Sunday, February 24, 2013

Rules of Grammarization

[Let me point out that this post actually has nothing to do with "grammarization." I actually made up a word to go in that spot that was supposed to be a play off of another word, but, when I looked it up (just to be sure), it meant something... well, it meant something that has nothing to do with any of this. "Grammarization" was the best substitute I could think of, and, at least, it has to do with grammar.]

Some of you newer people may not know about the rep I've developed with grammar, especially commas. I'm like the comma police or something, or so people seem to think. But, you know, one thing is true: I do think rules are important, especially when it comes to grammar. How we speak and what we type say so much about us. And it may not be what we're trying to say. But people make decisions about the kind of person they think we are based upon our ability to communicate. It may not be fair, but that's how it is. [In fact, I just saw a survey, recently, showing that grammar is the #2 thing that people use to evaluate a potential partner (after teeth). At least, on paper it is.]  So I think it's especially important for writers to know the rules. [If you don't, learn them, or, at least, get someone that does (know them) to help you make your manuscript look like you do.]

But all of this gets kind of sticky. Why should we, any of us, follow the rules? Aren't they there to be broken? To be ignored? Aren't they all subjective anyway?
Not really, no.

I'm gonna bring Picasso back up (not for the last time). The reason he was able to "break the rules" of painting is that he had mastered them. He was possibly the greatest classical painter of his day, but painting the way everyone else painted didn't interest him, so he explored new territory. He broke the rules. It was only possible because he knew them so well.

What it comes down to is how on purpose your disregard for the rules is. So, on the one hand, when we write, it may be okay to break some rules here and there, but, when we're breaking those rules on accident because we don't know the rule or don't know how to apply the rule, it makes us look amateurish at best. Haphazard. Inconsistent. On the other hand, when it's purposeful, it suddenly becomes artistic and meaningful.

One of the things I see most often is long, run on, sentence fragments. Yeah, that sounds oxymoronic, but it is what it is. I see it both in the manuscripts of the middle schoolers I teach, which is to be expected, and from adults, which shouldn't be happening. But it's easy to get lost in a long thought and forget to include a sentence. Let's try to put together an example:
"When I got up for school, brushing my teeth and eating breakfast, though I dropped toothpaste on my shirt and didn't notice and missed the bus when I went to change."
See, that looks like a run on sentence except that there isn't a sentence anywhere in there, so what you have is a string of fragments. I expect to deal with this kind of stuff with my creative writing class, but it's more than a little distressing to see it all over the blogs of (supposed) writers.

And don't even start me on commas.

Look, I know a lot of the rules are arbitrary and some of them are even kind of stupid. For instance, I was just reading last week about how the rule about splitting infinitives came into being, and it was, really, more like an misinterpretation than anything else. Some guy (no, I don't remember his name) was translating some Latin, and he realized that in Latin they don't split infinitives, so, he thought, we shouldn't either. The thing is, though, in Latin, the verb is always one word due to the way they conjugate, so you can't actually split an infinitive. Prior to that, splitting an infinitive, "to boldly go," was perfectly normal in English and in all of the Germanic languages. But, suddenly, this one guy decides it's wrong, and we've had this rule, now, for a few hundred years that no one can follow. Is it, "boldly, to go" or "to go boldly"? The problem is that "boldly" only modifies "go" not "to go," so only "to boldly go" sounds right.

And, yeah, I hear you all screaming about why, then, should we follow grammar rules?

I'm not saying that you should. Necessarily. If you know the rules and know how to use the rules, do whatever you want to with them. If you're just busy writing "like you talk" or saying "well, that's just the character's voice" just so that you don't need to bother to know the rules, well, then, the likelihood is that your writing is busy being juvenile, inconsistent, and, well, unreadable. Except by other people who can't tell the difference. At least, not on a conscious level. Meaning, they can't look at your writing and tell you what's wrong with it, but they may be able to set it against someone else's writing and say the other one is better.

To put it another way, hordes of people might like Twilight, because they can't evaluate the grammar (or the story), but people that know the rules tear it apart. The fact that Stephen King ripped Twilight a new one while praising Harry Potter ought to tell you something.

Anyway... All of that to say you need to learn your rules and, probably, you ought to be following them. Actually, it's kind of like driving. If I'm gonna get in a car with someone that's gonna speed, I want it to be a Nascar driver or a cop or someone that's had training and knows how to do it safely. I don't want it to be my college roommate who's doing it just to see how fast he can get the car to go (going over 100 mph isn't as fun as it sounds). All I have to say is that a lot of you (meaning no one in particular) need to slow down, maybe take some driving classes, and follow the rules of the road.

Now the disclaimer:
This post is sort of a prelude to a book review I have coming up. I don't want to spend the book review talking about rules and such, so this will be here to refer back to instead.


  1. I would not want to be the person receiving your next review.

  2. I started my Grammar Fridays mostly because I noticed that I have some grammar problems. But since I started them, I've become a comma monster myself. Especially when best-sellers come out with blantant comma mistakes. ARG!
    :) Yes, I think grammar rules can be altered... at times, they should be. But I think as writers (masters of words ;) ), it's important to try to at least know the rules.

    And now, you've found tons of mistakes in this small comment. *sigh* I didn't say I was good at it.

  3. If this is the prelude, the review must be ugly.

  4. I pity the poor sod who is getting reviewed after this.

    But you are right of course. You have to have a firm grasp of the rules before you can throw them out. It shows too, when someone does know and when someone is just ignorant of them.

  5. Uh oh, the comma police isn't coming after us, is it?

    Oh, and there's definitely a huge difference between artistic expression and just being too ignorant to learn the rules.

  6. I think that Briane Pagel is a perfect example of someone who knows how to break the rules. I love his extra long sentences that he has in some of his work.

    Oh boy...wondering what's gonna happen with that review you are going to post. I feel sorry for the fellow.

  7. I'd hate to be the person being reviewed for this. But yes, rules are very important.

  8. General response: I think everyone will be surprised. And, wow, I don't think I quite realized the rep I have.

    T.: Well... I don't generally look for mistakes in comments, but, yes, because you said it, I couldn't stop myself, and, yes, you have one of the most common errors in your comment (3 times, even).

    Anne: It does show. Unfortunately, it often only shows to people who know.

    ABftS: Not, yet, no. Do they need to come after you? :P

    Michael: There's no rule against long sentences. If you look at more classic writing, you will find that long sentences used to be the norm. Briane, with his love of the semi-colon, is kind of a throwback.

  9. Well, now I'm too nervous to write a response. I may never blog again. I hate commas. They are the bane of my writing existence. They live only to remind me of my own fallible nature. Blah. And, yeah, poor sod getting reviewed on live internet...

  10. L.G.: Is that why you took down the post you posted earlier? :P

  11. No, that was just a dumb post, as someone pointed out to me this morning. But it probably did have a mess of commas out of place. lol.

  12. L.G.: You deleted a post because it was dumb? But... But... I didn't get to see it! :(

  13. Yes, the rules are important! It's how we can communicate clearly. Without them, all we have is Twilight...

  14. Jeanne: LOL! That may be the best comment ever. Of course, I know a group that would kick you out for saying that...

  15. I'm a grammar nut, probably from all the copyediting I did in college. Problem is these days I feel a little shaky, since it's been a while, and I find myself googling rules I used to know so well. I'm a little ocd so this sort of thing probably drives me more crazy then most

  16. Winopants: I google rules all the time anyway. Especially if it's something I'm going to talk about. I want to make sure I have my wording correct or whatever.

  17. I've always been a big fan of rules. And I read this post yesterday and wrote, no kidding, something like a thousand word response... but then I realized I should be writing with some sort of point in mind. So I decided to try it again later when I got home from work.

    Then I was home and, well, it didn't happen. So to recap, my previous response was a beautiful analogy to being a musician, and how a determined performer can mask their lack of technique or deeper knowledge of theory if they select, carefully, the music they choose to put in front of people.

    I don't know, can you just insert something brilliant in your head that touches on that topic and then ties it to writing? I know this isn't the first time I've done that, but if you've been following my instructions correctly, you would have forgotten that I've asked you to do that in the past and just remember all the brilliant things I've said.

    That way, every time I ask you to do this, it's like the first time.

  18. Rusty: That's true. Music makes a really good analogy. It might even work better than Picasso, but I like using Picasso because of the influence he had. However, jazz is one of those things that happens from playing around with the rules. But only because you know them.