Fake Rules

Mary Ann de Stefano has an article in the current issue of The Florida Writer entitled “Fake Rules and What Really Matters”.  She begins by saying, “Many of those so-called grammar and punctuation rules that people are pushing in online forums are not really rules at all. (No matter what your high school English teacher told you.)”  The article is light-hearted and I quote from it here.

Ms de Stefano is an independent editor with over 30 years of experience in publishing and consulting.  She works one-on-one with writers, organises writing workshops and designs author websites.

Mary Ann de Stefano

“If writers are not debating about the serial comma and the number of spaces after a period in online discussions, they’re often railing against the use of the ‘singular they’ in modern usage.  (The serial comma is a comma placed before a conjunction – usually ‘and’ or ‘or’ – in a list of three or more items.  For my part, I use serial commas and two spaces after the end of a sentence, although my publisher doesn’t approve of the latter.)  Critics say that ‘Somebody used the milk and they didn’t put it back in the refrigerator’, should be written, they say, as, ‘Somebody used the milk and he or she didn’t put it back in the refrigerator.’  The former construction, they say – even though it is less awkward and perfectly understandable – is evidence of a decline in our educational system.  But the fact is that the singular they has been used for hundreds of years by the likes of Chaucer, Lewis Carroll, Walt Whitman, Shakespeare, Jane Austin, Oscar Wilde, and many more famous authors.  You may not like the singular they, but it is not wrong to use it, except, perhaps, in formal writing.

“Another tenaciously fake rule is the one about not ending a sentence with a preposition.  Following the fake rule can often result in sentences that are stilted or awkward.  There is no rule which compels you to write: ‘She asked him from where he had come’, rather than the more natural ‘She asked him where he had come from’.  Feel free to end a sentence with a preposition; famous writers have been doing it for hundreds of years.”

This discussion reminds me of a joke I like.  A shabbily dressed red neck is visiting the Harvard University campus, and he stops a distinguished, well-dressed professor to ask. ‘Where is the library at?’  To this the professor responds, ‘Don’t you know, my good man, not to end a sentence with a preposition?”  And the red neck says, ‘Oh, sorry.  Where is the library at, idiot?’

Ms de Stefano continues: “While you’re at it, split an infinitive and start a sentence or two with a conjunction.  But don’t just do it to thumb your nose at the prescriptivists.  Do it thoughtfully and for a reason. (A split infinitive is the insertion of an adverb or an adverbial phrase between ‘to’ and the verb: for example ‘to quickly go’.  Wikipedia says: “The construction is to some extent still the subject of disagreement but modern English usage guides have dropped the objection to it.”

Ms de Stefano concludes: “Perhaps the desire to lean on the rules is an attempt to grasp into certainty within a process – writing – that is inherently uncertain.  But here’s what really matters: Great writing doesn’t happen just because what you’re doing what is ‘correct’.  Great writing happens because you’re being very conscious and deliberate about the choices you’re making as a writer and how those choices will affect your reader.  I think, perhaps, we talk too much about the rules, about correctness, and to little about style and artistic expression.  Learn the rules, yes.  But also think about how employing them or breaking them might affect the clarity, grace, pacing, tone, voice and meaning in your writing.”


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