Both writers and readers have rules in their heads about the “right” and “wrong” way books should be done. We all learn the official rules for English when we study the language, but are they really rules, or are they more like tools? There’s a difference. Rules are meant to make sure things are done “correctly”. They are inflexible. Tools are mean to help you achieve a goal, even when you have to think outside the box on how to use them. Even English breaks it’s own rules—repeatedly. “‘I’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c'” … and when you have words like “protein”. Is it really a cardinal sin to break the rules? And where do these rules come from anyway?
Writers, beware of whose advice you listen to and how seriously you take it. I’m going to share three experiences that have taught me tools are better than rules. This is the first part of a three-part series of articles from me.
GRAMMAR AS A TOOL
Grammar rules are undeniably “The Rules” you must know when writing. Right? Well, yes and no.
Yes, you do need good grammar, or you will look inept as a writer. But when asked about grammar issues, many writers and editors will add something like, “Yes, well, The Chicago Manual of Style is technically the authority on English grammar.” Really? Because there are also handbooks by the Modern Language Association and the Associated Press, among others. And each of these handbooks has slightly different standards. In addition to that, each publishing house has different standards. And some industry standards aren’t even standard according to standards; they’re just sort of traditional practices that go unchallenged, like removing spaces to squeeze words into tiny little columns for the sake of thrifty word count in periodicals. And then if you ask individual authors how to “correctly” do something, you’ll get even more different answers because authors tend to cherry pick what they like according to their own style preferences.
Even according to “The Rules” there are several situations in which using a comma, or not, is optional. Use a comma to separate two independent clauses … unless they’re short. Use a comma for introductory and end words and phrases, or not. Use a comma to separate items in a series … but it’s okay to leave off the last one because of the conjunction “and” … sometimes. In my experience, if it’s left optional in a few places, people tend to assume it’s optional in a lot of places. And I think this is why so many people place commas were they would “take a breath”, rather than trying to make sense of fickle grammar rules.
Oh, and let’s not forget there are differences between American English and British English. (Does punctuation go inside or outside of the quotation marks? American English is simple, but British English is logical.) There are differences between archaic English and Modern English. (“Who” or “Whom”? Nobody really says “whom” anymore, do they? And what about those dangling prepositions that are completely acceptable now in speech and modern fiction, yet old grammar insists that they always be paired with their objects?) And there are even differences between one generation of writers and the ones that follow them. (Did you know that the reason older generations double-space between sentences dates back to the vintage printing press because some character keys were too fragile and small to withstand the pressure? Modern printers don’t need physical support for period keys, but tell that to the generations who had it pounded into their heads that you always double-space between sentences on typewriters.) With all these differences, how in the world can writers be expected to follow “The Rules”? I recently did research into the “correct” way to write ellipses and dashes. But what I discovered was maddening. Each handbook, publisher, and writer has his—or her — own way of… doing … these . . . things! They’re all correct, depending on whom you ask.
One of my most unusual grammar dilemmas came when I was trying to figure out how to distinguish telepathic dialog from normal dialog. I didn’t want to use just italics because that was needed for foreign dialog and a character’s interior monologue. So, I looked up examples in books I owned, and I looked up advice from the Internet via various writers’ forums. I found out there are dozens of way to indicate telepathic dialog, none of which were taught to me in my English classes, and none of which looked quite like the others. I found out there are no rules regarding telepathic dialog, so it’s up to the author to make up her own rules as she goes along. ~I ended up doing this because I like the look of the tilde taking the place of the quotation marks.~ (Ah, yes, you just felt that thought seeping telepathically into your brain, didn’t you?)
But during that quest, I also found out that some writers absolutely despise foreign languages in fiction, and they advise avoiding it altogether. This is in addition to receiving a review once in which I was blasted for writing a short parody that included English and Japanese. I was called a moron because, “Nobody writes in two languages!” … Really? Hm, script writers for classic films like Tora! Tora! Tora! and modern TV series like Outlander got that all wrong, then. And I guess nobody informed Roddenberry or Tolkien about this “rule”, either. Not only did their stories include passages from foreign languages, their foreign languages were invented.
And this is just the tip of the iceburg on “acceptable” inconsistencies in the realm of grammar when it comes to good writing. We’re told we must have a subject and a verb to form complete sentences, but that rule is thrown out the window for stream of consciousness narratives. We are told under which conditions it is okay or necessary to capitalize letters, but NEVER capitalize every letter in a word … unless it is an abbreviation of a proper noun or an acronym. And yet I’m reading a book right now by a top writer and publisher that does just that. We are taught how to use semicolons, adverbs, and adjectives to make our writing richer and more advanced than “See Spot run.” But then celebrity authors come along and tell us semicolons are “transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing” (Kurt Vonnegut) and “the road to hell is paved with adverbs” (Stephen King). Simplify, simplify, simplify!
So, I mulled over all of this “advice” and came to one conclusion. You can’t please everyone. You’ll drive yourself mad if you try to. If there is one rule for fictional grammar that you must abide by it is this: be consistent. Don’t throw grammar to the wind because there’s a reason we have spaces, punctuation marks, spelling expectations, etc. The goal of any language is to build a bridge of communication between people, but if we all are inventing our own rules, we are more likely to miscommunicate. In creative writing, however, the universe will not break if one grammar-Nazi disagrees with another grammar-Nazi on how to punctuate something about which there are already multiple rules or no rules at all. So, know your rules, but whatever you choose to throw away or keep, be consistent about it.
Next time: tropes. Avoid tropes at all costs! Right? Why?