How to know which grammar rules to break

The idea that grammar rules are made to be broken is one of the deeper tropes of writing. And it’s a death trap for the unwary. It’s easy to say ‘well, I don’t need to know the rules’. Actually, you do, because breaking them is an art. Do it right, and you’ll give your writing an edge – ‘eyebrows’. Do it wrong and you’ll end up with a mess.

Aha - now I can stop the Plorg Monsters from taking Earth's water!
Grammar – as technically demanding as my slide-rule (and way less than my Surface Pro…)

There’s a balance between rule-breaking and rule-following. For instance, take the habit that’s leaked out from advertising of starting sentences with conjunctions. That’s OK, but only occasionally. Or the run-on sentence – the very long, very extended sentence that’s technically ‘wrong’ but can have great effect when used right. Despite a repute for writing only short sentences, Ernest Hemingway was a master of that one, using it as a device to convey a long train of thought. It worked because he used it only every so often. I like both techniques. Other writers may not.

The biggest issue is getting innovation past editors, for whom anything other than grammatically correct plod isn’t ‘innovative’ but ‘wrong’. I’ve had arguments like that with editors. One time, I wanted to end a chapter with an incomplete sentence, a sudden dash, for particular effect. It kept getting ‘corrected’ by the publisher. I’d put it back, and the next proof would arrive with it ‘corrected’ again. (A lot of this had to do with bloody-mindedness on the part of the production editor, who I refused to work with ever again…) I’m not alone in that. To this day I don’t know quite how Franz Kafka managed to omit commas without his editor putting them back in.

Part of the issue is that a surprising number of authors don’t have full control of the written word – stuff comes out in ways they didn’t intend and don’t know how to fix. That issue goes away with experience, but editors inevitably feel obliged to ‘fix’ everything they see on the back of it. This means that authors who DO have full conscious control of what they are writing, and are able to play with the medium, often end up having their innovations ‘corrected’ by editors. Sometimes, though, that’s necessary – because the author’s innovation is too weird to sell. Jack Kerouac discovered that when he submitted On The Road as a single giant paragraph – no breaks. None. Nada. Zip.

His publishers thought that would make the book too dense and daunting to sell. He lost the editorial fracas that followed, with the result that the edition I’ve got has the paragraph and chapter breaks the editor inserted. More recently it’s been published in original ‘scroll’ form; but that, I think, is because the book is so well known that it’s become possible to leverage the established appeal. As it stood, the original editor was quite right; the market wouldn’t have accepted it.

So – break grammar rules, by all means, but make sure that the reasons why you’ve broken them are clear. And that means following one rule, without fail: will the reader clearly get the meaning? That’s a very hard rule to implement – for the simple reason that you, as writer, know what you mean.

But it’s difficult to separate yourself from the expression of those thoughts and imagine how they’ll be received by a reader. I often find stuff I write is received very differently from what I intend, irrespective of the care I take over clarity.

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


8 thoughts on “How to know which grammar rules to break

  1. “I often find stuff I write is received very differently from what I intend, irrespective of the care I take over clarity.” True, but how much of this has to do with grammar, and how much of this is the reader’s interpretation?

    I’m not disagreeing with the importance of grammar here, and I think it’s probably the first, most important thing for writers to learn, but I think it’s impossible to ensure any one sentence will be understood completely by every one reader.

    I couldn’t agree more with your statement, “make sure that the reasons why you’ve broken them are clear.”

    1. I agree. Interpretation is different from grammar. That said, I think clarity of expression helps get the intended meaning across – and grammar is one of several tools that help clarity. A bit indirect, but it all adds up.

  2. I love my editor, but she did not understand the Spanish-American language of one of my characters. Instead of ‘went’ she used ‘go.’ After 2 tries, I finally changed the character and put in ‘went.’ It was a bit part, so it didn’t make much of a difference other than a change of voice.

  3. Exceptional post! I really enjoyed this one. I love reading Hemingway and looking for these little sentence length–stream of thought nuggets!

    1. Thanks. What I find intriguing about Hemingway is just how modern his styling is getting as time goes on – he really was ahead of the curve when it came to stripping down the writing.

  4. Your comment about commas struck a chord! I am currently finalizing book three in my series. The editor likes commas. She is American, I am Scottish and have lived in Australia for a l o n g time. We eventually worked out that we paused in different places. Now, I usually leave her commas in. She is, after all, the editor.

    1. It’s difficult sometimes. In theory, commas should be obvious from the phrasing. But in practise, it’s often moot – largely because, as you say, different variations of English put the pauses in different places. My favourite is the Oxford comma which can, or cannot, be put in or out. It depends…

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