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Three Writing Rules to Disregard

1 February 2019

From The Paris Review:

I have nothing against rules. They’re indispensable when playing Monopoly or gin rummy, and their observance can go a long way toward improving a ride on the subway. The rule of law? Big fan.

The English language, though, is not so easily ruled and regulated. It developed without codification, sucking up new constructions and vocabulary every time some foreigner set foot on the British Isles—­to say nothing of the mischief we Americans have wreaked on it these last few centuries—­and continues to evolve anarchically. It has, to my great dismay, no enforceable laws, much less someone to enforce the laws it doesn’t have.

Certain prose rules are essentially inarguable—­that a sentence’s subject and its verb should agree in number, for instance. Or that in a “not only x but y” construction, the x and the y must be parallel elements. Why? I suppose because they’re firmly entrenched, because no one cares to argue with them, and because they aid us in using our words to their preeminent purpose: to communicate clearly with our readers. Let’s call these reasons the Four C’s, shall we? Convention. Consensus. Clarity. Comprehension.

Also simply because, I swear to you, a well-­constructed sentence sounds better. Literally sounds better. One of the best ways to determine whether your prose is well ­constructed is to read it aloud. A sentence that can’t be readily voiced is a sentence that likely needs to be rewritten.

A good sentence, I find myself saying frequently, is one that the reader can follow from beginning to end, no matter how long it is, without having to double back in confusion because the writer misused or omitted a key piece of punctuation, chose a vague or misleading pronoun, or in some other way engaged in inadvertent misdirection. (If you want to puzzle your reader, that’s your own business.)

. . . .

But let’s, right now, attend to a few of what I think of as the Great Nonrules of the English Language. You’ve encountered all of these; likely you were taught them in school. I’d like you to free yourself of them.

. . . .

Why are they nonrules? So far as I’m concerned, because they’re largely unhelpful, pointlessly constricting, feckless, and useless. Also because they’re generally of dubious origin: devised out of thin air, then passed on till they’ve gained respectable solidity and, ultimately, have ossified.

. . . .

1. Never Begin a Sentence with “And” or “But.”

No, do begin a sentence with “And” or “But,” if it strikes your fancy to do so. Great writers do it all the time. As do even not necessarily great writers, like the person who has, so far in this essay, done it a few times and intends to do it a lot more.

But soft, as they used to say, here comes a caveat:

An “And” or a “But” (or a “For” or an “Or” or a “However” or a “Because,” to cite four other sentence starters one is often warned against) is not always the strongest beginning for a sentence, and making a relentless habit of using any of them palls quickly. You may find that you don’t need that “And” at all. You may find that your “And” or “But” sentence might easily attach to its predecessor sentence with either a comma or a semicolon. Take a good look, and give it a good think.

. . . .

2. Never Split an Infinitive.

To cite the most famous split infinitive of our era—­and everyone cites this bit from the original Star Trek TV series, so zero points to me for originality—­“To boldly go where no man has gone before.”

There’s much more—­much more—­one could say on the subject, but I don’t want to write about the nineteenth-­century textual critic Henry Alford any more than you want to read about the nineteenth-­century textual critic Henry Alford, so let’s leave it at this: A split infinitive, as we generally understand the term, is a “to [verb]” construction with an adverb stuck in the middle of it. In the Star Trek example, then, an unsplit infinitive version would be “Boldly to go where no man has gone before” or “To go boldly where no man has gone before.” If either of those sounds better to you, be my guest. To me they sound as if they were translated from the Vulcan.

Otherwise, let’s skip right to Raymond Chandler. Again, as with the Star Trek phrase, everyone loves to cite Chandler on this subject, but it’s for a God damn [sic] good reason. Chandler sent this note to the editor of The Atlantic Monthly in response to the copyediting of an article he’d written:

By the way, would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-­down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

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8 Comments to “Three Writing Rules to Disregard”

  1. Know the rules, understand the how and why of them, be one with the rules.

    Because only then will you know when, why and how to properly bend or break them. Like a bad pun written into a serious subject, your critics may never notice it while your readers chuckle at what you are doing.

    *

    He’s like a function — he returns a value, in the form of his opinion. It’s up to you to cast it into a void or not. — Phil Lapsley

  2. Ah, I wondered if this might be Dreyer. And, yes, I see why you find him fun, PG. Very entertaining. I like his sentiments about the anarchic development of English over the centuries.

    It has…no enforceable laws, much less someone to enforce the laws it doesn’t have.

    Yes! 😀

  3. And never use adverbs because they are adverbs. More important, Miss Landers and Stephen King said, “Never use adverbs.”

  4. like the way a Swiss waiter talks

    Now I wish to encounter a Swiss waiter, so I can know how they speak.

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