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?



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.



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.



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.


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.”



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!



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!


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