Thursday, September 29, 2022

Rules Are Rules, or Are They?


To help us improve our craft of writing, we’ve all taken classes. Read many articles on the rules of grammar and writing. Listened to members of a critique group talk about writing rules. Which ones should we follow? What advice should we take to heart, or more precisely to keyboard?

Answer: Take what works for you and discard the rest. Nothing is cast in stone.

My writing workshops all begin with the disclaimer that I don’t know everything, and nothing that will be suggested is a “must.” 

Again, take what works for you and discard the rest. That goes for this blog post, too.


Writers’ groups on Twitter have been abuzz with rules and what should be broken, or not. A recent one to make the rounds is the long-debated use of the verb “was.” A perfectly good word that works well in certain circumstances. This was pointed out in a blog post here some time ago, so I won’t rehash it. Go ahead and check it out. It's number 9 in the list. I’ll wait.

Okay, now that you’re back, let’s look at a few other “rules” that really should be called guidelines and definitely apply to academic and other nonfiction writing more than fiction. A recent article at Word Genius – Four Grammar Rules You Don’t Need Anymore, piqued my interest and was the prompt for this blog post. Some of the rules mentioned were based on the Latin Grammar, which much of our English language is taken from. (Here I broke one of the rules.)  

NEVER END A SENTENCE WITH A PREPOSITION

That has challenged more than a few authors as they’ve struggled to make a manuscript grammatically correct, yet not awkward for the reader. Some changes are easier than others. That earlier sentence could be fixed to read, “Some of those rules were based on Latin Grammar from which much of our English language is taken.” Easy-peasy and more fitting for journalism.

However, consider what hoops my keyboard would have to jump through to eliminate the preposition “to” at the end of this sentence from my current WIP. Can it even be done? Give it a try in the comments if you're so inclined.

“Yeah. But I’m willing to do what I have to.”

Another important point made in the article at Word Genius is the importance of not tagging a preposition to the end of a sentence when it isn’t needed. For example, “Where is Sam going to?”  “Where is Sam going” works just fine. 

In case you weren’t aware, there are several types of prepositions

Prepositions of Place.

Prepositions of Time.

Prepositions of Direction.

Prepositions of Location.

Prepositions of Spatial Relationships.

Prepositional Phrase.

If you play around on Google, there are a lot of sources for finding out more about prepositions. It was a bit amusing to see the contractions in headlines such as: “Top 50 Prepositions.” “What are the 150 Prepositions?”

The above list was under a headline "What are the 7 Types of Prepositions?" Er, there are only 6 up there. :-) 

If you enjoy finding out more about words and parts of speech, you could easily get lost in that rabbit hole, but it is all quite interesting. Bring a few carrots. 

NEVER START A SENTENCE WITH A CONJUNCTION

That’s probably a good guideline for some of our writing, and maybe we should consider not starting with “and” or “but” frequently. But there are times that usage is effective, especially if you’re writing in a genre that favors shorter sentences with fewer commas. Periods help the reader keep thoughts separated with a longer beat than a comma provides. 

Examples of the more popular conjunctions are: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so; but also include: whether, well, why, likewise, however, now, because, also, and nevertheless. While all those words are perfectly acceptable to lead off a sentence in fiction, we're cautioned about frequently using “well” to start a line of dialogue. Readers may tire of seeing it from almost every character in a story. It can be used effectively to distinguish a speaker, one who often uses “well” as part of a their style, but if everyone uses it, well…

While doing the research for this article, it was nice to see that the  AP Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style both say it is perfectly okay to start a sentence with a conjunction.

ALWAYS WRITE IN FULL SENTENCES

Those of us of a certain age can remember diagramming sentences to point out the noun, verb, modifying clause, gerund, and all those other parts of speech we had to learn. When we wrote something for our English classes, the sentences all had to at least have a noun and a verb, or it wasn't really a sentence. In some fiction writing, it may still work to adhere to that guideline for the most part, but other genres scream for the writer to stomp that rule to smithereens.

For example, consider how much drama would be lost if this example from my WIP were to be changed to fit.

For one agonizing moment Angel considered doing it anyway. It would be so easy. Just one little squeeze. Then thoughts of the aftermath flashed through her mind. Her parent’s disgust. Possibly being suspended. Or worse, fired. Her brother’s disappointment. And maybe her partner’s, too. This scumbag wasn’t worth it. Without moving the weapon, she turned to Doug.“Got your cuffs?”

Several of the "rules" were broken in that little excerpt taken from Brutal Season, the fourth book in the Seasons Mystery Series. Can you spot them all?


What is your take on this topic? Do you ignore the rules? What are some others that writers are now writing around? Please do share in the comments and thanks for reading.

Award-winning author Maryann Miller has numerous credits as a columnist, novelist, screenwriter, and playwright. She also has an extensive background in editing. You can find out more about Maryann, her books, and her editing services on her Website and her Amazon Author Page read her Blog, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter. 

6 comments :

  1. Great post, Maryann! I love it. Now…complete sentences or incomplete sentences, that is the question! Well, that depends. Is it dialogue or narrative? Generally speaking, a narrative sentence should probably be complete. However, dialogue, whether spoken or internal, need not be of the traditional noun/verb variety. Do you always speak in complete sentences? Or think in complete sentences? For our characters to be denied the kind of speech most people use is to make them not only unrealistic, but also very boring. But all this is just my opinion. :-)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. My use of incomplete sentences did start with dialog first, Linda. Then as I read more and more mystery and thriller novels, I noticed how the incomplete sentences boosted the pace and added more drama. The key, I think, is to use that sparingly. What do you think?

      Delete
    2. I presently use them only for spoken and internal dialogue (thoughts when in the speaker's POV). However, I see the potential power of incomplete sentences in some narrative situations if used sparingly, as you say. As I write and edit my stories, I will look for effective ways to make wider use of them beyond dialogue. :-)

      Delete
  2. I like rules, up to a point. I think we need to learn them all before we decide to break them, at least if we want to break them well. For example, an excellent writer who doesn't use dialogue tags in dialogue (can you even imagine?) is Kent Haruf, and he does it very well. I thought I would hate it, but quickly noticed... the lack of tags was virtually unnoticeable.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dees Haruf use actions to indicate who is speaking? That is a good way to accomplish that and I enjoy reading a book written that way.

      Delete
  3. Great post, Maryann. I have broken all the rules. I loved the way you use incomplete sentences. It's the perfect way of adding emphasis. In the book I'm struggling with, I have a scene where it's about the preposition at the end of a sentence. Here is a part of it from the still unfinished, untitled book #5 of my Diana Racine series:

    “I don’t get it,” Galen said. “If one of the others wanted to kill Landford, they could’ve done it somewhere else, anytime. Why the club?”

    “To pin the murder on you, Galen,” Lucier said. “If that doesn’t work, he has three others to cast the blame on.”

    “You took the words right out of my mouth, Ernie,” Wolfe said, “and I’m glad you didn’t do that on whom to cast the blame distortion of the English language. I know it’s correct, but it’s pretentious. We’ll get along fine.”

    ReplyDelete

The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. If a glitch is preventing you from commenting, visit our Facebook page and drop your wise words there: Blood-Red Pencil on Facebook