Do We Have to Obey the Rules?

In my previous post I raised an important question: what should you do when there’s a gap between an English rule and the way people actually use our language?

The answer is to think about the group you belong to – or the group you want to belong to. In a professional situation, you’ll probably want to be a stickler. In a social situation, you might not adhere so strictly to the rules.

But today I’m going to dig deeper. I want to talk about taking risks – deliberately breaking the rules to bring freshness and vitality to your writing.

This is something you probably won’t want to do until you’ve established your chops as a writer. If I were starting out as a scholar, I’d be afraid to even split an infinitive (ha! I just did!). You don’t color outside the lines when you’re the new kid on the block.

But more than 35 years have passed since my first foray into Shaw scholarship. I’m getting tired of being a disembodied, wise voice. My latest article (already accepted for publication later this year) is a discussion of My Fair Lady – the musical version of Shaw’s wonderful play Pygmalion. I considered questions like “Would Shaw have approved of My Fair Lady? Is it a fair treatment of his original play? How has My Fair Lady affected Shaw scholarship?”

But I also included my own reactions to My Fair Lady, and I talked personally about one of the controversial themes in the play – the male-female power struggles between Henry Higgins and his gifted pupil, Eliza Doolittle.

Can academic writing ever cross the line into personal writing? I would argue that it has to cross that bridge – even if we’re careful to avoid the words I and me. Our thoughts and experiences shape every word we write, no matter how hard we try to avoid them. Even the choice of a subject to write about is personal.

I’m going to rest my case by inviting you to read one of the greatest essays ever written about Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It’s called “Hamlet: The Prince or the Poem?” and the author is the great literary critic C.S. Lewis. This excerpt from his essay gives me chills every time I read it:

I would not cross the room to meet Hamlet. It would never be necessary. He is always where I am. 

(I’m pausing for a moment to enjoy those shivers going down my spine.)

And now – just for the heck of it – I’m going to swerve away from my main theme to make two more points:

  1. The only Latin word in Lewis’s three sentences is “necessary.” Everything else is ordinary English – proof that you can write brilliantly without having to resort to pompous words.
  2. I just ran Lewis’s three sentences through two readability formulas. The results? Second and fourth grade.

Hmmm. Maybe we don’t have to worry so much about respecting that gap between personal writing and serious writing. Something to think about!

A "mind the gap" warning on a subway platform


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