[This is part 2 of a series of articles by Lin Robinson featured on Indies Unlimited. For part 1, click here.]
As foreshadowed in the opening column in this series, we’re going to examine the whole idea of “rules” for writing the English language, and examine how non-real rules get passed on and even amplified.
One way to look at this would be, “It you say that’s a rule, show me the rule book.” Because there isn’t one. This isn’t baseball or chess, it’s a living organ of humanity. You can whip out your Funkin’ Strunkin’ Wagnals–or better yet, a UPI stylebook–but is it such a great idea to write our novels in the style of newspapers or academic theses?
Here’s something the rule mavens don’t mention, and probably don’t even know: there are no official rules for English. Seriously. French and Spanish have official academies that issue the law for those tongues, but English doesn’t. Writers in those languages break the rules, too, but somebody could look it up if they want to be persnickety. “La Academia Real del Castellano dice que no.” “You imperialist Americaines wish to pollute the sacred Gallic tongue with your garbage Yanqui merde.” But you can’t do that in English, there is no governing body. It’s a democracy. Which means the people make the rules. The statement, “Everybody uses that word the wrong way,” doesn’t really make any sense in English. If people use it different, we change the dictionaries. It’s an organic, evolutionary process. That’s not a call for anarchy: there are grammar books (most of which agree with each other). But is grammar the main issue here? There is no grammatical rule against using adverbs or passive voice. They are just styles, not rules at all.
So why pay attention? You’ll quickly hear that you will get stories and scripts rejected for ignoring whatever screed the guru is hyping at the moment. There is usually little evidence that they actually know what editors and agents actually think, but this will pop up if you argue against it. A fall-back to vague authorities of convenience. When in fact, any library is chock full of the ultimate argument against not being able to get away with multiple POV or passive voice or adverbs: successful books that contain them.
If you argue, you will note that the taboos go through a cascade of “proofs” or apologia.
1. Pure rumor. Why, of course everybody knows not to use flashbacks, VO, passive adverbs. And it’s true and compelling because they heard it four times from other idiots, and now somebody is going to hear it from them.
2. Authority. The style book sez. Elmore Leonard says don’t use any alternatives to “said”, and no adverbs. Well, frankly, maybe writing like Elmore isn’t the best way to do your Tolkienesque fantasy epic.
3. The Layoff. Well, it’s not like never use them, but you have to be careful with them. Why? Why be more careful about adverbs than any other word? There is no such thing as a bad word! No part of English speech is proscribed. If somebody told a painter to avoid certain colors, or a musician to eschew certain notes or chords, they’d be instantly dismissed as a moronic fascist. But they’ll say it about writing.
4. Paranoia. Well, it might not be wrong, but some people think it’s wrong, and you don’t want to offend them. Think about what it would mean to try to write looking you’re your shoulder for anybody who might have a problem with what you say.
5. The Ultimate Idiocy. The one that really gets me nuts, and you hear it all the time, despite it being demonstrably full of crap, is: “You have to know the rules to break them.” Sure. Just tell the arresting officer that you didn’t know it wasn’t okay to shoplift and they’ll let you go because you can’t break a rule unless you know it. It’s just crap, a total tautology and bogus logic. But note this… if you accept it, suddenly whatever garbage they’re talking about is suddenly canonized as a defacto rule. But it isn’t a rule.
Much of it is fad or fashion. Is it okay to say “negro”? To refer to women as “chicks”? To say “retard”? Well, there might be people who will freak out if you do. But there are also books on your shelves that use those words. It’s a matter of style. And if you start letting other people define your style for you, you’re sunk.
The good news is, there is a set of books that show you what can be done, and how great writers write. It’s called “the body of published literature”.