On Writing: Painting by numbers

As teenagers, we would break the word “outrageous” apart and shove an expletive in the middle. We had used the expletive alone so often that it had lost its shock value, so we had to jazz it up a bit. We thought we were pretty clever jamming it inside another word. We thought we were the first ones out- . . . -rageous enough to do that.


We weren’t.

Writers in Ancient Rome had a Greek name for it: tmesis—putting one word inside another. Those outrageous Romans categorized just about everything you can do with language and the corresponding effect on readers. For example, if a sentence had too many “ands,” they had a word for that and ideas about how it might be used to advantage. If a sentence had too few “ands,” they had a name for that, too. You name it, they named it first and speculated on how it could help us communicate. They looked at language for all its possibilities.

Today, we seem to want to restrict those possibilities. Instead of looking at how deviations from a grammatical norm might be useful to writers and readers, we categorize such deviations as erroneous, against the rules, wrong. We’ve stuffed ourselves with a bunch of senseless rules. Don’t split infinitives. Don’t end a sentence with a preposition. Don’t start a sentence with a conjunction.

Who makes this stuff up?

Can you imagine any other métier or skill — car repair, carpentry, house painting, dog grooming, dog painting, whatever — any occupation where you are given a set of tools but told that there are certain ones you can never use?

You were taught to never split an infinitive? Oh, go ahead. Star Trek does it. “To boldly go where no one has gone before” — remember? But recognize when you’re splitting an infinitive and decide for yourself which way will make the sentence better.

You learned not to end a sentence with a preposition? It’s okay, really. You’re a grown-up now. But do it for a reason: do it because the preposition is the perfect word to end with.

There’s virtually nothing we can’t do in writing as long as we’re clear what effect it will have on readers — and we’re certain that that’s the effect we want.

Sometimes formal circumstances will require that we observe certain formalities. If we’re writing for the court, for instance, proper grammar can help dispose the judge to think well of us — that we are competent, intelligent, and take the matter seriously, whatever he or she may think of our legal arguments. But correctness is never a value in itself; it’s only a tool to help us communicate clearly and precisely. And it’s not the only tool, and sometimes it’s the wrong tool for the job.

In a comment submitted online, one reader of this column observes rightly that a sentence from an earlier column is grammatically incorrect. The sentence is: “When someone says ‘I love you,’ they are opening themselves to you for an intimate emotional relationship; when they say ‘I have great affection for you,’ the relationship’s over.” Strictly speaking, the two plural pronouns, “they,” should agree in number with the singular antecedent, “someone.”

It’s a good observation, and five years ago I might have agreed. But even English professors are loosening up on this rule, because it’s so often disregarded in conversation. And I deliberately chose to be conversational rather than “correct” to give the sentence the right rhythm; I was leading up to a punchline and wanted to get a laugh. As comedians and musicians know, timing is everything.

But there’s one truth about the rules that’s telling: we can follow all the rules in the world, all the guidelines and precepts and restrictions — the works — and it’s not going to make us good writers any more than painting by numbers will make us good artists.

The rules will never supplant our thinking for ourselves to find the best way to communicate. Because when the rubber meets the brass tacks, correctness is just one tool of many, and we should always be ready to sacrifice it to what really matters: clarity, precision, and getting a good laugh.

• Jim Hale can be contacted through his website at www.jimhalewriting.com.


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