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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Breaking the Rules


I was recently scrolling through the various social groups on the internet and came across a discussion about the rules of writing and grammar. Do they restrict a writer’s voice? Do they inhibit creativity? As writers should we break them? Since we no longer follow the same rules as William Shakespeare and Jane Austen, who decides which rules are changed and when?

For me rules are merely tools of the writing craft, like a chisel for a woodworker or a fan brush for an artist. Understanding the effect created by a particular rule determines how I can best use that effect to strengthen my piece.


A period is used to end a sentence. The reader naturally takes a breath and begins the next sentence. We don’t want to create run on sentences of thirty or forty words that go on forever without using commas or giving the reader a chance to breathe because if we do that the reader will throw away the book in frustration.  However, what if I have a character who talks very fast when she is upset or nervous? “My dog wouldn’t come when I called, so I had to grab my coat and gloves, and go out and look through the whole yard and under that back shed and the porch, too, but I couldn’t find him anywhere no matter how many times I yelled his name.”  Rather than tell the reader my character is upset, I can break the rule to show it through dialogue.



Ending a sentence with a prepositional phrase takes the power out of the sentence. “No one can hear you scream in space”, isn’t nearly as powerful as, “In space no one can hear you scream.” In an action scene the pacing is fast. Sentences are shorter and tighter. You want to avoid putting distance between the reader and the action. Ryder’s pulse thudded against his jaw. The tiny hairs at the back of his neck tickled. From behind him came the muted sound of Deke rising. His spurs chinked softly as the rowel brushed the short grass. Once your action has passed and you need to give the reader a break, longer sentences ending with a few prepositional phrases adds to the flow.


In dialogue, as has been pointed out, people don't use perfect grammar. I have no problem if a character who is a bit rough around the edges uses the word, ain’t, when speaking. I do have a problem if the author uses it.  Seeing the word, ‘watch’ three times in one paragraph annoys me.  Was plus an ‘ing’ verb ( was walking, was barking, was going to, etc.) tells me the author rushed to get their manuscript up on the internet.  In this case breaking the rules doesn’t enhance the author’s voice or story.


With eBooks flooding the market like sand on the beach, taking the time to craft a polished story shows respect for the reader and like cream, will eventually rise to the top.


21 comments:

Kathy Otten said...

Good morning all! :)

Tina Donahue said...

I love your last example (a woman without her man is nothing). Made me smile.

IMO, English is a living thing. If it wasn't, we'd still be using thee and thou and writing like Chaucer did. We break rules all the time. It works when we do it for effect. It doesn't work when we do it because we don't know the rules.

Kathy Otten said...

Hi Tina,
I saw that poster on Facebook. As to rules, I saw a discussion where a writer claimed that editing a piece to conform to the rules restricted her voice. I agree with you, that it works when you do it for effect. And bad writing is bad writing.

Renee Vincent said...

Oh my gosh, Kathy, I am still laughing about that last segment about punctuation! What a hoot! And yes, I agree....punctuation means everything!

Great post on the English language, dear! Very entertaining.

Kathy Otten said...

Hi Renee,
I'm glad you enjoyed it!

jean hart stewart said...

Good column, Kathy. I'm going to be thinking about some of it for a long time!

Karyn Good said...

Loved the last example! But I also needed the remainder about ending sentences with prepositional phrases. Guilty! Great post.

Lynne Marshall said...

Great stuff! The example was fantastic, too.

Writing styles have changed a great deal, though I still worry about beginning a sentence with But or And too often in narrative, but when I'm doing dialogue - anything goes.

Incomplete sentences seem to be accepted in small doses these days too.

Thanks so much for making this so clear and concise.

Nancy Jardine said...

Punctuation matters even more than ever in this ebook era. A poorly punctuated book leaves a frustrated reader-at least I know I get frustrated and imagine others must feel the same.

Kathy Otten said...

Hi Jean,
It's all merely food for thought as there are no absolutes.

Kathy Otten said...

Hi Karyn,
Ending a sentence with a prepositional phrase creates an effect. In a high tension or action scene a sentence with the punch at the end is good. Afterward, a prepositional phrase at the end of the sentence slows things down and contributes to the pacing without long paragraphs of internal dialogue. Just a tool of the craft.

Kathy Otten said...

Hi Lynn,
Thanks for stopping by. I am guilty of starting sentences with but and and, especially in earlier drafts. It's kind of like swearing, if you never do it and suddenly say, "Damn!" it has a lot more impact on everyone around you. The same with starting a sentence with, but. The impact is stronger if you only do it one time. So chose the sentence carefully.

Kathy Otten said...

Hi Nancy,
I hate reading a book, especially ebooks, where the punctuation is wrong or missing. It takes me out of the story, even if just for an instant. If it happen once, I can deal with it, but too many times and I'm frustrated. The same with poorly edited work. There is a time when you can use the word watch three times in one paragraph to create a certain effect, other than that, to me it's just sloppy.

Sarah J. McNeal said...

I like it when a writer uses a creative approach and using punctuation to show feelings. All things cannot be gramatically correct when a writer is showing emotion.
I remember the first time I read a sentence that was simply a name printed on it's own as a paragraph. Through gramatically incorrect in every sense, it showed the reader how important that name was to the main character.
There is a time and place for everything. If I were writing a news article, I would stick to all the rules, but when I write something from the heart, I want the emotion on the page however I can get it out there...even if it isn't quite proper.
Wonderful post today, Kathy.

Word Actress said...

I worked in advertising in New York City and was ruined
for punctuation. In advertising jingles anything goes!
I love how the difference in punctuation COMPLETELY
changed how your sample sentence was perceived.
Fun post...Mary Kennedy Eastham, Author, The Shadow of a Dog I Can't Forget and the upcoming novella
The Girl With Sand in Her Hair

Kathy Otten said...

Hi Sarah,
I suppose my rule of thumb is that if it's just plain sloppy or takes the reader out of the story, then don't do it. As you said a one word sentence of just a name can be very powerful. On the flip side if all the sentences are incomplete or one word the impact of that one name is lost.

Adele Dubois said...

Good editing is as essential as good writing. I enjoyed your post, Kathy!

Best--Adele

Kathy Otten said...

Hi Word Actress,
That's so cool that you did jingles in NY advertising. That's the big time. But I do have to say that despite the fact that anything goes, mispelled words drive me crazy. It's kind of one of my pet peeves. All part of the dumbing down of America sort of conspiracy theory.

Kathy Otten said...

Hi Adele,
Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. Best wishes to you too. :)

Karenna Colcroft said...

Good grammar, punctuation, etc. is definitely important.

I do respectfully disagree with you about the "be + ing" structure being sloppy, though. In some cases, it is; for example, "I was walking to work. I was getting there late." But in other cases, it shows an ongoing action and/or an action interrupted by another, such as "I was walking to work when the masked man jumped out of the bushes and brandished a trout in my face." In that case, saying "I walked to work when the masked man jumped out of the bushes" wouldn't quite sound right...

Kathy Otten said...

Hi Karenna,
You are very right, and I appreciate your taking the time to explain those times when the was+ing verb is appropriate. There are just so many aspects of craft with regards to grammar and structure that it is impossible to touch on everything in a small blog post. Thanks :)