Saturday, September 25, 2010

Rules of a different sort

Whoa, I actually have some time to myself today -- that means, while I'm eating my breakfast, I'm going to blog instead of work, before getting back to the packing (for my move to a new house, which I'll tell you all about later). For now, since we're on the subject of rules, I thought I'd share with you my thoughts on the rules of grammar.

They are rather elusive little buggers, the guidelines that define the structure of an English sentence. They constantly change with time. While some grammarians cling to time-honored rules with rigid desperation, others happily toss away traditions with alacrity.

And the poor pitiful students of English are caught in the middle, commanded by one style guide to do one thing, and by another to do another. A language expert may advise them to follow this rule and this rule and this rule, but ignore that rule as complete bunk. This is confusing and annoying, and, to illustrate my distaste for the whole unsystematic system, I present to you a (slightly edited) blog from way back, when I was reading a book on prose styling for a class.

October 14, 2007
Beware the Grammar Guru: or, Rules are Made to be Broken

I've been reading through Sin and Syntax with a lurking sense of indignation. I'm not complaining...exactly...I have learned things. But the message of this book seems to be, "Follow the rules of the English language...except when I tell you you don't have to."
The author (Constance Hale) gives us leave to commit syntactical crimes that are probably punishable by death in some circles of zealots:

To proudly split infinitives is the prerogative of any writer, she claims. Even though pedagogues trying to apply Latin grammar to our Anglo-Saxon tongue insist the split infinitive is a no-no, they're dead wrong.

Later, she explains, Some traditionalists disparage the vogue for hopefully as a sentence adverb, calling it 'one of the ugliest changes in grammar in the twentieth century.'...Grammarians, get a grip. Hopefully as a sentence adverb is here to stay.
Valerie's note: If you do not follow the exciting world of language hockey, the use of "hopefully" to modify a whole sentence is a topic of intense debate. Technically, if you say, "Hopefully the grammar gods won't strike me down," you are actually saying, "The grammar gods won't strike me down (and they'll be full of hope while they're not doing it)," which is awkward for one thing and completely different from the typical intended meaning of "I hope the grammar gods won't strike me down." See this recent post from a language blog I read on occasion.
In a later chapter, she asserts: Make my day. Start a sentence with a conjunction.

Still later, she pleads, Can we bury the schoolmarm's rule, 'Never end a sentence with a preposition,' once and for all?

Speaking of schoolmarms, my sixth grade teacher told our class that one should never begin a story by introducing oneself; Hale buries that rule by describing Moby-Dick's introductory sentence, "Call me Ishmael," as one of the strongest opening lines in American literature.

With all these so-called "rules" that are now okay to break, what rules can we really trust? Who made Constance Hale the Queen of Communication? Why should you believe her more than any other grammarian, writing teacher, or poet on the street? Why should you believe her more than, say, me?

I've run across a lot of advice in Sin and Syntax. Some of it I like. Some of it I don't. The next time I feel like blogging, I intend to question some of this advice. There are at least two sides to every story, and I don't think we as writers should confine ourselves just to Constance Hale's point of view. As long as we're breaking rules, we might as well break them our way.

But that's for later.