To break [rules] well, we must first learn to master them. (Scott Norton, Developmental Editing: A Handbook for Freelancers, Authors, and Publishers, p. 4)
Sorry, Scott, but I’m a rule follower when it comes to, say, the who/whom issue; where to place only, both–and, and either–or in a sentence; and writing “between you and me” instead of “between you and I.”
In fact – as those of you who read my blog regularly will attest – I’m an advocate of following grammar rules.
But what’s a girl to do when Merriam-Webster changes the rules?
The case for breaking grammar rules
Common sense (almost) always trumps the rules; you cannot go blindly into grammar-rule land without breaking the law sometimes. Why, you ask?
Because the most important thing for a writer is to serve the reader. Therefore, when breaking a grammar rule will help the reader understand your writing, then by all means break it.
Just one little-bitty problem: You can’t hope to break grammar rules unless and until you learn them.
Don’t believe me? Read this brilliant article by Bryan A. Garner, he of Garner’s Modern English Usage. Garner is the Fowler of the United States. He even wrote a large chunk of The Chicago Manual of Style.
Last year, I came across this article on the Merriam-Webster website, that august arbiter of spelling and grammar rules (according to the Merriam-Webster website). The article discusses five writing rules you are allowed to ignore nowadays.
I don’t agree with everything said in the article. And strangely, by debunking grammar rules, its author perforce made up new ones. This leads me to believe all the more strongly: Don’t rely solely on gurus. Use your common sense.
Here are the five rules Merriam-Webster no longer agrees with:
Don’t use adverbs
Never use passive voice
Use only said in dialogue
Omit needless words
Do not use colloquial language
Let’s explore each one of these now-debunked rules.
1. Don’t use adverbs
I do agree with this piece of advice, but I also believe in balance and logic. For instance, you could write:
No one is loyal to their employer nowadays; employees wander from one corporation to another, ready to jump ship anytime they’re offered another few thousand dollars.
Not bad, if I do say so myself. But what if you wrote:
When it comes to employee loyalty, workers behave peripatetically; no corporation is sacred.
Furthermore, if one’s loud laugh was not the point of the story and you had to get the information out as quickly and concisely as possible, would you want to write “His laugh reverberated in our eardrums, causing temporary deafness” or “He laughed loudly.”? (Or perhaps, “He cachinnated.”)
2. Never use passive voice
Although in general you should use active voice, sometimes you need the passive, as using the active would sound stupid:
Nike has brought this commercial to you.
The travel bug bit Ellen.
Sometimes, keeping in mind who or what is the “star” of the sentence can help you decide whether to use the active or the passive voice. For instance, the second sentence, above, is about Ellen and not her travel bug, so it would be best to make her the subject: “Ellen was bit by the travel bug.”
Here are two sentences I found on the University of Toronto’s “Writing Advice” site:
“The sodium hydroxide was dissolved in water. This solution was then titrated with hydrochloric acid.”
Let’s put these sentences into active voice and see if they work:
“Water dissolved the sodium hydroxide. Hydrochloric acid then titrated the solution.”
Not only does it sound weird, it’s probably scientifically incorrect .
3. Use only “said” in dialogue
Use your common sense with this one. Occasionally using a dialogue tag other than said can make for a richer reading experience, and can help you express yourself more precisely (did you notice how the adverb precisely helped you understand my point more precisely?).
Sometimes (BTW, sometimes is usually an adverb), there simply isn’t time for you to Show; it’s easier to Tell readers the mood, tone, or situation with a dialogue tag:
“Get me out of here!” he rasped.
In my opinion, this is a much better sentence than
“Get me out of here!” he said in a strangled voice.
On the other hand, if you used a different dialogue tag each time someone spoke, it would get weary for the reader:
“Where are you,” she asked.
“None of your business,” he replied.
“Yes, it is my business; I’m your mother,” she said.
“But I’m 37 years old,” he persisted.
“Tell me whom you had dinner with,” she probed.
“You’re very nosy,” he remarked.
4. Omit needless words
Sorry, but this one stands. Here’s a handy chart with examples from my own clients and possible fixes. (I’ve changed the words and subject matter to protect the authors’ anonymity, but the basic sentence structure is the same.):
Unless you’re Dostoyevsky, have a little respect for your reader’s time and intelligence, and make your prose as tight as possible. You can still be as creative and descriptive as you want.
For more on omitting needless words – plus more examples – see this previous post of mine. (And coming soon: a new post on writing mistakes, including being too wordy.)
5. Do not use colloquial language
I actually agree with this one in principle. I find the [bad] use of colloquial language – and I include dialect in this – at best embarrassing and at worst insulting.
In terms of slang, I’d caution you too, not only because it sounds weird and presumptuous if you don’t get it right but, as The Elements of Style cautions, “By the time this paragraph sees print, uptight, ripoff…vibes, copout, and funky will be the words of yesteryear.”
Here are a few more gems from The Elements of Style relevant to the use of colloquial language (summed up by me):
- If you must use a colloquialism, just use it without drawing attention to it with quotation marks or italics.
- Do not use dialect unless your ear is good, and be consistent with it.
- No idiom is taboo, no accent forbidden; there is simply a better chance of doing well if the writer holds a steady course.
Bonus piece of advice from George Carlin
The late, great comedian George Carlin said that when you’re imitating someone, instead of worrying about getting the voice right, concentrate on the content that would fit the person you’re imitating. With Ed Sullivan (remember him?), for example, parody the acts that played on his show instead of trying to get Ed’s accent right.
The same holds true for dialect and colloquialisms: don’t worry about getting the 2018 teenager right; just Show us the attitude and behavior. And unless you’re sixteen, don’t use words like twee.
So what do you think? Do you agree with Merriam-Webster? Why or why not? Should language change with the times, or should it be monolithic? And what other grammar “rules” would you like to see changed?
Let me know what you think in the Comments, below. And…
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