Today’s post is an excerpt from 10 Core Practices for Better Writing. Enjoy!
“And all dared to brave unknown terrors, to do mighty deeds, to boldly split infinitives that no man had split before—and thus was the Empire forged.”
— Douglas Adams
Everyone knows the old saying: rules were made to be broken. But some people love rules, live by them, and wouldn’t dream of breaking them. For these folks, good grammar means strict adherence to every rule, no matter how archaic or minute.
That’s too bad.
Don’t get me wrong. Rules are good. They keep us organized, consistent, and civilized. If there were no rules, we’d all be living in a perpetual state of anarchy.
Learning the Rules
In the world of language, rules help us understand each other. After all, language is merely a series of sounds that are organized according to a set of rules. Without rules, language would just be a bunch of noise.
The rules of grammar are designed to help us communicate clearly, both in our speech and in our writing. When proper grammar is absent, writing is sloppy, inconsistent, and difficult to read. To put it bluntly, we need grammar in order to make sense.
When a writer hasn’t bothered to learn the rules of grammar, it shows. The prose doesn’t flow smoothly or naturally, punctuation marks are strewn about haphazardly, and there’s no sense of clarity. Sentences are jumbled, words are misused, and paragraphs are disorganized. It’s a mess. The work is lazy and sloppy. Nobody wants to read it.
Failing to learn the rules of grammar leads to bad writing.
But some writers stubbornly refuse to bother with grammar, and they’re full of excuses: writing should be an art, the rules don’t make sense, and who made up these rules anyway? But these are all just excuses, poor rationale for avoiding the work that is involved in learning grammar and applying it.
Grammar is not easy to learn, let alone master. Writers, editors, and proofreaders must make a lifelong commitment to learning the rules and determining when the rules should be broken.
Breaking the Rules
Writers who are dedicated to their craft will invest the energy required to master their most basic tools, grammar being foremost among them. But there are situations in which it’s best to break the rules—as long as you know which ones you’re breaking and why.
There’s a difference between breaking the rules to make the writing more effective and breaking the rules because you don’t know what they are.
When we break the rules of grammar, one of two things happens. Either the writing improves or it suffers. Writers who break the rules because they don’t know them are more likely to produce shoddy work. But when writers take the time to truly learn the rules, breaking them becomes an option, a technique that a writer can employ to add flair, color, and meaning to the text.
Sometimes sticking to the rules doesn’t make sense. This is especially true when we’re writing dialogue. People don’t speak in a manner that translates easily into proper grammar. So if our dialogue is written according to the rules of grammar, it can sound unnatural.
Additionally, many grammar rules were established a long time ago. Language is constantly evolving. If a particular rule makes the writing sound old-fashioned or outdated, then discarding the rule is probably the best option.
Learn the rules as thoroughly as you can and then decide how to apply them on a case-by-case basis, depending on the audience and context.
Let’s get technical for a minute. What, exactly, is grammar?
According to Wikipedia:
In linguistics, grammar is the set of structural rules that govern the composition of sentences, phrases, and words in any given natural language. The term refers also to the study of such rules….Linguists do not normally use the term to refer to orthographical rules, although usage books and style guides that call themselves grammars may also refer to spelling and punctuation.
Technically speaking, in linguistics and academia, spelling and punctuation are not components of grammar. When we discuss the mechanics of writing, we don’t refer to grammar. We refer to grammar, spelling, and punctuation because spelling and punctuation are separate components from grammar.
So how is grammar meaningful if words aren’t spelled properly and if punctuation isn’t applied correctly in a piece of writing? Aren’t spelling and punctuation critical to the structure of written language?
Grammar and Orthography
There are two common ways that language manifests: it is either spoken or written. Grammar deals with how we structure the language, and it is applied to both speech and writing. Orthography, on the other hand, addresses the rules of a language’s writing system or script.
Orthography deals with spelling and punctuation, because these elements are only relevant when the language is written.
After all, when you say a sentence aloud, you don’t say period, question mark, or exclamation point at the end. However, if you’re reading the sentence aloud, you need these punctuation marks to help you navigate the text, and they also provide cues that inform the way we stress words or inflect the reading.
Proper Grammar and Popular Grammar
I’m not a linguist. I’m a writer. I’m interested in linguistics and etymology, but only to the extent that these fields of study inform my writing and can help me better understand how to use the tools of my craft.
Grammar addresses how we structure our language and includes concepts such as tense agreement, modifiers, sentence diagramming, word order in a sentence, and sentence order in a paragraph.
But when we’re dealing with written language, proper spelling is just as essential as tense agreement. It would be quite difficult to get through a written text that was not punctuated or if the majority of the words were spelled incorrectly.
Grammar, Spelling, and Punctuation
Oddly, I’ve found that spelling and punctuation are misused far more than structural (or grammatical) elements in writing. Most people know how to put their words in order, and a writer of average skill is usually good at verb and tense agreements and other aspects of writing that would be construed as grammatical in nature.
Yet plenty of folks struggle with orthography (punctuation and spelling) even if their grammar is in good order. This makes sense, because we are primarily exposed to spelling and punctuation through reading and writing. But the structure of our language comes to us through listening and speaking as well.
In other words, we writers are probably far more immersed in grammar than we are in orthography.
Putting it All Together
Technically speaking, grammar may not include spelling and punctuation, but we need all these elements in our writing. We talk about grammar, spelling, and punctuation because these are separate but related elements that work together to produce a mechanically coherent piece of writing.
Please welcome author Debra Brenegan with an insightful guest post about grammar and writing.
We are all a little sloppy when we speak. We skip some of the basic grammar rules in order to create intimacy and shortcuts — like secrets between best friends. Such conversation helps us connect to others. But when casual phrases and speaking patterns seep into your writing, it can reflect negatively on you as a writer.
What Your Writing Says About You
In these Internet times, written communication is king, and the proper use of it separates the pros from the wannabes. Readers take writers’ messages more seriously when those messages are properly punctuated and correctly written. Readers don’t want to work to understand meaning. They might not realize it, but readers feel calm, serene, and cozy when you don’t make them strain for understanding. Realistically, the only time most people want to struggle with written language is when they’re stopped in traffic and faced with a vanity license plate.
In our split-second culture, time is essential. You want your message to get there fast and without misinterpretation. If the reading is easy, then the argument you’re making is easier to follow and easier to agree to. Let’s face it: All writing contains an argument, even if that argument is simply, “Read me – you won’t regret it.”
Good writing communicates that you are smart, or at least educated. This is not a bad impression to give – really! It makes what you’re trying to say more credible if you know how to say it.
In addition to demonstrating your education, you help educate others when you write correctly. Bad language/grammar usage is like a cold – it spreads until everyone is cranky and sick, and nobody remembers the days of clear-headedness. Don’t be afraid to counter this.
Remember Your Audience
Proper grammar matters most when you’re trying to communicate with people who aren’t your best friends, people who might judge you or think you’re unintelligent. Instead of giving you what you want – a job, attention, a vote — you end up turning off people because of your “spoken word” writing. Many people understand this regarding professional writing. Of course you want your résumé, application letter, and business memos to be clearly written and easy to understand, but creative writers need to know – and use – proper English, too.
Even in creative writing, editors and readers judge the writing. They want gorgeous prose, but they also want to be able to read it, to disappear into it, to forget that there are any mechanics behind the spin. Proper grammar and writing provides that invisibility and lets readers slip into your ideas, your story, and your writing.
Know the Rules before You Break the Rules
One of the underlying problems with rule-breaking is the question of its cause. Are you breaking the rules because you’re exercising your poetic license or because you can’t remember the difference between insure and ensure? If your reader can’t tell, you’re in trouble.
There’s certainly room for realistic-sounding dialogue and conversational prose, but underneath any stretching of proper rules are – the rules. You have to know the rules before you can break them. Good creative writers break the rules all the time, but they do so with purpose. It is unknowing breakage that damages credibility and your ability to communicate.
If you’re not feeling overly confident in your grammatical understanding, pick up a copy of the book Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss [Editor’s note: this book uses British grammar] for a fun and simple review of the basics. In the meantime, here are a few common errors you can watch out for (and avoid!).
Misuse of prepositions has spread like the plague. I fumed one day when I was standing in the check-out line at Wal-Mart. After I swiped my credit card, the automatic display read, “Waiting on authorization.” It should be waiting for. Another misuse is “meeting up with” someone. People meet other people. They always have, and they always will. Only in a brief period of history (now) will anyone know what it means to meet “up” with someone else.
It is also common for people to say, “A student needs to learn all they can.” This is mixing a singular subject with a plural pronoun. Realistically, it should read, “A student needs to learn all he or she can.” The he/she construction, although correct, is bulky. You can usually avoid this type of confusion by making the subject plural so that it reads, “Students need to learn all they can.” [Editor’s note: using they as a generic pronoun is becoming more acceptable, though it’s still technically incorrect. Grammar Girl has a detailed article that thoroughly addresses “Generic Singular Pronouns.”]
And finally, it seems too obvious to even include here, but people often use texting shortcuts in professional settings. “OMG” and “UR Gr8” have no place outside of texts and Twitter. And even in an email, don’t forget to capitalize things like my name. I’ll be much more likely to finish reading what you wrote.
Outdated Rules You CAN Break
Comma use has become more streamlined, thanks to widespread Internet copy and Associated Press (AP) style for journalism. Moreover, colons and semicolons seem like daguerreotypes of great ancestors, especially in modern writing. Yes, they are sometimes needed, but often, a comma or a dash will do instead. Don’t use a hyphen (also known as an en dash) instead of a dash (the big one, or em dash) or vice versa. Hyphens bring together, and dashes separate.
The rule most commonly broken without freaking people out is the one about fragments. They are now considered almost cool. As long as they’re not overused. Or senseless. Or too repetitive. Or used when someone is allergic to verbs. But other than those occasions, fragments are a nice way to occasionally break the rules. Just don’t use comma splices, which is the fancy word your 5th-grade teacher meant when he/she wrote, “run-on sentence,” over and over, down the right margin of your essay.
The English language is beautiful and complex, but it can also be a little daunting if the rules don’t come naturally to you. Take the time to relearn some of the rules you may have forgotten. Your readers will appreciate it, and there will be more of them!
About the Author: Debra Brenegan is the author of Shame the Devil, a historical account of nineteenth-century American writer Fanny Fern. Debra is also an English and Women’s Studies professor at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri.