Grammar Rules – and when to break them

As many of you know, in my day job, I’m an editor. Yes, I’m that evil person who tells you where to put your Oxford commas and how to correctly use their/they’re/there. There are rules for grammar and The Chicago Manual of Style is an expert at giving us these rules. But, as in most things, there are times when rules are made to be broken. This is especially true in fiction writing.

When I do an edit for an author, I rarely change anything outright (re: incorrect usage of their/they’re/there and other homonyms), but I make suggestions for the author to use as he or she sees fit. For instance:

Sentence fragments: This often happens when you start a sentence with a conjunction (and, but, etc.). But why not do this? It’s a purist thing. The “But” sentence I used here could just as easily be written as “Why not do this?”. Unfortunately, that’s not the way most people talk. People speak in fragments all the time. I wouldn’t advise writing this way in a formal essay or something for a grammar class, but using them in a popular fiction novel? Go ahead. It makes the reading flow better and is more understandable than formal writing. But… don’t use them all the time. Sprinkle a few in here and there for emphasis or dialogue, just don’t have every sentence be a fragment. Then it becomes the problem instead of a solution.

Ending a sentence with a preposition: Again, why not? This rule originally comes from Latin construction but we’re not talking Latin. We’re writing plain English and that is an entirely different kettle of fish. Forcing us to move words around so there’s no preposition on the end of a sentence makes the writing sound stilted and way too formal. Go ahead and end it with one. I give you permission to do so. But… if you can reword it differently as in: That’s something I won’t put up with. vs. I won’t put up with that. Go for the clarity and brevity unless you’re making a statement about the character.

Split infinitives: When I edit for these, most people say “huh?” What in the world is a split infinitive? It’s a two word phrase that expresses one thought, usually with the word “to” involved: to walk, to go, to see, to…whatever. A split infinitive occurs when you put another word–usually an adjective–between the two words: to boldly go; to quickly walk; to really see, etc. A purist will tell you that you should never split these two words. I say… maybe. Yes, sometimes you can reword the sentence: I wanted to really see him. vs. I really wanted to see him. And it works fine. But there are other times when moving the word messes with the meaning of the sentence and it just doesn’t sound as good: To boldly go where no one has gone before. vs. To go boldly where no one has gone before. While the second one is correct, it doesn’t have the same impact as the first one. So go ahead and split those infinitives if necessary. Just don’t do it all the time, please.

That vs. Who: True grammarians will know the difference between that and who: I’m going to see the man that/who gave me my dog. The correct usage is “who”: I’m going to see the man who gave me my dog. “That” is for things; “who” is for people. But… very few people use it correctly. I rarely edit a writer who has used this correctly. In dialogue, I might let it go because that’s how people talk (unfortunately), but in regular prose? Nope. This is one rule I do stick to.

There are a lot of other rules I can discuss, but we’ll stop with these for today. Just remember, kind of like the pirates in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies – “The code is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.” – substitute “rules” for code and you have it. Follow the rules when possible, but don’t be afraid to break them every now and then. Just be sure you have a good reason to. 😉



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