Finding the Words

a blog devoted to the art, craft, and frustration of writing

sensible advice on grammar February 28, 2007

Filed under: style — itsy @ 4:35 pm

I’ve been reading Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Joseph M. Williams. It’s the most honest book on style I’ve read yet. Furthermore, he presents grammar as a choice (who would have thunk?). By following different levels of convention, you align yourself with a certain level of readership. Some rules none but the strictest readers will notice if you break. Others, many readers will notice something is not quite right. The problem with following grammar to the letter and rule is that you risk losing clarity and grace. The most grammatically correct sentences aren’t necessarily the easiest, or most pleasant, to read.

He divides rules into three categories: rules that define the fundamental structure of English, such as article placement (“the book”, not “book the”); rules that distinguish standard English from non (“I don’t know anything”, not “I don’t know nothing”); and rules grammarians have invented that they deem should be followed.

I like the last category the best. Williams points out there is no logical need for some of the rules grammarians impose. Included are rules such as “Don’t split infinitives” i.e. to leave quietly, not to quietly leave, and “Don’t use which for that in a restrictive clause” (a rule which, incidentally, dates as recently as the 20th century). None of these rules, however, are consistently used the the best writers. So what are we to make of them? Some of these “rules” are little more than folklore or the opinion of a small posse of grammarians.

We must think about this matter of precision precisely: We must write correctly. But if in defining correctness we ignore the difference between truth and folklore, we risk overlooking what is important – the choices that make prose wordy and confusing or clear and precise. We are not being precise when we merely get straight all the whiches and thats, mend every split infinitive, eradicate every finalize and hopefully. Many who obsess on such details are oblivious to the more serous matter of imprecise thought and expression, and it is that kind of substantive imprecision that will allow obtuse prose to become the national standard….

It [Adhering strictly to the rules] is an impulse that we ought not to scorn, but only so long as it is informed and thoughtful, only so long as it is not used as a pretext for invidious discrimination, and only so long as those who choose to follow all the rules all the time include in their concern the more important matters to which we now turn- the choices that define not what is correct, but what is clear and graceful.

Thanks for the reality check, Williams.


3 Responses to “sensible advice on grammar”

  1. Diana Says:

    It sounds like a really interesting book. I’ll have to check it out. Thanks for the visit!

  2. deano Says:

    I know I’m reading exceptional prose when it flows effortlessly. I’m especially tickled when the passage is detailed and complex, while retaining a feeling of lightness and elegance.

    At such times, when an appreciation for the craft exists in harmony with – but outside of – the plot, I feel as if the author and I are sharing a moment, exchanging a knowing glance. Whether a strict adherence to syntactical and grammatical rules helps, I honestly couldn’t say. I haven’t noticed! I guess that implies I agree with Williams’ advice.

    I wonder what his thoughts are on vernacular and vocabulary. Outside of character dialog, that is.

  3. davidbdale Says:

    My favorite story about the tyranny of grammar comes from Winston Churchill. The young editor assigned to Churchill’s memoirs left a comment for the author advising him not to end his sentence with a preposition, to which Churchill replied, “That is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which we will not put!”

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