Friday, March 28, 2014

Knowing the Rules

And breaking them when that's the better choice

Most of us were surely drilled in the rules of grammar from an early age.  Except a lot of those rigid rules aren’t really rules at all, but grammar guidelines from ages past.  As such, they tend to be rather stiff and formal, and there are times that style of writing is called for – but not in writing a blog, or prose for a modern audience.  That should be in the vernacular, so to speak.

Because the ‘rules’ of grammar aren’t there because they’re immutable laws, like gravity – rather they’re supposed to facilitate clear communication by representing the way we actually use our language.  So a lot of what we learned in school is obsolete.  But we still need to know (or in my case, try to remember) what those rules are – and more importantly, why they’re there.  So we can decide for ourselves whether or not they’re still relevant.

One example is the use of contractions.  Some of us were actually taught not write with contractions at all – but to actually write that way reads as extremely stiff and unnatural.

Another example is the use of sentence fragments.  Some of us were taught to never ever use them – but sometimes that incomplete thought as a sentence is the best way to express something.  Or emphasize a point.

One specific rule I learned was to always use a comma before the word ‘too’.  And while some of the time that’s called for to make your meaning clear, at other times it only makes things more awkward.

In practice, many of the grammar guidelines we’ve learned are merely style choices – and as writers we need to choose when we follow the traditional guidelines and when we take another path.  Based on how we want to express what we’re trying to say.

I’ll use one personal example from my own writing.  I was taught that when writing a sentence with two independent thoughts (that are capable of standing as sentences on their own) joined by a comma, that I needed a conjunction after the comma.  Like this –
– Page went to the ATM to get cash, and then she went shopping.
Which is fine for a school textbook or a reading primer, but can be awkward in prose (but not as stiff as splitting it into two sentences.)

– Page went to the ATM to get cash.  Then she went shopping.
The way I’d probably write this would be considered ‘wrong’ by the ‘rules’ I was taught.
– Page went to the ATM to get cash, then she went shopping.

I think that flows much better, though.  The comma is a softer pause than separating those clauses with a period or even a semi-colon.  And it really is getting rid of a redundant ‘and’ – because the meaning is still perfectly clear without that conjunction.  And getting rid of unnecessary words is an important principle of good writing. In which case, it would be even better to write  –

– Page went to the ATM to get cash, then went shopping.

So I sometimes break the old rules as I try to follow the greater laws of clarity and concision, attempting to clearly communicate my ideas and tell my stories in my own voice.

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