Learn the rules, THEN break them

I’m sure you’ve seen this before. “You can’t break the rules well until you know what the rules are” and other variations to the same effect.  (That’s a fragment, and it’s intentional.) What’s the deal with that, anyway? Why bother to learn them to break them?

Because, folks, if you don’t know what the rules are to start with, you won’t be breaking them as much as you’ll be writing badly. Think about any art medium: clay, paint, metal, paper. If you don’t know what you’re doing, your work is likely to be amateurish at best, and garbage at worst. You don’t know how to use the medium effectively (some might say “correctly”), so your results are substandard.

It’s the same with writing and editing. Yes, editing. Every kind of writing and editing has its own set of rules and guidelines, and they need to be learned before they can be effectively ignored, bent, or broken.

As Roy Peter Clark says in The Glamour of Grammar: “Make sure you can identify common mistakes. You can’t break a rule and turn it into a tool unless you know it’s a rule in the first place.”

My use of a fragment back there at the start is an example of using rule-breaking as a tool. Sure, I could change that period to a colon, but I don’t want to. I want that fragment.  Don’t be fooled into thinking it’s an independent clause. It isn’t. If you don’t understand why that’s true, you have some studying to do. (Yes, I used to teach English at the middle-school level. I nearly went to Japan to teach it as a second language. I have reasons for doing what I do.)*

As a fiction editor, I work with a lot of rule-breakers. I break a few myself in some of my suggested edits. There’s a different set of them at play in fiction than in, say, academic editing or medical editing. And guess what? Register plays a huge part in it, too. The expectations of the language’s formality makes an enormous difference in what can be gotten away with.

Remember: it’s not an editor’s job to teach you English grammar. It’s their job to help you polish your writing, to help you achieve your objectives. If you’re still struggling with the basics, you’re not ready to move on. Harsh words, perhaps, but true ones–ones that will help you become the writer you want to be.

*Why is it a fragment? Because that whole thing taken as a unit is only a complex subject. There’s no verb to the thought. The verbs are in the quote, and they don’t apply to the phrase that follows “and.” Here’s another way to look at it: it’s grammatically the same as saying “this thing and that thing.” What about them? There’s no verb. And that’s the reason I wanted the fragment: as a teaching tool.

Intimate Register in the Real World

In my ongoing efforts to bring the various registers of English to light, so that writers, editors, and readers may make use of the knowledge and understanding, I’m linking to a thread from Iva Cheung that quite literally exploded on Twitter over the last couple of days, including being picked up by Buzzfeed. (How exploded did it get? She hit her tweet limit. There is one.)

Here are dozens upon dozens of terms from people’s familiolects (words they use only with their family members, or “intimate register”) for people, places, things, actions … all kinds of words for all kinds of situations.

I love that so many of them come from toddlers’ mispronunciations.

Sing a song of Phrase Finder

Just a few moments ago I used the phrase “Katy bar the door” in a tweet to a colleague, and no sooner had I sent it than I said to myself, “Now where did that come from?”

Not as in “Why did I say that?” I knew why I said it. It was appropriate for the moment, topic, and audience (REGISTER!), and it provided the touch of levity I was after in the context of the brief conversation. It’s a phrase I’ve known since I was a child.

No, I wanted to know where it came from. Its origin. And for that kind of question, my favorite website, hands down, is Phrase Finder.

I’m not going to bore you with the origin of the phrase I used (even though Dante Rosetti plays a part, as do a poem from James Whitcomb Riley and a Scottish folk song). It’s easy enough for you, if you really want to know, to click that link and find out for yourself.

Just don’t blame me when you look at the time and realize you forgot to feed yourself, your dog, the hamster …

What do you mean by “careful?”

Last week I saw a post from Grammarly that asked the question “Have you become more or less careful with your writing?” (That’s the gist. I don’t recall if there was a time span mentioned, nor does it really matter.) My first thought was: That all depends on what you mean by “careful.” Continue reading “What do you mean by “careful?””

Book Discussion: Accidence Will Happen, by Oliver Kamm

Right off the bat, let me say that there isn’t a typographical error in the title. I wager most of this blog’s followers know that, but some might not. My college-student stepdaughter winced when she saw my copy of this lying on the table, and said, “That typo on the cover, though.” I set her straight immediately.

Accidence is that portion of grammar that deals with inflection. Inflection is the way a word changes to denote a specific grammatical category. For example: “Sang” is the past tense of “sing.” We know that because it changes form. It changes again for the past participle “sung.” Of course, that’s an irregular form. The same process happens with regular verbs, like talk/talked/talked, but by adding a suffix instead of altering the spelling of the root form. It happens with nouns, too: cat/cats, goose/geese. Now you know, if you didn’t before.

Now that I’ve concluded the brief grammar lesson, on to the discussion. Continue reading “Book Discussion: Accidence Will Happen, by Oliver Kamm”