“If you are willing to do something that might not work, you’re closer to being an artist.”
—Seth Godin

Why You Should Break Grammar Rules On Purpose

I’m very excited to introduce this guest post by C. Hope Clark. Hope is the wonderful editor of the popular resource, Funds for Writers. She has recently published a new mystery novel, Lowcountry Bribe. If you like mysteries, you’ll probably like Hope’s new book. I’ve heard good things. You can also check out her website at chopeclark.com. Thank you so much for joining us today, Hope!

Critique groups are banes or blessings, depending upon your experiences. I’ve endured both, but in the long run I consider a critique group an asset in a writer’s toolbox. They come with their good points and bad, their strong writers and weak, the arrogant and the fearful. And invariably you’ll find the one who deems himself the grammar police.

Grammar police

Photo by Vectorportal

He (or she) will don a green, red, or other colored pen and commence to circling passive voice, noting Oxford commas, crossing through the use of HAD and THAT, underscoring your split infinitives, and chastising you for beginning a sentence with AND or BUT. Heaven help you if you end a sentence with OF, TO or AT.

And invariably a writer will stand tall and profess that he writes from the soul, the heart, or some other part of their body, and that strict adherence to grammar rules handcuffs a creative spirit.

Grammar is Not a Cage

Pontificating about creativity is worthless if you don’t understand the structure of the English language. On the other hand, once you know it well, you can use your imagination to play those rules to your advantage in designing brilliant dialogue and narrative.

At a recent conference, I attended a basic writing class, thinking I’d relax between the sessions I was presenting, and would outline some blog ideas. Instead, I caught myself taking notes.

I learned that splitting infinitives was never taboo. You can end a sentence with a preposition. You can begin a sentence with a conjunction, and you are allowed to use double negatives. Since the Hemingway days, writing has become less personal, more communicative, and preferred in a crisper, clearer, more precise manner. Grammar is a framework for your writing, not a cage.

However, until you understand the ins and outs of grammar, you can’t manipulate it to your advantage. Lay your hands on a copy of The Chicago Manual of Style and keep it at the ready as you write.

Grammar Checklist

As I edit my manuscript drafts, I keep a list of words on a notepad. Some of these are my repetitious shortcomings, but others remind me of grammar rules. One I reach the end of a draft chapter I’ve reread painfully and thoroughly, I go back in a “search and find” mode to remind myself what may need attention. For instance, my current list contains:

Adverbs – just, suddenly, nearly, finally, now, very, almost, really
Telling Verbs – seemed, felt
Passive Verbs – is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been, has, have, had – the derivatives of TO BE and TO HAVE
Body References – look, stare, glare, breathe, breath, sigh, nod, shrug
Empty Words – some, almost, beginning to, began to
The Ambiguous Noun/Verbs – there is, there was, it is, it was, that is, that was

My repetitious words in the current book consist of – new, crap, traffic, arm, knew. This list will grow throughout the current novel, and the list in my next novel will contain different words. In amusement, I noted that the words PISS, HELL, and ATTITUDE appeared a few times too many.

Obviously, my protagonist has her hands full in book two of The Carolina Slade Mystery Series.

What words prevent your writing from shining its brightest?

PRACTICE

Choose a work-in-progress. Read only one page for fifteen minutes, solely to hunt for grammar issues.  Make a list of grammar and word weaknesses and post what surprised you most here.

About C. Hope Clark

C. Hope Clark. Hope is author of The Carolina Slade Mystery Series from Bell Bridge Books (Lowcountry Bribe, 2012 and Tidewater Murder, 2013 with Palmetto Poison due 2014). She is also founder and editor of FundsforWriters.com and its family of weekly newsletters. You can follow her on her blog, chopeclark.com or on Twitter (@hopeclark).

  • Purple, actually. That’s my pen-color of choice. I’ve had friends get stacks of critques back and in class eagerly flip through them saying, “I need to find the purple because I know Katie fixed my commas.” I am relaxing slightly in my old age. But not much because I work in academia.

    Katie

    • Hope Clark

      Katie
      The comma police person in my writing group uses green ink. *wink*

  • mlhatcher

    Whether it be good grammer or bad grammer, I am writing in the moment. I do the best I can to express what is going on as I experience the thought of the moment. I hope that made sense.

    • ml – your life is blessed with your writing, you are living, truly living in the moment and capturing it – well done – you

      • mlhatcher

        Thank you, I need all the support I can get.

  • I am old-school English grammar taught, 11 plus passed, Grammar School educated. I had relatives who would correct my spoken grammar – “Sean and I” not “me and Sean”. It was to be said in a plummy accent (English posh) which made my life in the poor end of town unbearable.

    My written grammar was scrutinised, essays were written based on my errors. I am sorry, American friends, but you really have no idea how high the bar was surrounded by copperplate handwriting books and old maiden Aunt teachers. Woe to me if I failed a spelling test – a little impromptu fun or used I’ve instead of the correct I have. Presents were given of Ronald Ridout’s grammar books, they thought, bless them, they were being hip.

    I have the rules in my head and I break them, in fact I don’t just break them – I smash them into a thousand smithereens. I love to use prose as poetry, it has to move in a rhythmic dance, and if it doesn’t, it ain’t my dance, my song, my revolution and it gets hacked to pieces.

    Grammar if it is broken, must be broken for a reason, (as above), or not at all.

    A dear friend of mine had to write a report on a conference. Every sentence began – ‘And then I went’. It was dire, it was so bad I couldn’t resurrect it for her and made up the conference report based on hearsay and the brochure. She got her promotion based on that work and we have a favour based relationship – I proof read and edit without mercy for her , she grooms my dog. Win-win.

    As an aside – it took my five goes at spelling hearsay, I don’t think I have ever written the word and for some reason I thought it was “heresay”, which spellchecker didn’t like, it preferred heresy! So maybe breaking the rules of grammar is grammatical heresy but I learned to spell a new word today!

    • Yvette Carol

      You rock on Suzie! 🙂

  • It always depends on my audience.

  • I spend the majority of my time deleting the word “that”.

    • Hope Clark

      James – mine is HAD.

  • pickypickypicky

    I’m not sure about breaking grammar rules but I do know a writer should be sure she knows the definition of a word before she uses it. “Don” means to put on, as clothes. It does not mean to pick up, as a pen.

    • Hope Clark

      Appropriate name, Picky. But I practically wear my pen, so maybe it’s applicable?

  • Carey Rowland

    The basic problem is that conversational English does not match up with classic literary English. Split infinitives are the most common incidence of this discrepancy.
    Does a writer want to identify with the man in the street, John Doe, by posing the question, “What’s the world coming to?” Or, does the writer want to satisfy the stodgy requirements of the (dead)King’s English?, by dutifully scribing this obsolete oddity: “To what is the world coming?”
    The other area of legibly persuasive communication that is often misunderstoood (or misused , depending on your point-of-view) is the predicateless statement, such as: “Been there, done that.”
    This phrase was popularized by a President of the United State, George H.W. Bush, because he wanted to make a statement as simply, as concisely, as possible to the American people. (God bless him.) Should he have declared, “I have been there; I have done that.” ?
    I don’t think so. He may have satisfied, by so stating, the requirements of his Yalie colleagues, but he would have thereby failed at really relating to the great huddled masses of his fellow-Americans who are yearning to be free. Grammarly oppression!
    Then there’s the problem of the comma versus the period when the writer (speaker) knows that there should be a conversational emphasis on what he has just expressed. The problem here is that the syntactical appendage at the end will reside in the sentence as just another syntactial component of the oh-so-properly-constructed sentence, diluting the dramatic impact of the statement. Boring!
    Grammatical liberation! That’s what the world needs. Right now!

    • Carey Rowland

      R u ready for it?

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  • Yvette Carol

    When editing my latest book I found I’d used the word ‘all’ endlessly! Not sure why or how that happened. But I’ve got to say, looking at that list given above of ‘the grammar checklist’, wow I felt like I’d put on a straitjacket! It was stifling. I mean, if you take out that entire list, is there anything left?

    • Hope Clark

      Oh my yes. There’s so much more and BETTER left to work with. When I write, sanitizing my bad habits, makes me think twice about leaving one of them in, say, per chapter. I have to find other means to make my point, and it makes my writing deeper.

      • Yvette Carol

        Hope, you’ve won me over. Perfect timing too, because I’m on the verge of major edits. I will apply these tips and see what unfolds….

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  • I overuse the word ‘but’. But I’m working on that.

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  • Derek

    The rules I personally use are:
    1) Clarity. If adhering to the rules of grammar make your writing appear confusing, then it’s okay to deviate from the rules.
    2) Flow. If your reader needs to decipher what you mean, then their attention is distracted from the content of your writing. This can be caused by spelling and grammatical errors, but can also be caused in cases where strict adherence to grammar makes a sentence more awkward.

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