Breaking the Rules of Writing

Most of us grew up believing two things about language: 1.  It has rules and 2.  If you learn them, you’ll become a good writer.

At best that’s a half-truth.

Language is a social invention, not a scientific one. When you try to cram language into a systematic structure, you run into all kinds of difficulties. (Our wretched everyone = his or her rule is the result of one man’s attempt to do just that: Before Lindley Murray invented and marketed a rule about pronoun agreement, no one – not even good writers – bothered with it.)

Part of the problem is that some of the rules of writing we all learned simply don’t exist: No good writers obey them, and you won’t find them in any writing instruction books, no matter how hard you try. Want an example? Try finding the “Don’t start a sentence with but” rule in an English textbook. There’s no such thing.

I started thinking about this rules-that-don’t work phenomenon when a member of my writing group, Jane Brumbaugh, brought in an essay she’d written about helping to start a local library. When I read her opening sentence, my heart leaped with joy:

There was no library in Lake Alfred in 1961.

Simple enough. So why do I love that sentence, and…getting back to today’s topic…what rule does it break?

There’s a rule (Ha! I just broke it myself!) that you shouldn’t start a sentence with there is or there are because those are empty words. Instead you should start with something livelier.

But Jane’s wonderful sentence wouldn’t work if you wrote it differently. (I tried and gave up.)

Here’s what I love about what she wrote (besides the nice rhythm you feel when you read it): It sums up the rest of her essay. As soon as she tells you there was no library, you know that you’ll be getting the story of how the library was created. Not bad for a nine-word sentence.

Let’s try two more rules-that-don’t-always-work:

1.  The plural of fish is fish; the plural of deer is deer.

Not always. If you have several species of fish (or deer) (or some other animal), add an -s or -es for the plural.

For example, my husband and I have a fish tank that houses a zebra danio and three blind cave fish. They are fishes.

2.  Skip the “of” phrase when you’re choosing your verb.

Not always. Yes, that rule works fine with sentences like this one:

One of the women is writing a letter to President Obama. CORRECT

But the rule doesn’t work with a sentence like this one:

Margaret is one of the women who are writing a letter to President Obama. CORRECT

Here’s why: The sentence quickly stops being about Margaret and, instead, is about all the women writing the letters. (For an explanation, click here and read Rule 6.)

One more point: Usage rules won’t make you a great writer. You can always hire an editor to fix your pronouns and verbs. What makes a great writer is having something worth saying and the ability to get it across to your readers. What you say is far more important, at least in the beginning stages of writing, than how you say it.


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