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A Note on Writing "Rules"

My last post on The Well Tempered Sentence generated interesting debate on the relationship between writing and grammar that exemplified the split in English classrooms, which is whether grammar is prescriptive or descriptive.  I'm going to fall on the side of the descriptivists, so my caricatureof the precriptivist point of view will reflect my bias.  The prescriptivists say, essentially, that the rules of grammar produce sentences, so any sentence that breaks a rule is by definition a faulty one in need of revision.  Prescriptivists are language gatekeepers, fighting to preserve language's status quo. 

The descriptivists take a more cautious approach to new structures, saying that language came first; grammar came second, and the role of grammar is to describe language as it occurs.  If a new construction does the job, grammar will eventually figure out how to describe it, moving the new construction through a hierarchy of use, from "slang," to "colloquial," to "informal," and finally to "accepted."  Descriptivists are more like those folks with cameras capturing the secret lives of wildlife ("We now have the opportunity to see the wolf pups at play"), except instead of filming wildlife they hunt down and accept language as an evolving form.

My stance on all writing rules, from the nuts and bolts of grammar to the other much discussed rules of fiction writing (like staying attached to only one point of view, or "show, don't tell, which I discussed earlier in Every "Rule" Has Exceptions), is that the only rule that matters to the writer is "Does it work?"

That "Does it Work?" rule has a warning, though.  It's not "Does it Work?" for the writer.  It's "Does it Work?" for the reader (or editor, who functions as kind of a proxy uber-reader).  And the only way for a new writer to know if something works is to try it out on readers.  If the usage slips by the readers and makes the story more effective, then the writer and readers win.  The rule steps back, superseded by an effective but non-prescribed use.  If the usage breaks the sentence or distracts the reader, the story and the writer lose.  The rule triumphs.



( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 21st, 2007 01:08 pm (UTC)
I'm with you and the descriptivists, Jim, at least insofar as creative writing is concerned. In my opinion, the most effective writing is writing which slips by unnoticed-- that is to say, writing which helps convey the story to the reader in its purest, mental form, rather than reminding the reader that it's just words on a page. The rules of grammar are very important, but whenever an agrammatical sentence serves the goal of the story best, we should run with it. Language is all about communication-- it should never stand in the way of communicating.

Of course, I'm sure there are a bunch of prescriptivists out there saying "yeah, well I get thrown out of the story every time I see a comma splice." That's something to be taken into account as well, though I think that more people will accept agrammatical sentences that flow than will be caught up by them.
Dec. 21st, 2007 01:38 pm (UTC)
Some folks are finely (some would say anally) attuned to grammar and mechanics. Their brains itch at the existence of mistakes.

I'm on their side, though, for much of their distress. Most errors in convention are exactly that, errors, not the fine tuning of language's nuances. In other words, the writer who put in the comma splice wasn't doing it for effect; it was just a simple mistake, and sentence clarity would be improved by repunctuating.

I was in a workshop with a writer whose knowledge of writing conventions was spotty at best. His stance was that story trumped everything, and that if the story was good, his inability to effectively insert commas, capitalize proper nouns, or to make his subjects and verbs agree wouldn't matter.

The truth was that his stories weren't that good, and the proofreader side of me flinched at the numerous mistakes.

Edited at 2007-12-21 01:39 pm (UTC)
Dec. 21st, 2007 05:48 pm (UTC)
That's a good distinction to make-- there's a huge difference between writing an agrammatical sentence for effect and just plain getting the grammar wrong. As with all the rules of writing, you must first know the rules of grammar before you can break them. 99% of mistakes are, as you say, just that: mistakes. Even if you have good story ideas, there's no excuse for bad writing, and you cannot write well unless you know how to write properly.
Dec. 21st, 2007 03:21 pm (UTC)
I actually lean more toward the prescriptive side, particularly in the classroom where I'm teaching formal, analytical writing rather than creative writing.

On the creative side of things, I'm certainly sympathetic to the descriptive mindset, but I'm also very cynical--probably from years of being exposed to many small-press/fanzine writers who resist constructive criticism of formal elements and stomp about claiming "story trumps everything." Most of those people aren't very good, as in your example, and while I may be "anally attuned" to mechanics, I think there are quite a lot of people who get bumped from stories by tin-eared constructions and confused punctuation--they just don't all know exactly why.

I'm firmly of the belief that you can't break the rules until you know them first, and most neophyte writers aren't leaving out punctuation for effect--they're leaving it out because they don't know any better. I get very annoyed by those who get defensive about formal/mechanical criticism (claiming the mistakes are their "style" because I see that as a form of willful ignorance.
Dec. 21st, 2007 03:34 pm (UTC)
I think we're on the same page as far as teaching goes. So much of what the teacher HAS to do in the classroom is prescriptive.

For me, though, I always emphasize to the students that although it looks like all the teacher cares about are grammatical concerns (that's where the vast majority of marks on a student's paper comes from), real writing still starts with observation, making connections, finding out what to say.

A few of my most left brained and rational students, who have learned to create grammatically perfect, flawlessly proofread papers, are often disappointed that they don't receive an "A," for their vacuous essays, as if all that went into a paper was the proofreading.

They are confused between writing as a tool (picture mistake free writing as a leak-free bucket), and the meaning they shape with the tool (the contents of the bucket).

I find it more pleasant to work with the grammatically horrible but thoughtful student who makes interesting connections than I do the letter-perfect but idea-free student. I can help a writer to learn proofreading and composition skills. It's harder to create insight where there is none.

Fortunately, almost no students are totally idea-free.
Dec. 21st, 2007 04:52 pm (UTC)
Oregon's writing rubric standards for the state scores are more descriptivist than they are prescriptive. Most of the rubric goes to areas I consider descriptivist--Ideas and Content, Voice, Organization, and Fluency; while prescriptivists get Conventions (I can't remember the other area).

Interestingly enough, quite often it's my special ed students (learning disabled, btw) who have the more creative writing and ideas than some of the TAG kids in the school.
Dec. 21st, 2007 08:25 pm (UTC)
I know what you mean, but to some extent I think the prescriptive/descriptive divide is moot. Language scholars must describe; language teachers must prescribe. But descriptive knowledge is the only valid basis for prescription. And creative writing is somewhere in the tension between the two: the writer should have the freedom (and knowledge) to say the wrong thing at the right time.
Dec. 22nd, 2007 07:11 pm (UTC)
Very timely, Jim. I've had the same discussion on 'genre signatures' recently.

A genre signature is some simple set of principles that underpin a particular genre of writing. Like grammar, genre signatures are a cultural construct, formed descriptively and after the fact. But they're formed by influential works carving new terrain, and they're principles that you can apply in different ways, rather than outright rules.

As with grammar rules, you can use them to recognise or construct expression in a genre. And as I believe is true of grammar, the important question isn't whether you adhere to the rules or don't but rather that you have a solid understanding and appreciation of them before you begin, know why you're varying the status quo, and are doing it for the audience and not simply for oneself. :D

Dec. 24th, 2007 03:09 pm (UTC)
Off topic, but I wanted to wish you Happy Holidays, Jim.
Dec. 24th, 2007 04:22 pm (UTC)
Happy holidays to you too!
Dec. 25th, 2007 02:49 am (UTC)
That's actually kinda handy.
I get so tired of the grammar police.

I like this rule. Does it work for the Reader? I think I'll file that away as the only one I'm going to pay a great deal of attention to from now on.

The other rules, depending, I'll continue to argue about as I feel the need.

S. F. Murphy
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )