In my last post we discussed the 5 grammar rules that Merriam-Webster decreed we’re allowed to break.
But what if you absolutely must break a grammar rule – or, for that matter, any writing rule – in order to serve your readers’ best interests?
In this post I’ll be exploring some authors who broke the rules, and why what they did absolutely works.
And to whom we’re all indebted for their magnificent prose.
A review of the rules
- Don’t use adverbs
- Never use passive voice
- Use only said in dialogue
- Omit needless words
- Do not use colloquial language
The following is a passage from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novella, The Valley of Fear:
“I am inclined to think—” said I.
“I should do so,” Sherlock Holmes remarked impatiently.
I believe that I am one of the most long-suffering of mortals; but I will admit that I was annoyed at the sardonic interruption. “Really, Holmes,” said I severely, “you are a little trying at times.”
No doubt you’ve noticed that Conan Doyle violated grammar rules 1, 3, and 4. He also did a lot of Tell.
Here’s how the novella might have opened had he followed the rules:
“I am inclined to think—” said I.
“I should do so,” Sherlock Holmes said.
I am pretty patient, but I was annoyed at the interruption. “Really, Holmes,” said I, “you are sometimes difficult.”
What do you think? At best, my version lacks color. At worst, well, it might have just ended up in the slush pile. Here are a few more issues Conan Doyle would have come up against if he paid heed to all the rules all the time:
- Anyone who’s read Sherlock Holmes knows that terse, sarcastic language is an integral part of his character. Thus, if Conan Doyle didn’t allow himself to use adverbs such as impatiently,” he would have had to write something like, “Well, then, man, do so!” which would have been totally out of character for Holmes.
- The verb “remarked” is certainly better that “said” when Holmes speaks impatiently and sarcastically. Subtle verb choices can describe a character quickly and concisely.
- If Conan Doyle had written the third paragraph the way I rewrote it, he wouldn’t have violated the “needless words” rule. However, the phrases “I believe that” and “I’ll admit that,” along with Watson’s use of understatement, highlight his humility.
- The words sardonic, severely, and a little add color and character to Watson’s conversation.
Conan Doyle also broke rule #5 in The Valley of Fear:
“You are developing a certain unexpected vein of pawky humour, Watson…”
Pawky means “matter-of-factly humorous,” but wouldn’t it sound strange for Holmes to say, “You are developing a certain unexpected vein of matter-of-factly humourous humour, Watson”? Or even “matter-of-fact humor”?
O. Henry is another rule-breaker. His prose is filled with colloquialisms, and he has an amazing ear for dialect. But if he decided to follow the rules and omit colloquialisms, what fun would his stories be?
Take this passage from “The Handbook of Hymen”:
I never exactly heard sour milk dropping out of a balloon on the bottom of a tin pan, but I have an idea it would be music of the spears compared to this attenuated stream of asphyxiated thought that emanates out of your organs of conversation. The kind of half-masticated noises that you emit every day puts me in mind of a cow’s cud, only she’s lady enough to keep hers to herself, and you ain’t.
Imagine what it would be like to read this instead:
I’m so sick of your constant chatter; you don’t stop talking all day. Even listening to water drip into a pan would be better than listening to you.
O. Henry’s brilliant piece of colloquial dialogue not only gets the point across, it describes the personality, education, and present situation of the character better than any Telling can.
Foer, the author of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Everything is Illuminated, is a classic rule-breaker whose prose simply works. He experiments with words, structure, punctuation, dialogue, dialect, and plot. Here’s an excerpt from his latest novel, Here I Am, where he writes one of the world’s longest sentence since James Joyce’s Ulysses. It is describing the new house a suddenly single husband and father has just moved into:
It was a nice, if slightly less nice, version of his old house: slightly lower ceilings; slightly less old and less wide planked floors; a kitchen with hardware that if it was called bespoke was called that by Home Depot; a bathtub that probably leached BPA, and was probably from Home Depot, but held water; melamine closets with nearly level shelves that performed their function and were nice enough; a faint, not-pleasant attic smell filling the atticless house; Home Depot doorknobs; middle-aged, rotting sub-Marvin windows that served as visual thresholds rather than as barriers against the elements or sound; walls wavy with uncharming trapped moisture; ominous peeling at the corners; subtly sadistic wall colors; unflush light switch plates; a faux-porcelain Home Depot vanity with wood-grained melamine drawers, in a bathroom the color of discharge, whose toilet paper roll was out of reach of anyone who wasn’t imported from Africa to dunk without jumping; ominous separation everywhere: between the molding components, between the crown molding and the ceiling, the floor molding and the floor, separation of the sink from the wall, the mantel of the nonfunctioning fireplace from the wall, the unflush electrical plates from the wall, the doorframes from the wall, and more-plastic-than-plastic Home Depot rosettes from the jaundiced ceiling, the floorboards from one another.
Love, love, love this sentence. Why?
- Its run-on nature conveys precisely Jacob, the protagonist’s, disorganized inner and outer world.
- It’s messy and all the elements run into each other, as every component of Jacob’s life is smashing one against the other.
- The recurring word slightly conveys how things are supposed to stay “normal” for Jacob’s kids, but something is a bit off.
- There are many contrasts to Show the house’s ugliness and fake furnishings, betraying the reality behind the upbeat front Jacob and his soon-to-be ex-wife are trying to show the kids (bespoke-Home Depot, faux-porcelain, sadistic-wall colors, non-functioning – fireplace, jaundiced-ceiling).
- The word separation means more than merely a poorly built house.
Would this work all through the book? Probably not. Could you get away with it sometimes? Probably.
You must know the “rules of engagement” first: proper sentence and paragraph structure, grammar, Show, Tell, plot or narrative structure etc.
Rules you can never break
You can occasionally break grammar rules, but you can NEVER break the following rules, which are:
- Your writing has to make sense even if the whole point is that it’s not supposed to make sense (the senselessness must make sense).
- You can’t break the rules as an excuse for pretentious, “artiste”-type writing.
- You can’t break the rules as an excuse for laziness, e.g., using an adverb because you can’t be bothered to Show.
Bottom line: Serve your readers.
Serve your readers.
Serve your readers.
Let me know in the Comments which other grammar rules famous authors have broken; I’d love to see examples, too!
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