Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Rule-Breaking, Author-Style

I spend an inordinate amount of time every week reading and responding to the writing of other people. I read blog posts and comment; additionally, I read more than a couple of books (primarily e-books) and post reviews.

As I read these published texts, I am often appalled by the number and nature of the grammatical and mechanical errors.

Obvious capitalization errors, spelling errors, punctuation errors, run-on sentences, and the like dance across the screen or pages with wild abandon.

When I mention this to someone, they often respond that it's content that matters. Besides, they offer, errors such as the ones I mention can even be found in books written by widely-published, iconic authors.

To a degree, that's correct. Sentence fragments, run-ons, and other "construction" issues can be found in books and magazine/newspaper articles.

Sometimes that's because of poor writing and sloppy editing. Those writers and editors should be ashamed of themselves for their lack of respect for their reader and their craft.

Sometimes, however, those "errors" are deliberately and very- thoughtfully made.

Writers -- those who produce the very best texts that engage and motivate and move those of us who read them -- can bend, and even break, the rules.

Why? Because they have demonstrated their knowledge of the rules of grammar and mechanics, they typically followed them for many years themselves, they now know what effect will be created by the breaking of a rule, and they want to achieve that effect.

Not convinced?

Think back to your first day in a chemistry class, or, if you're like me and never (thank goodness) took one, imagine that scene.

On that first day, did the instructor unlock the cabinets in which all the chemicals and beakers and test tubes were stored and call out with glee, "Go for it! Have fun!"?

Of course not. They knew, hopefully not from experience, that the result might very well be a blown up table, at the very least.

Instead, you weren't allowed to touch anything but your textbook, notebook, and pen/pencil for a couple of weeks, until you knew about various chemical properties (or something like that -- I have to admit that chemistry terminology is beyond me) and the rules for mixing, for example, an acid and a base. Only then were you allowed to actually work with the actual chemicals.

But, and here is the key, at least some of those once-novice chemistry students went on to break the rules. Individuals who followed the rules in high school chemistry class and who decided to continue those studies in college and grad school became scientists in laboratories across the country who violate the basic principles of chemistry that mere mortals (i.e. high school chemistry students) cannot.

They break them because they know the consequences of breaking them and, as a result, do so safely. They do so with the intent to create something -- a cure for leukemia or for Parkinsons or for Lou Gehrig's Disease, for example.

If those very-knowledgeable and skilled individuals never broke the rules of chemistry, new and wonderful things would never be invented.

And so it is with words and sentences. The rules must be followed until they are mastered and until the writer knows how to effectively break them to create something new and wonderful.

As a result, a skilled writer can pen, "But Mary's phobias kept her from exploring the world." to create some effect. They can even construct similar sentences on a fairly-regular basis as part of their writing style.

However, if a writer is not trying to create an effect and is simply writing sentences like that out of habit, they need to edit more carefully.

(Explanation: "And" is a conjunction; conjunctions join words and groups of words. If a conjunction is found at the beginning of a sentence, the words after it are not joined to anything and, typically, do not constitute an independent clause. Hence, a fragment. However, there are situations in which a sentence can begin with a conjunction, but that's a topic for another Tuesday.)

The internet is a wonderful tool, as are e-readers. However, the world is being flooded with poorly-written pieces by bloggers and fledgling writers.

I have my own opinion as to why that is happening, and I'll share that next Tuesday.

Of course, now that I've posted this, my own writing will no doubt be more-carefully scrutinized by anyone who stops by. That's okay. I know the rules, and I break some of them.

Deliberately. If you read much of what I write and if you know the rules of grammar and mechanics, you'll recognize those that I break as part of my own writing style.

Let me know if you do!

Just for fun, think of your favorite iconic writers. What "errors" do they make as part of their writing style? Share your response through a comment below.

Let's take a minute to be totally transparent. What are the mechanical and/or grammatical errors you tend to break (by accident) most often? Share via a comment below.







  1. I am a former English and ESL teacher, and I have a masters in TESOL. One of my favorite subjects is grammar. I used to make my students' papers bleed because I wanted them to learn to write well. I definitely notice grammatical mistakes, and I think it's good for a lot of writers who haven't been trained in grammar that there are editors who can help. Bloggers don't have that luxury, so they either have to learn it on their own or accept that their message might be lost by the way it is presented. The message is usually still clear with grammatical mistakes, but it's like somebody going to a job interview in overalls--it's distracting and unprofessional.

    However, I can usually tell when the author made a grammatical mistake on purpose to make a point and when they just didn't know the rule. You brought up the grammatical rule I now often break in my informal blog writing, which is starting a sentence with a coordinating conjunction, particularly the word "and". At first it used to be a little painful to do it, but I do it to emphasize what I'm saying, and it seems to do just that. At least, I hope it does!

  2. I break the same rule you do, but I probably use "but" more than "and" for some reason. I also string together fragments, like this 2nd sentence. He wrote his name on the wall. For no other reason than he wanted to; for no other reason than he could.

    Like you, I had a hard time breaking rules at first. I took a "Style in Writing" course when earning my Masters in Comp, and the professor, an instructor who is probably one of the best I've ever seen, took us through all sorts of activities to discover our own true style. We looked at the style of others, of course, but we used those to consider options, not to emulate.

    One thing he said that I still remember is that English teachers have the hardest time breaking out of the perfect-grammar/mechanics mode, which keeps them from developing their own personal voice. I think he was right. Of course, I still use correct grammar/mechanics when creating anything for my students. :)

  3. Actually, although we all learned it in school, CMOS says that there is "no historical or grammatical foundation" behind treating beginning a sentence with a conjunction as an error. It's not a technique you want to overuse, but it is a legitimate grammatical foundation. But (see what I did there?) as you said, there is value in learning when to obey the rules and when to break them. Good writers know how to make the rules work for them.

  4. Great discussion, Patti. After teaching English for 22 years, I share your frustration...and also recognize the art of breaking the rules. I teach honors seniors, and while I still teach/reinforce grammar rules, I also teach them how to break the rules by sharing writing from authors who do it well. It really helps them develop their voice and writing style.

  5. I'm not sure what CMOS is.

  6. When I taught honors English in high school, I loved doing that. I so wish I could do that in my present job, but the vast majority of my students struggle with writing sentences and paragraphs so . . . Maybe someday again!