Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Breaking the Rules of Grammar in a Good Way

By Jeremy Fordham

Grammar is an integral part of any language. Without it, words and phrases could be put together any which way, creating an indecipherable jumble that would make communication impossible. Likewise if grammar wasn't important, there wouldn't be a variety of Ph.D. programs, such as linguistics and English, devoted to the study of grammar and how it is applied in writing. Yet despite the numerous hours students in these fields spend diagramming sentences and learning proper punctuation, many may wonder if all grammatical rules are set in stone or if there are places in writing where it’s acceptable to break the rules in pursuit of style.

What is Grammar?

The idea of grammar can bring many things to mind: stringent rules from elementary school, a college professor who was too fond of his red pen or even old animated cartoons designed to teach kids the dos and don’ts of English. However at its core, grammar is what gives form and structure to words and sentences in a language.

In English, sentence structure is mostly static. Other languages may allow for a more flexible placement of words within sentences. Whatever the case, grammar makes it possible for people within a society to use one cohesive language to communicate with one another.

The Importance of Grammatical Rules

Many teachers of grammar tend to get hung up on semantics. Rather than focusing on providing a solid grammatical foundation for students to work with and learn from, some teachers and scholars spend their time arguing over things like the proper usage of “who” and “whom,” whether or not it’s okay to split infinities, and where best to place the elusive comma. Homing in on these rules takes the focus off what grammar really is and can frustrate budding writers to the point of giving up.

That said, grammatical rules exist for a reason. If there were no rules at all, anyone could put words together in whatever order they chose and language would lose its meaning. People would be unable to convey thoughts and ideas in a consistent manner. Without a basic set of structural guidelines to follow, the language holding a society together would crumble, likely taking the society with it. Modern civilizations rely on language; thus language relies on certain rules in order to serve its purpose.

Breaking Grammatical Rules for Style

So when is it all right to put aside the rules of grammar? Any writer trying to find his or her voice has grappled with this. There are instances when using “correct” grammar can actually make writing stiff and uncomfortable to read. That’s why writers of all genres have been bending, and indeed breaking, the rules of grammar for a long time. When what’s considered right in the grammatical sense doesn’t work in the stylistic sense, it can be beneficial to get a little creative.

The work of author Joseph Heller is a prime example of a writer throwing grammatical rules to the wind. In his novel “Something Happened,” Heller employs almost nothing but run-on sentences in a rambling, stream-of-consciousness style. One sentence, complete with parenthetical asides, may cover an entire page as the character’s mind makes connections between the reality of his present and the events from his past. In “Catch-22,” Heller makes liberal use of adverbs, blatantly ignoring a rule that many writers take to be set in stone. Instead of sounding like the work of an amateur, this stylistic choice winds up providing a constant rhythm that benefits the dark humor of the story.

Perhaps the most well-known disregard for grammatical rules lies in the poetry of E. E. Cummings. Cummings’ work makes sparse use of punctuation and often lacks standard capitalization. Basic rules of word order and logical breaks between phrases are absent in many of his poems. Some contain intentional misuse of punctuation, unusual hyphenated phrasing and unconventional structural patterns meant to create a picture for the reader. Rather than relying on the flow of the English language, Cummings made it flow the way he wanted in order to convey specific imagery.

Of course, each writer has his or her own unique voice. The best time to deviate from the rules of grammar differs from person to person and story to story. Technical or nonfiction writing may require more stringent adherence to grammatical rules, while works like poetry and children’s stories can afford to be more lax. Writers must choose what’s best for their work while keeping in mind that flexibility can be both freeing and beneficial.

Grammar Rules and Dialog

Dialogue is one place where strictly adhering to the rules of grammar can actually be a bad thing. The way a character speaks is a big part of how he or she comes across to readers. Dialogue should take on a life of its own depending on a character’s age, origin, personal background and even gender. Therefore grammatical rules are largely subjective when applied to patterns of speech.

Imagine a book in which every character spoke with precise, perfect grammar. No doubt this would feel unnaturally flat and rigid. Without some deviation from the rules, it would be impossible for a writer to use dialog to convey key information about the people in the book. Instead, it would be necessary to bog down the story with extra description and exposition, running the risk of boring readers or leaving them dissatisfied. The goal of dialogue is not to be perfect, but rather to draw people into a story and give them an opportunity to “get to know” the characters they’re reading about.

Basic grammatical concepts are essential for the formation of a language and its use in society. However, when it comes to writing styles, it isn’t always necessary to adhere to the rules associated with grammar. Being a little creative gives a unique feel to a writer’s work and offers freedom to experiment within the boundaries of a language.

Jeremy Fordham is an engineer who enjoys and encourages discussion at the boundaries of many different disciplines. He is a proponent of renewable energy and distance learning, and contributes as a writer to online resources promoting online Ph.D. programs.
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