Grammar tips (1): Rocking the rules

I’m really not intending to cram this blog with tedious grammar notes and confirm the general view that copy-editors are obsessed with nothing else. But I do find myself, in the explanations of my work that I supply with copy-edited manuscripts, writing the same few things over and over. Certain elements of language-use do regularly seem to trip up quite a few pretty well educated and smart people, and I thought it would be useful to collect some of them.

Grammar is a wonderful thing. That’s my cards right out on the table. I’ve had many interesting and valid discussions with authors who feel it constrains and formalises them, stifles their voice and the flow of their writing – that it is a kind of unwanted and outdated authority imposed from above by a collection of crusty ancients in academic office. I was force-fed a year of grammar teaching at the age of 13 by just one of these, soon to retire and with an apparent loathing of bored teenagers, making us parse sentences till our pencils dropped from our cramping fingers.

I haven’t stopped thanking him since.

Before dismissing and discarding grammar as pedantic, old-fashioned and constraining, consider the commonality of punctuation usage. It’s not something that's been imposed on us by an unelected authority, but is a collective decision we have all made, over centuries of time, refining and altering it according to fashion and cadence but never abandoning it, in order to be able to communicate clearly and precisely with one another and minimise misunderstandings. It’s an amazingly democratic, advanced and meaningful thing to have created together as a society; it speaks for our fundamental desire to connect with and understand one another, to collaborate and therefore survive as a species. I feel quite passionately Darwinist about it: not to teach it to the next generation just because the getting of it is a bit boring is refusing to pass on advantages we already have, leaving our children behind, isolated, struggling with inarticulacy and imprecision, unable to express their thoughts and feelings in any depth, unable therefore to build intimacy, connection and empathy, or to make an argument and convince others to change their opinions – cabin’d, cribb’d, confin’d.

Of course I believe an author should be able to break grammatical rules, or dispense with punctuation intentionally, for effect. This might be for all sorts of reasons: a child’s dialogue, a first-person narration from a character under stress or suffering from a racing mind, a way to distinguish between the levels of education or class of various characters, a regional dialect, a clue to an unreliable narrator or liar, a dream sequence, a fantasy-future novel with a debased language representing a broken-down order. But every time an author does that – breaks the rules – for me as a copy-editor there is at least a discussion that should be had. The author may well hear in her head the way the words are supposed to sound, and hear it every time she re-reads her own work, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a reader will ‘hear’ them the same way. Is that risk a price worth paying? I’m quite prepared for the answer to be yes, but I always want to be sure that the decision is made in the full understanding of what is being discarded, and full certainty that the creative result offers enough in exchange to make up for the extra communication difficulty the reader will have to accommodate.

Correct punctuation following communally developed and agreed rules is, in its essence, nothing more than a tool to transfer the words, and therefore the ideas, from the author’s head into the reader’s with as little corruption as possible. Without it, every book is a game of Chinese whispers.

#rulebook #grammartips

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