Two ‘rules’ you need to unlearn – period.

How much have you retained of the grammar you learnt at school? I’m guessing not a lot – at least not in a formal sense. ‘Dominant clauses’, ‘past participles’ and ‘future perfect tense’? If you can define all those you probably don’t need to read on. Strangely, although most of us left a lot of grammar behind when we walked out of our final English exam, there are other English lessons which have stuck fast – despite their being wrong or now out-of-date.

I see quite a few of these at play when I edit other people’s work – copyediting articles, proofreading books and so on. I’ll cover a few of them on-and-off over coming newsletters, but to get started, let’s have a look at the full stop (aka ‘period’). There aren’t many things that can go wrong with the use of the full stop but there is one persistent mistake and one common myth.

First the mistake: the use of two spaces after a period. Back in the day, when we used typewriters, it was standard practice to use two spaces after a full stop. This was because typewriters used ‘monospaced’ fonts in which each letter took up the same amount of space on the page regardless of its width – so an ‘i’ was effectively as wide as a ‘w’. Double spaces at the end of a sentence served to emphasise the full stop and improve readability.

In the computer age, this extra space has become redundant. We now use proportional fonts – an ‘i’ is narrow while a ‘w’ is wide – so a double space at the end of a sentence is no longer needed for readability. In fact it creates too much space and looks disproportionate on the page or screen.

The bottom line: if double spacing the end of a sentence is your routine, it’s time to break the habit.

And now the common myth: that you should never use a conjunction, particularly an ‘and’ or ‘but’, at the start of a sentence. This seems to be a ‘rule’ that a generation or two of English teachers thought wise to expound, but which has no basis. In fact, most of the grammar books I have consulted on this go out of their way to debunk this myth. And they, like the Bible, use conjunctions at the start of sentences quite often.

The consensus on this is that using ‘and’ or ‘but’ to start a sentence is perfectly valid in most cases and it can be useful for rhythm or to emphasise a point. Just don’t over-do it. It is regarded as slightly informal, though these days ‘formal’ writing, in this sense, is about as common as a black bow tie.

So there’s your challenge for the next month or so. Catch yourself in the act of double spacing after a full stop, give yourself a gentle smack and delete one of the offending spaces. And let your hair down by giving yourself permission to start a sentence with ‘but’.

Download the PDF version of this article, originally featured in one of our client newsletters.

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