Even Rules of Grammar Are Meant to Be Broken

Recently I wrote an article about my dismay in reading material that shows a complete lack of knowledge or respect for basic grammar. One comment reminded me to remind you that even grammar rules are meant to be broken:

Comment:
In creative writing, my students start the semester by going old-school with Elements of Style. For each rule, we discuss the possibility of breaking it, and what that would mean about our writing. Breaking the “apostrophe to show possession” rule? Absolutely doesn’t make sense. Connotes idiocy (or immaturity as a writer, or laziness). Can we effectively use fragments or run-ons in our writing? Yes. When? It depends. For my students, they must convince me that every choice they make creates the best version of that story (or poem, or whatever). Now, in regular English classes, all Standard rules apply. Unless, by chance, your writing has VOICE.

My sophomores are reading Night right now, and Wiesel uses fragments in every chapter. Sometimes, one-line paragraphs. Is that writing grammatically correct? Meh, not really. Then why did Wiesel write it like that? Because Wiesel determined that as the best way to tell his story. And it works. It is beautiful, and it works.

I like this idea a lot. In fact, it sounds like a really fun class.

Knowing the rules of grammar doesn’t mean you can’t break them, it just means you need to know how to break them to have success.

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6 comments

  1. While we’re on the topic, some of my advanced CW students asked about using incorrect grammar IN DIALOGUE or first person POV. Using “they” for a singular pronoun, incorrect subject-verb agreement, etc., because in reality, that happens more often than this English teacher cares to note. In the literary agency and editing world, what’s the view on this?

  2. I’ve just finished reading, almost non-stop, “Dog Stars” and “The Painter” by Peter Heller and although I was aware of the imperfect grammar, it didn’t matter because it worked with both stories.

    This could be similar to jazz musicians creating original compositions that people really feel because it’s their style and passion that shines through the music, but only after those musicians have mastered the classical underpinnings of their instrument. The same could be said about visual artists such as Picasso, whose earlier works show his strong fundamental understanding of art.

    As a narrative non-fiction writer, I usually follow the rules, but in my creative writing – not so much….

  3. Missy suggests in first person breaking the rules might be acceptable. In my WIP, the narrator, in the early chapters, uses the phrase, “Me and Brandy,” because she’s fifteen and thinks this way. As the story unfolds, however, and she become less self-centered, it changes to “Brandy and I.”

    Acceptable?

  4. I think dialogue is where it’s easier and more acceptable to make grammar errors – because that’s how people speak. You couldn’t have all your characters breaking rules, but occasional or character specific errors certainly.

  5. I think a lot depends on the where, the when and the who.

    As Jearl say’s you won’t find many teens saying “my friends and I enjoyed a trip to the cinema” it’s more likely to be “Me and me mates went to see Star Wars”. Or, at least, that’s what the boys here would say, other places and girls, would still put themselves first but may use my and friends.

    Having said that how many people outside of my area know that the teenage boys say “me” (said mi) and not my? Is it common for all teenage boys? I don’t know and if not can I use it in a book even set in the correct area if anyone outside that area isn’t going to recognise it?

    As for the rest of the grammar rules, as I understand it they are there to make sure people understand what YOU want them to. So as long as your words still say the same and don’t become confusing because the comma is in the wrong place. Then does it matter?

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