When It’s Okay to Break the Rules

Do you like grammar?  Or do you approach the subject with a frown, a sideways glance, and maybe even a loud, expletive-laced groan?

grammargor

 

I admit, I’m one of those odd ducks who genuinely enjoys English grammar.  My fascination with dangling participles, comma splices, and restrictive versus nonrestrictive clauses began in the eighth grade.  My English teacher that year was a stickler for details, and did not tolerate clumsy grammar.

grammarboring

 

I can still remember the way she used to pound it in our heads, day after day, not to use a subject as an object in a prepositional phrase.  This was her number-one grammatical pet peeve.  “It’s not correct to say ‘for you and I,'” she would shout.  “Take out the ‘you.’  Would you then say, ‘for I’?”  Many of her students would bury their head in their hands, a glazed, get-me-out-of-this-class look in their eyes.  But I enjoyed these lessons.

grammarfun

 

So it is certainly my hope that The Eye-Dancers is free of grammatical errors.  Then again, when going strictly by the letter of the traditional law, The Eye-Dancers is littered with grammar issues.  And so is just about every book published today.

A case in point:

“As soon as he [Mitchell Brant] opened the door, a bell jangled, announcing his presence. Faces turned to look at him. Grizzled old faces, coated with stubble. Fresh, young faces, questioning, sizing him up. Middle-aged faces, embedded with deep smile lines and wrinkles around the eyes. The attention made him uncomfortable, and he glanced behind him, through the window. He saw the girl walking away.

Whew.”

This excerpt is from chapter eight of The Eye-Dancers.  And–technically speaking, we have issues here.  Notice the number of sentence fragments.  Three alone in the first paragraph.  And in the second paragraph, another one.  Not to mention it represents a one-word paragraph.  A by-the-book grammarian might tell me to get rid of the fragments.  Turn them into grammatically complete sentences.  And, for heaven’s sake, don’t ever write a one-word paragraph!

My response?  True.  I have broken a few of the rules here–but deliberately so.  Sentence fragments, when used judiciously and appropriately, can add punch to a narrative.  They are short, staccato nuggets that help to move a story along.  It’s important not to go overboard, of course, and if they appear in every paragraph, they become tiresome and repetitious.  But when used in the right places, they can add rhythm and flow to your writing.

As for a one-word, or one-line paragraph–I believe, when used in the right places, this can add emphasis to the narrative.  The “whew” above is a good example.  If it were tacked on at the end of the first paragraph, it would be an afterthought.  Setting it apart, as a one-word paragraph, adds to the feel of it.  This way, you can almost see Mitchell breathing a sigh of relief.  “Whew.”  It gives it extra weight.

Another hard-line rule is never to end a sentence with a preposition.  But we do it all the time–in our speech and our writing.  If we tried to adhere to this rule, our writing would sound overly formal and stuffy.  Winston Churchill, one of the greatest orators of the twentieth century, once responded to a critic who pointed out that he’d ended some of his sentences with prepositions by saying, “Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.”

churchill

 

Point taken.

This of course does not apply to egregious grammatical errors.  Imagine trying to read a sentence like this:  “She, went to, the store to buy a, loaf, of bread.”  It’s understandable, but the misuse of commas makes this an awkward, difficult reading experience.  Errors like this can ruin a piece regardless of how effective the content might be.

In dialogue, of course, the standards are different–less stringent than in narrative text.  If your character speaks in slang, and altogether butchers proper English grammar, more power to her!  Even English professors commit all manner of grammatical faux pas when they speak.

For example, I picture an English prof, on a Friday night, after a hard day of teaching the rules of proper usage and airtight grammar, hitting the town with her friends.  It’s time to relax, have fun, throw caution to the wind.  If I were writing her as a character in a story, I might have her speak in occasional double negatives, say “that” when she should say “which,” and introduce herself and her friends as, “Me and. . . .”  I might even have her wear her “split infinitives” T-shirt, for good measure!

splitshirt

 

But then, the following day, she would have a stack of papers to grade, and she would once again put on her English professor’s cap.  Because she would realize . . .

In order to know when it’s okay to break the rules of English grammar, you first need to understand and acknowledge the rules you’re breaking.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

54 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. John W. Howell
    Apr 09, 2013 @ 18:13:40

    Great post. I have been struggling to give myself permission to fragment the hell out of sentences. Bill gates thinks I have marked “ignore rule” too many times on MS. Thanks – John

    Reply

  2. Some Photos & Fancies
    Apr 09, 2013 @ 18:38:02

    You do need to know the rules; all the fun of breaking them would be lost if one were casually, unconsciously breaking rules of which one were not aware. Or something.

    Reply

  3. Jilanne Hoffmann
    Apr 09, 2013 @ 18:42:40

    I love the grammar police, but I respect the grammar judge more. The judge listens to both sides’ arguments and decides who ends up in the slammer and who “gets out of jail free.”

    Reply

  4. Vince Dickinson
    Apr 09, 2013 @ 18:56:19

    The reason good writing can break the grammar rules is that good writing is a balanced integration of prose and poetry. Without the poetry, fiction would just stick to AP Style, and then readers would only read the first paragraph.

    The paragraph you posted was very well written because it makes the reader want more. Despite the fragments!

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Apr 09, 2013 @ 19:04:14

      Thanks! And very true–good writing is more of an art and less of a science. So much of writing is a “feel” thing, as opposed to an equation that needs to be solved. A strict adherence to every grammatical rule often makes writing sound forced and labored.

      Reply

  5. words4jp
    Apr 09, 2013 @ 19:05:51

    Great post. It has been quite a few years since I was in ‘grammar’ school and I will admit I take quite a bit of artistic license when it comes to hyphens,….. I would like to make this comment: Both of my boys are in high school and I read their papers all of the time. I am amazed at the errors I see from time to time. What amazes me more is that the teachers let a lot of it slide. I do not think that the importance of grammar is emphasized as much as it was when i was in school. I remember those horrific sentence diagrams…… ewwwww……

    Reply

  6. Carol Wuenschell
    Apr 09, 2013 @ 19:32:17

    Absolutely, Mike. It’s important to know what you’re doing.

    Reply

  7. 2embracethelight
    Apr 09, 2013 @ 20:10:06

    Very insightful and helpful post. I tend to get the words out as fast as my brain sends them to me. After the dust settles, I punctuate and remove unwanted words or add those that strengthen the subject…whew!
    What a mouthful. I had to use that logic to make my point. Seriously I practiced grammar far more in high school when my teacher was watching. But it is a good practice.
    Sincerely
    Yisraela

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Apr 10, 2013 @ 11:45:55

      Thanks, Yisraela! And I think that’s a great way to go about it. The first draft is all about the story, and the flow of ideas. The editing comes later, and that’s when you need to put on your proofreading cap.:)

      Reply

      • 2embracethelight
        Apr 10, 2013 @ 21:44:59

        Why thank you. Advise from such well rounded writers is good for me. I tend to write so fast. The words are flying out, and if I don’t get them down at least the first draft, I can easily lose it. Then the editing comes after. I know there are ways I can do this better so your knowledge here is most helpful. You are a good literary example for me.
        Yisraela

  8. The Persecution of Mildred Dunlap
    Apr 09, 2013 @ 21:55:10

    That was painful to read, lol. Do you do professional editing? My wisdom stops with It is I… And, while I have you here to pick your brain (hope that’s okay) when does colloquialism trump English grammar? I have my Chicago Manual of Style by my desk and need a GPS system to use it! I enjoyed the post, thanks.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Apr 10, 2013 @ 11:50:31

      Thank you.:) And you can pick my brain anytime! I actually do freelance proofreading for a few book publishers, so I am very used to going over text with a fine-tooth comb. I notice sometimes, though, that it’s easier to miss the mistakes in my own work! As for colloquialism, I think it often would trump “proper” English, yes. Certainly it would in dialogue, and depending on the POV and “voice” of your story, it might there, too. And yes, the Chicago Manual of Style! I am well acquainted with it!:)

      Reply

  9. indytony
    Apr 09, 2013 @ 22:40:32

    I love the Churchill quote.

    I, too, have a passion for grammar. I wouldn’t call myself a “Grammar Nazi” (as some do), but I respond with a visceral “Ah” when something is written properly (while poor grammar makes me nauseous).

    Reply

  10. araneus1
    Apr 10, 2013 @ 02:23:06

    I only get annoyed when people spell ‘arse’ incorrectly, does that count?

    Reply

  11. seeker
    Apr 10, 2013 @ 05:49:41

    The thing is with the auto-check in Word and WordPress, it does not distinguish whether the sentence is grammatically correct. Mind you, I wouldn’t know the faux pas since English is my second language 😆 All kidding aside, you are right about making a “statement” incorrectly to make the point across. Eh or should I say Huh. Good post, Mike.

    Reply

  12. yessiesuniartie
    Apr 10, 2013 @ 06:36:01

    Oh English is my second language and I always fail in grammar and to be honest – i break the rules 😀

    Reply

  13. Lyn
    Apr 10, 2013 @ 08:42:51

    Using correct grammar doesn’t always make sense; especially when one of your characters (even a minor one) is a small child. They’re not going to worry about using correct terms. To a three-year-old, a policeman is a policeman – even if they are female. To the child, they are a ‘lady policeman.’ Microsoft grammar check can be so frustrating (and pedantic) and insists you use ‘politically correct’ terms, such as: “no one is to fire his or her weapon,” instead of what would actually be said, “no one is to fire their weapon.” The spell check also gets it entirely wrong when it comes to its and it’s – it’s happened to me so many times with my MS, that I feel like chucking the laptop across the room. I think breaking rules is perfectly okay; after all, it’s the story that counts, Mike 🙂

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Apr 10, 2013 @ 11:56:50

      Very well said, Lyn! The story itself is always the most important thing, and maintaining your own “voice” in your story is more important than worrying about breaking a few arbitrary rules!

      Reply

  14. BeWithUs
    Apr 10, 2013 @ 09:11:44

    Grammar…always an issue for me…tend to get confused very easily at times..LOL…

    Thanks for sharing this post! Cheers~ 😀

    Reply

  15. acflory
    Apr 10, 2013 @ 11:23:38

    Spot on. You have to know the rules before you can break them!

    Reply

  16. mcwoman
    Apr 10, 2013 @ 12:52:24

    As a teacher of grammar at a local community college, I totally agree with your last statement. At the level my students tend to be, they are more intimidated with the terms of grammar than actually learning the rules of good usage.

    Reply

  17. jenniferkmarsh
    Apr 10, 2013 @ 12:55:29

    This is a very relevant post for writers! Indeed, you need to know the rules to appreciate what you are creating when you break them. But, aren’t rules there to be broken? If comparing this to life itself, who can truly say they live by the book every second of the day, 365 days of the year? Not many, that’s for sure. Everyone breaks the ‘rules’ of society from time to time, and everyone breaks the ‘rules’ that are governed by law – not to say we’re all bank robbers, but I mean minor laws! How many people cut corners while driving because there’s no one else around? A lot. It’s a blase approach, and they are breaking a ‘rule’. If we can be so blase about breaking rules in life, then why shouldn’t be we with writing/grammar? Good post 🙂

    Reply

  18. Charron's Chatter
    Apr 10, 2013 @ 13:59:24

    Know the rules–and then break them with finesse. A great and interesting read. I refer to Noah Lukeman’s “Dash of Style” when in doubt, and good old Strunk and Whites. (well, I used to before I became oh so brilliant, lol)

    Reply

  19. fashionassist
    Apr 10, 2013 @ 15:54:56

    Fabulous post…
    and I must say, your well written posts did standout + appeal to me the moment I began reading your blog…
    your eighth grade English teacher would be very proud of you 😉

    Reply

  20. Christy Birmingham
    Apr 10, 2013 @ 17:20:16

    I get confused sometimes by grammar… my poetry often traces outside the lines 🙂

    Reply

  21. lolarugula
    Apr 11, 2013 @ 01:06:12

    I like when writers have their own style and break a few rules; it keeps it interesting for me!

    Reply

  22. reocochran
    Apr 11, 2013 @ 03:12:42

    I liked this post and it gave lots of examples of why we need grammar but also as many for refusing to follow all the rules! Thanks, and I do sometimes end sentences with a preposition!

    Reply

  23. Jane Dougherty
    Apr 11, 2013 @ 18:32:58

    Good post. Grammar rules exist for a reason—they make reading easier and unequivocal. But, like all rules, sometimes it makes sense to break them now and again. Thanks for following my blog, and good luck with Eye-Dancers, I’ll look out for it.

    Reply

  24. worldsbeforethedoor
    Apr 17, 2013 @ 13:27:38

    Great post! I’m a big believer in the idea that you can only break the rules if you first know and understand the rules! I use sentence fragments when I’m doing action scenes. It just helps things be clipped and focused. Action scenes should never drag on. Shot something and blow stuff up!!! lol! Thanks again for sharing!

    Reply

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