Breaking the Rules (part 2) by Lin Robinson

Author Lin Robinson

[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”.

Author: Lin Robinson

Linton Robinson was born in occupied Japan, schooled in Asia, and is now a 20 year resident of Latin America. Robinson is an award-winning journalist and noted photographer, with credits in top markets. His syndicated columns were cult favorites in the nineties. Learn more at his blog and his Amazon author page.

18 thoughts on “Breaking the Rules (part 2) by Lin Robinson”

  1. Love your post Linton. As an illustration, an Israeli friend (who happens to be a Hebrew linguist) cites me as his expert on the English language because I've been published in the New York Times. He tells people that if I use an expression, whether or not it's standard usage, it's kosher. I can live with that.

  2. Lin, awesome post. I agree 100% as long as people stop saying supposebly. Cuz that's just phukin wrong. Where were you on the LI thread when I was being crucified for cursing two days ago – ah, you all were probably smart enough to disengage from that particular human interface. Go back home and regroup. In your bunker?

    Glad to read your cogent, logical shit again brother.

  3. The old adage – it's not what you say, it's how you say it – holds some water then! The art form is being able to defy the rules with aplomb. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Great post!

  4. I loved these two posts. I get asked all the time if I use an editor. My answer is, no. I am a native speaker of English and I'm not writing for grammarians or English teachers. I go through my book six ways from Sunday making sure it reads right. Of course, I did need to understand the the comma isn't just put in when I pause for breath :).

  5. Wow, thank you all. It's so nice to see your friendly… well, userIDs… and get some warmth for this stuff.

    When I did this at the conference about 20% of the people got up and walked out in a huff. Half the rest were like, "Thank GOD! Why didn't anybody tell us this before?"

    (I told them it's an atheist, Satanist plot)

  6. Just getting to this. Great stuff. Sure, English is a living, breathing thing. That's awesome. The writer part of me is thrilled. The editor and proofreader is nervous.

  7. I agree that, when writing fiction, one should throw any idea of rules out the window for the sake of the story. Even in essays, if it would clarify your point more clearly to your desired audience.

    But there are rules to English grammar, although I agree that many of the 'rules' you mentioned are complete balderdash.

    I've always had a copy of the little brown handbook with me, for when I write an essay. I find that it focuses on basic enough principles and doesn't really get in the way of expression. And of course, common phrases will never follow these rules, those are there to speed up communication; something the rules don't always do.

    I think the point I'm making is I somewhat agree with you. but I do believe there is a core rule set that unless there's a good reason to do so, you should try to follow it.

    As an artist and a musician I work on the same principle, and I find I'm much happier with my work because of it.

  8. The last time I heard of anyone trying to establish English as the official language of the United States was:

    "On August 13, 1982, Sen. S.I. Hayakawa (Samuel Ichiye Hayakawa) of California introduced an amendment to immigration legislation (S. 2222) in support of English as the official language of the United States."

    His speech can be found at the following link.

    It is amazing that well over two-hundred years after America's fight for independence, that there is still no official language and is not likely to have one in the future.

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