Friday, November 06, 2009


William Safire's Fumblerules
Self-contradicting Rules for Writing

The self-styled language maven William Safire authored a language column in the New York Times for over 30 years. During that time, he compiled a clever but useful list of self-contradicting rules for writing. He called it his Fumblerules.
After perusing the list, you may imagine Mr. Safire to have been a language absolutist, a pedant eschewing every neologism and exception to a rule. In fact, such was not the case. Safire found himself criticized from both ends of the linguistic spectrum, prescriptivist and descriptivist alike.
Consider fumblerule 41, for example: "Remember to never split an infinitive." In his book Fumblerules, A Lighthearted Guide to Grammar and Good Usage, Safire explains not only that it is perfectly acceptable to split an infinitive but how, when, and why you might decide to unabashedly split an infinitive. (Besides, as my cousin Bobby points out, the whole "don't-split-an-infinitive" taboo comes from Latin, in which it is impossible to split an infinitive, since Latin infinitives are one word, not two.)
When it came to new words, Safire approved, but with a proviso: “I welcome new words, or old words used in new ways, provided the result is more precision, added color or greater expressiveness.”
Mr. Safire loved language and loved to play with language. An avid paronomasiac, he punned on his self-styled mavenhood in his book, Quoth the Maven.
Here are 51 Fumblerules. Each one is self-contradictory, that is, it violates the rule it tells the reader to avoid.
1. No sentence fragments.
2. Avoid run-on sentences they are hard to read.
3. A writer must not shift your point of view.
4. Do not put statements in the negative form.
5. Don't use contractions in formal writing.
6. The adverb always follows the verb.
7. Don’t use Capital letters without good REASON.
8. It behooves us to avoid archaisms.
9. Reserve the apostrophe for it's proper use and omit it when its not needed.
10. A preposition is something never to end a sentence with.
11. Write all adverbial forms correct.
12. In their writing, everyone should make sure that their pronouns agree with its antecedent.
13. Use the semicolon properly, use it between complete but related thoughts; and not between an independent clause and a mere phrase.
14. Don't use no double negatives.
15. Also, avoid awkward or affected alliteration.
16. When a dependent clause precedes an independent clause put a comma, after the dependent clause.
17. If I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times: Resist hyperbole.
18. If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.
19. Avoid commas, that are not necessary.
20. Verbs has to agree with their subjects.
21. Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky.
22. “The male pronoun embraces the female” is a nonsexist standard that should be followed by all humankind.
23. And don't start a sentence with a conjunction.
24. The passive voice should never be used.
25. Writing carefully, dangling participles should be avoided.
26. Don’t overuse exclamation marks!!!
27. Never use a long word when a diminutive one will do.
28. The rigid rule of “i before e except after c” raises spelling to a science.
29. Proofread carefully to see if you any words out.
30. Use parallel structure when you write and in speaking.
31. Boycott eponyms.
32. Ixnay on colloquial stuff.
33. Of all the rules about indefinite pronouns, none is useful.
34. Zap onomatopoeia.
35. Resist new verb forms that have snuck into the language.
36. Better to walk through the valley of the shadow of death than to string prepositional phrases.
37. You should just avoid confusing readers with misplaced modifiers.
38. One will not have needed the future perfect tense in one’s entire life.
39. Place pronouns as close as possible, especially in long sentences—such as those of 10 or more words—to their antecedents.
40. Eschew dialect, irregardless.
41. Remember to never split an infinitive.
42. Take the bull by the hand and don’t mix metaphors.
43. Don’t verb nouns.
44. De-accession euphemisms.
45. Always pick on the correct idiom.
46. If this were subjunctive, I’m in the wrong mood.
47. Never, ever use repetitive redundancies.
48. "Avoid overuse of 'quotation "marks." '"
49. Never use prepositions to end sentences with.
50. If you reread your work, you can find on rereading a great deal of repetition can be avoided by rereading and editing.
51. Last but not least, avoid clich├ęs like the plague.

For more about William Safire, look here and here.