Language is not static. Language evolves over time. Words come en vogue (or are invented) and some words become passé or archaic. As language changes, so do the “rules” of its use.
For example: someone says to you that “every sentence ends with a period and that rule will never change.”
Oh, really? That’s news to me! Sentences can end with a question mark, an exclamation point, or even with a colon.
“Never start a sentence with a conjunction.”
But why not? This can be a personal preference or a “house rule” for a publisher or publication, but it is not a law, and if you break it you do not go to jail. My husband, who also edits, follows this rule, but I don’t. We still manage to have a happy, loving marriage despite this difference in our editing preference.
“Sentence fragments are wrong.”
Baloney. What kind of writing are you doing? I would say this is true for academic and business writing, but in fiction writing, sentence fragments are allowed and even encouraged.
“I write like this because it’s my style.”
Well, if your “style” is crap—mission accomplished! Don’t take this prima donna attitude when trying to define your “style” to your confused, long-suffering editor. Your editor may know more about grammar and punctuation than you do, but that doesn’t absolve you, as the writer, from your responsibility to learn the elements of fiction writing and the rules of grammar and punctuation.
“OK, Miss Know-It-All-Editor. One minute you say it’s fine to break the rules and the next minute you say I have to follow them. Just what are you trying to tell me?”
My point is simple. Before you break the rules, you must know the rules. Relying on the spelling/grammar check on your computer does not count. A word processing program cannot tell the difference between your writing “style” and the grammar and punctuation “rules” coded in its program.
When it comes to writing fiction, a lot of the rules we learned (or should have learned) in school can be bent, stretched, and even broken. A competent author will do this to create a certain effect or mood. Unless you know these rules, you won’t know the ones you can use and the ones you can do without.
If you want to be successful (i.e., published), and have editors love you, take time to learn the grammar and punctuation rules of your language. And don’t call them “rules;” call them nuances because by applying certain nuances of grammar or the use of one form of punctuation over another, your writing will have more depth and more meaning.
Yet, despite all of this, I think there is one rule we can all agree upon that gives us hope when it comes to the sins and transgressions made in the editing and writing process.
©2008 Zetta Brown. First published on The Blood-Red Pencil blog – October 2008.