A sentence from the lead story in The New Scientist this week rather struck a chord with me:

‘Sometimes, the harder you look at the venerable facts in your school textbooks, the more elusive the truth becomes.’

How true!

On my epic journey into the world of perfect grammar and great punctuation, far too often I find myself umming and ahhing over a comma or how to craft a sentence as effectively as possible. It’s not unheard of for me to get lost trawling the plethora of writing websites and flicking through my ever-increasing library to find the definitive answer to a ludicrously specific question.

Recently, I asked a seemingly simple question of writing professionals on LinkedIn: do you care about grammar? And, a month later, the question is far from closed. It would seem a great many care about grammar. But the responses the question has elicited suggests there are different understandings of what is right in grammar and punctuation. Some claim the Americans are freer with their interpretations and allow the English language to evolve and the Brits are stuffy old farts who resist any movement. Others claim it’s the other way around.

Ask a specific question and the grammar world goes haywire. Recently, a rather perceptive student asked whether a sentence with a noun clause in the role of subject is a simple sentence or a complex sentence, for example:

What I ate for breakfast gave me indigestion.

What I ate for breakfast is the noun clause AND the subject. It can be replaced with ‘it’. Now, a simple sentence has a subject and a predicate (the verb and the bit that comes after it!).

It gave me indigestion, then, is a simple sentence.

BUT, the noun clause also has a subject and verb (I ate). A sentence with two subjects and two verbs (S+V, S+V) is eitherĀ  compound sentence, if it has a coordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so), or a complex sentence if it has a subordinating conjunctions.

But here we have a problem. So I asked those I hoped would be in the know. Some explained the basics of sentence structure to me, but didn’t answer the question. Some swore blind it’s a simple sentence, some swore blind it’s complex sentence.

How frustrating. So where should one go for a definitive answer? IS there a definitive answer?

It’s been two months now since this question invaded my world, and the only satisfactory answer can be – both is the answer. The other answer I had, though, was ‘who cares?!’.

I do! I WANT to know. I want to be able to answer these questions absolutely, but maybe the English language has evolved so vastly that it’s just not possible to apply a finite set of rules. We have rules, sure, but there seem to be more exceptions, which merely serve to confuse.

The deeper you get, the less you feel you know. The more you read, the further you feel from the answer. Maybe sometime soon I’ll suddenly go through another wall and everything will fall into place. I’ll let you know when it happens!

Proofreader, copy-writer and copy-editor

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