between sentences). I generally eschew italics and bold print, but occasionally it feels appropriate. I strive for Hemmingway-esque sentences, but can refuse to edit a beautiful long sentence that pleases me. My overall philosophy? I never want to be so wedded to a rule of grammar or style that I can’t relax and adjust when it feels right or appropriate to do so. I aim for my writing to be clear and fun to read. So what do I think of grammar rules? They’re more like guidelines.

(image: Early Education Concept with Keyboard and Letters from Shutterstock)

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