Are we Obliged to Follow the Rules?

The reasoning behind the existence of rules is so we don’t live in chaos, but rather in an orderly society. In the case of language standards, it is so we can convey our ideas clearly and communicate with each other without any issue. But should we always respect the rules? Your first instinct may be: “Yes, of course! Otherwise, what are the rules for?” However, if you think about it a little more, you may change your mind.

Suppose you’re about to rent an apartment and must sign the contract. The first thing you’re going to find is a very long paragraph in which specific information about THE PARTIES, who in this case are the LANDLORD and the TENANT, is detailed. You’re also sure to find the number of the law that governs the signing of that contract, for example, “Horizontal-Property Act Law No. 13.512”. According to the rules, we already have several problems in this single paragraph:

1. The length of the paragraph and the fact that the paragraph consists of a single sentence. In general, to facilitate reading comprehension, it is recommended that a paragraph be composed of several sentences.

2. Incorrect use of orthotypography. According to the rules, there is no reason to emphasize the parties involved in the contract, writing “the landlord”, “the tenant” and “the parties” is sufficient, it doesn’t have to be written in all capital letters.

3. The number of the law. According to the rules of the RAE, numbers that do not represent quantities (years, postal codes, and law numbers, for example) are written without commas or separations. However, in many countries, law numbers are written with a period and that’s how they appear in official publications.

Now imagine that we are reading an employee handbook for Spanish speakers living in the United States. Although the rule in Spanish states that only the initial letter of a title is written with a capital letter, we may find, for example, a title like this: Políticas de Uso de los Dispositivos Electrónicos (Electronic Device Usage Policy in English). This would be considered an orthotypographical Anglicism. It is also likely that we find a sentence such as: En el 85% de los casos, no es necesario que utilice su teléfono celular (In 85% of cases, you do not need to use your cell phone in English.) Even though in Spanish the rule is that the percentage symbol is separated from the number with a non-breaking space.

In these cases, it is best to analyze what type of text it is and who its audience is, and from there determine the appropriate parameters. In the case of the contract, we would respect the orthotypography chosen by the lawyer who drafted it and leave the law number as it appears in all the publications that mention it. In the second example, the most likely case is that it was translated from an English text and the client has instructed that English punctuation be respected.

Those of us who work as translators and editors must have an in depth knowledge of the rules of the languages ​​we work with and respect them whenever possible. However, we must also be able to adapt to different styles and contexts, to the traditions of each subject area, to the recipient and to the demands of the client. After all, in order to break the rules, you must first know what they are.