Turning rules into tools
Tuesday, July 08, 2014 6:00 AM
One of my 13-year-old daughter’s favorite hobbies is correcting my grammar—with glee. One such recent exchange:
Me: “Who did the principal name to the school improvement committee?”
Ellie: “You mean, WHOM did the principal name? For shame, mom. And you’re an editor!”
Realizing I should let it go with an “Atta girl, Ellie, I’m proud of you for knowing the difference,” I instead launch into a lecture about the difference between prescriptive and descriptive ways of viewing word usage and grammar. Being 13, Ellie doesn’t give an inch and we reach an uneasy détente—her insisting that grammar is an infallible set of rules that must be adhered to 100 percent of the time, me insisting that sometimes, rules are made to be broken.
The next time we find ourselves entangled in such a debate, I plan to whip out and quote from my new favorite book, “The Glamour of Grammar” by Roy Peter Clark, whom one reviewer aptly describes as the “Jedi master of writing coaches.” (Not that Ellie will actually listen to me—or to Clark.)
Clark makes the compelling case that grammar should be viewed not as a set of rules but as a box of tools that enable us to “practice the three behaviors that mark us as literate human beings: It helps us write with power, read with a critical eye, and talk about how meaning is made.” Using grammar in this way puts “language into action. It doesn’t shout at you, ‘No, no, no,’ but gives you a little push and says, ‘Go, go, go.’ ”
This certainly doesn’t mean you can use the “tool” argument as an excuse to ignore, or be ignorant of, the rules. Whether the communication is a novel or article, memo or blog, it’s exceedingly evident when writers simply don’t know the rules and when they’ve purposefully turned the rules into tools. The former results in ineffective prose that sags with sloppiness; the latter in meaningful prose that sparkles with purpose and power.
Not that we don’t all make plenty of mistakes, even (especially?) editors. But even in a 24/7 world dominated by tweets and texts, your writing will be stronger—and therefore your meaning clearer—if you take the time to figure out if your sentence calls for a colon or semicolon, “its” or “it’s” and, yes, “who” or “whom.”
If you need help figuring it out, you’ll find plenty of answers (sometimes contradictory ones) on the Web. If you’re me, you get to ask Steve McIntire, our ace copy editor at Business Publications Corp. Inc., whose knowledge of grammar would make, well, Roy Peter Clark envious. I also love keeping grammar and style guides on my desktop. My favorites, in addition to “The Glamour of Grammar,” include “Woe Is I” by Patricia T. O’Conner (a former New York Times editor who, by the way, is an East High School and Grinnell College graduate and once worked at The Des Moines Register); “When Words Collide” by Lauren Kessler and Duncan McDonald; and the perennial classic “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White.
Once you know the rules, you can transform them into tools and “use those tools to break the rules with a purpose,” Clark writes. Then, for example, if you feel like writing a long sentence, but one that’s not, I’ll remind you, a run-on sentence, but rather one sometimes referred to as a “cumulative sentence,” defined as a sentence that takes its time getting to its destination, may contain lots of modifiers and metaphors, uses commas, dashes and semicolons to guide you along its path, and meanders in the best tradition of William Faulker or James Joyce, you can. Or you can write a fragment. With glee.
Editor, dsm magazine
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