I think it was my fourth grade teacher who said it to me first:
If you want to break the rules, you have to know the rules!
And from then on, from grammar school to grad school, I would hear that philosophy, that mantra, that iron-clad rule, over and over again, from mentors and professors and tutors and gurus. Mastery is needed, they would point out in so many different phrasings, before you can presume to deviate from the rules of English. If you don’t know how to do it RIGHT, don’t attempt to write it WRONG on purpose.
I took that wisdom to heart. The trouble was, I never felt that I entirely mastered English. I would get to a certain level of competency, start feeling a little comfortable, and then I’d blunder into a whole new area, with rules that were new and different and often unexpected. Or–rules would change. (I’m still struggling to NOT double-space between sentences. Thanks so much, technology, for changing that drilled-in practice…)
So I’d struggle to master rules. I’d read and I would write; I would lay my words bare to the pummeling of peers and professors. I’d work with editors and marketing folk and send in job docs, some of which elicited quick responses, and some which seemed to sink below the surface without notice. I tried hard to note what worked and what didn’t. I listened when people in the know calmly reminded me I was putting commas where no commas were EVER needed.
Finally, though, I realized that, while I will probably never master ALL the rules, I have conquered some of them quite thoroughly. Or at least, thoroughly ENOUGH. And, son of a gun, I’m 61: if I don’t start mindfully breaking those rules now, when will I ever get the chance?
So here are the rules I often, willfully, break.
1. Always use complete sentences.
It is tremendously important to be able to craft complete sentences and to understand how they should flow, and to know how to connect independent clauses when I am linking more than one. But sometimes, a sentence fragment can bring readers up short. Grab their attention. Quickly make my point.
Sometimes, there’s good reason to string clauses together without conjunctions, to let them flow without the interference of ‘and’ or ‘but’, to allow my words to surge without interference.
Not always. But sometimes, both of the above are wonderful techniques.
2. Never start a sentence with a conjunction.
This is good advice, in general. But sometimes, I just need to emphasize what follows. Starting with a conjunction works, I believe, in that regard.
3. Don’t make up words.
I love to search out words that mean just exactly what I want to say–often there is a new word, an undiscovered word, that I can employ to perfectly, aptly get my meaning across.
Once in a while, though, I need a word that I don’t think exists. In my family, we say we are befoogled when complete and utter fogginess and befuddlement descends. Befoogled is just exactly what we are; there is no other word that can describe our precise states of mind. And when my crazy little dog jumps on my bed, mid-night, mid-thunderstorm, there is no one word to describe her quivering and whimpering. But quimpering will do it. I’ll blend those words and use the result.
4. Spell and punctuate correctly.
Of course, we must always follow the rules of spellin’…unless we are trying to get a tone or a mood across. Unless we are writing in a voice that demands a difference. Unless nothing else will do but to be creative with the way a word appears on paper–if we are trying, say, to capture the tone of a fourth grader writing a note to her BFF, or a young mother texting her husband… Sometimes, in cases like those, the right thing to write is an oddly spelled word.
And punctuation–we honor punctuation; we know its proper usage creates meaning and clarity, and the lack of it, in certain documents, undercuts our authoritative author’s voices. Oh, but sometimes…sometimes words have to tumble and flow jouncing into one another without separation without the common courtesy of a comma or a period or a semi-colon for heaven’s sake. Sometimes, we need to consciously ditch the comma, or whatever punctuation mark we may need NOT to write to get the feel we need to get.
5. Put your thesis statement in your first paragraph.
Often, especially in cover letters, grant proposals, and sets of instructions, this is absolutely what one should do: hit that reader right on the head with the main idea. The audience needs to get it right from the get-go. Sometimes, though, when you want to build your point, or intrigue your reader, or culminate in one great comment, you put your thesis statement elsewhere. You put it, for example, at the end of your essay. Or–you don’t ‘put it’ at all: you imply it, and you let your smart and savvy readers supply it themselves.
You don’t have to wait to be a word-master to break the rules. You just have to know enough about the area in which you play to mindfully, consciously, choose to craft your words in that alternate path.
What are your favorite rules to circumvent? I’d love to hear about them.
Happy blogging, my friends.