Grammar rules are more like guidelines

Published 6:09 pm Friday, June 19, 2020

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I had a professor in college who would often send group emails letting us English majors know about upcoming events and other relevant announcements. I don’t remember the content of any of those emails now years later, but I do remember the professor’s infuriating habit of never capitalizing anything. Each email opened with “ahoy majors” and it would just continue on without capital letters from there. He never even capitalized his name at the end!

Now I say “infuriating” but that’s quite an exaggeration. I never sent him an angry email back asking how an English professor could so callously ignore longstanding grammar rules. I never tossed my laptop out the window in a rage every time I saw a new email in my inbox. The most I ever did was roll my eyes and sometimes scoff about it to my roommate for a few minutes, and then I moved on with my day. It was mildly annoying at most.

Let me be the first to admit, however, that I’m a grammar nerd. I actually quite liked learning the nuts and bolts of the English language, every “exception to the rule” and all. Capitalization, like any other aspect of grammar, follows a certain set of rules too. You’re supposed to capitalize the first letter of a sentence. You’re supposed to capitalize names of people and places. You’re supposed to capitalize titles of books and movies. You’re supposed to capitalize days of the week and holidays.

There are exceptions, of course. You don’t have to capitalize seasons, for example. And you don’t have to capitalize words like “the” and “a” in a title… unless they’re the first word!

But unlike other parts of the English language (I’m looking at you, spelling), capitalization rules aren’t very hard to remember. Especially when it’s a part of our studies we learn about early on. No one is waiting until high school to start teaching this concept. It’s one of the basics.

And yet, I’ve seen my fair share of capitalization errors over the years, unintentionally or not. We’ve all seen that person online who Writes Every Sentence Like This. (If you are that person, maybe consider that it’d be easier to type if you didn’t capitalize every word.) Or even worse, we’ve all seen that people online who WRITES EVERY SENTENCE AS IF THEIR CAPSLOCK IS STUCK. (Again, if you’re that person, maybe consider changing your style so it doesn’t look like you’re shouting all the time?)

But honestly, the one thing I’ve learned about grammar over the years is that the rules are more like guidelines. They’re actually pretty flexible. You don’t want to use an apostrophe? That’s fine! You want to use “they” as a singular pronoun sometimes because it’s shorter than using “he or she”? That’s totally fine too!

Some people out there may look at incorrect grammar and cringe. They want to point out the error and fix it. They want to make people follow the “rules” even though those rules have been changing and growing for hundreds of years.

But almost anyone can understand the meaning of a sentence even with incorrect capitalization or some other strange grammar error.

So yeah, I thought my professor who refused to use capital letters was kind of annoying. But in the grand scheme of things, it didn’t really matter. It still doesn’t really matter. Maybe in 500 years, English will have changed so much that capital letters aren’t even a thing anymore. Who knows? Maybe my professor was just ahead of his time.

just because we’ve always done things a certain way doesn’t mean we have to continue doing those things forever.

Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at or 252-332-7206.