The things some people do

I swear my point is not to rant about the some writers’ slavish devotion to the “rules” of grammar. This time it’s about some readers‘ slavish devotion to the “rules” of grammar.

Several months ago I read a post on another blog about the imagined necessity of a writer adhering to the rules of good grammar. One of the egregious sins cited was the split infinitive. One commentor noted that she can’t stand split infinitives and every time she sees one in print she throws the book she’s reading across the room.

First of all, a split infinitive is not strictly a grammatical error. There is no rule of grammar dealing with it. At most it’s a stylistic consideration, but even that is a learned response. There is nothing inherently odd sounding about a split infinitive. In many cases, the very best place for the modifying adverb to go is within the infinitive form of the verb.

But back to my point. Whether it’s a split infinitive or a comma splice (commonly used by Iris Murdoch) or a shifting narrative voice (common to Philip Roth) or a sentence fragment or any of dozens of “bad” grammatical structures, if a reader trains herself to find immediate offense at them, she is doing herself a reading disfavor. She is limiting herself to a narrow band of writing. She is going to the buffet table and eating only carrots. She is bypassing a very large selection of very good, very dramatic, very worthwhile writing.

I suspect that most good writers have a basic grasp of the common rules of grammar. Most, I imagine, have done their best to forget these rules (as I was coached by one writing instructor), because they have an inherent sense of how to string words and sentences together. They have a gift for it, and any so-called rules are really beside the point. The pity is when the small mind insists on them and limits itself to nothing but them.

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One Comment on “The things some people do”

  1. Eddisbury Says:

    I think a writer needs to aim at getting things just right – which is not at all the same thing as following the supposed rules of grammar.
    I recall one occasion when reading a chapter of my novel in a writing circle. It included a scene in a prison visiting hall when a prison officer barked to an inmate’ “Sit down and stay sat down!” An ex-teacher member of the group pointed out the error and suggested I might rephrase it more grammatically. I said I thought that prison officers who spoke like English teachers were not likely to be convincing.

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