Breaking all the (grammar) rules

I’ve always been the type of person who follows the rules. My friends often say that if life were like Dungeons & Dragons, I would be Lawful Good in the Alignment System. In fact, even on the test offered on that page, I got Lawful Good.

Of course, people can’t be that easily defined even in elaborate systems. Sometimes laws are outdated or inherently unjust, and I think it’s important to recognize that instead of just blindly following along with what society tells you to do. But to know when a rule should be broken or resisted, you first have to know the laws or rules themselves and what purpose they are supposed to serve.

This is true in writing and editing as much as it is true in general life. I work as a copy editor for a science publisher in my day job, which is nice because the rules of grammar and the in-house style guide are pretty firm; when it comes to copy editing fiction, things are much more nebulous because writers will often intentionally break grammar rules to achieve a certain character voice or feeling in the reader. I imagine it takes a great deal of practice and skill as a fiction copy editor to know the difference between an intentional and unintentional rule break.

Working as a copy editor has improved my own writing and editing even though I copy edit nonfiction, news-type stories. I have to stay on top and aware of grammar rules and specific style points for ~40 hours every week, so it all stays fresh in my mind.

Then I get to spend my free time deciding which rules I want to break in my own writing. It’s fun to be a rebel in my down time and an enforcer in my job. But I can’t just break grammar rules on a lark; if I do, my writing will appear sloppy and the story will be hard to understand or follow. That is rarely the goal of a writer (although it certainly can be sometimes,  but it takes a great deal of skill).

One of the rules I like to bend or break is general sentence structure. I enjoy using fragments and run-on sentences to play around with rhythm and sometimes convey what a character is feeling without stating it outright. For all the faults of American education when it comes to grammar (seriously, my education in the nitty-gritty of grammar was pretty dismal until college), we are programmed early to never use run-on sentences or sentence fragments. A sentence must have at least a subject, verb and object; anything less  or a mishmash of too many elements is a major offense punishable by the terrible red pen!

Maybe that’s why this rule in particular is so fun for me to break, because it’s one I was taught early and most warned against defying. Sometimes even Lawful Good wants to get its Chaotic Evil on, I guess.

But it’s quite astounding how much a writer can convey in the rhythm of sentences, to the point that sometimes the reader won’t know how or why they’re feeling anxious right along with the character.

A master of this kind of technique is Patrick Ness.* In both his Chaos Walking trilogy and his recent book More Than This, he uses short sentences or sentence fragments, often cut off with em dashes, to effectively mimic a teenager’s train of thought, jumping from half-complete idea to half-complete idea. He also often uses one-sentence paragraphs in a row. There is one chapter in More Than This that is composed of one four-word sentence. This might all sound gimmicky, but Ness is masterful, and these techniques keep the action, both internal and external, moving at a great pace, which is especially important in young adult fiction.

Here’s a short example from More Than This, early in the book at the end of Chapter 1:

He turns slowly to look at the house again. It resolves itself more and more as his eyes get used to the light, used—it almost seems—to seeing again.

And then, through the fog and confusion, he feels a soft tremor in his blanketed mind.

A brush, a hint, a featherweight of—


Is it familiarity?

Could there be a more effective way of conveying that moment when you’re trying to identify an emotion, it’s right on the tip of your tongue, and then ah-ha, you figure out what it is? I don’t think so. As with most things, in the hands of a lesser writer this technique would be cringe-worthy, but Ness knows exactly how and when to put it to use.

I don’t get quite that fancy in my writing; I don’t think I have that level of skill and talent yet. But I still play around with fragments and run-ons. I find that either can be a wonderful way to show a character spiraling into panic or anxiety before the character even realizes what’s happening. Short fragments together have the rhythm of hyperventilating, whereas a long run-on or series of run-on sentences can mimic a racing, uncontrollable heartbeat.

She couldn’t believe it. He had broken in. Into her house. She should have been safe there. Safe. Away from him. But now he had been there and trashed her house and ripped her bedding apart and broken her mirrors and scarred her rooms as he had scarred her life and how had he even found her the police told her she would be safe but he had found her. He had found her. He would always find her. Always.

I just made that up on the fly, so it’s not a particularly refined example, but it gets the point across. The simple sentences become fragments and then spiral into a run-on, finally degrading back to fragments, all with a sprinkling of repetition. You don’t even have to read it aloud to feel the rhythm of it, the frantic rush in the middle coming to an abrupt halt at the end.

I know a lot of copy editors who prefer their grammar rules unbreakable at all times, who will put down a book if a writer has flaunted too many. In my day job, I stick to the rules. But in my reading and writing, I enjoy a little careful rebellion now and again.

But to be a rebel, you need to know when to strike. So I encourage all writers to learn the basic grammar rules—and then play around with breaking them. Find the ones that work well for your writing when defied with great intent. But don’t let that power go to your head, or a copy editor’s red pen will come for you in the night.

*If you haven’t read anything by Ness, you should stop what you are doing and run, RUN, to your nearest book store to buy one of his books. You will not regret this, except you totally will because he will rip your heart out a million times. But you will be better for it, I promise.

About Nicole DeGennaro

Burgeoning writer, insatiable reader, and continuous dreamer.
This entry was posted in Punctuation, Random, Random thoughts, Thoughts on writing, Writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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