Wednesday, November 15, 2017

RULES: Follow 'em, break 'em...or make 'em? by Cathy Ace

How important is grammar and when do you break grammar rules?

Oh my goodness me, grammar. Thanks to the Welsh education system, I took years and years of English Language classes, as well as English Literature classes. 

I loved literature classes; we’d read books, plays and poetry – at home, then, often, again aloud in the classroom – then discuss and critique the works. These were the classes where I fell in love with the words of Shakespeare, Dylan Thomas, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Jane Austen, among others. They allowed me to indulge my joy of reading, and were something I looked forward to every week. It's also worth noting that those writers changed the expected structure, language, grammar, and punctuation of their time to suit their purposes...maybe I was drawn to rule-breakers (and rule-makers) from an early age!

In language classes we plodded through rules. I hate rules. Probably the best lesson of all was the one where our teacher wrote “GHOTI” on the blackboard (yes, I’m that old!) and explained to us how it should be pronounced the same way as “FISH”. (FYI: “GH” as in “cough”; “O” as in “women”; “TI” as in “motion”.) It’s an old ‘un, but a good ‘un…and – to us – it was as fresh as the proverbial daisy, at the time. 

I was being taught at a time when it was no longer fashionable to teach “parts of the language” so the complexities of the language were, never, therefore, defined or named for me in my English Language classes. That joy came in Latin classes, where the poor teacher had to teach us basic grammatical terminology as it pertained to English before we could understand its applications in Latin. I should mention I failed my Latin O level exam (the exam you take at 16 years of age in Wales), and pretty miserably at that. I suspect “amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant” was only ever going to get me so far!

Thus, I have to admit I don’t know the correct terminology, let alone the rules, for most parts of the language, and also realize the punctuation I learned back in the 1960s is now somewhat dated. How do I cope? I write and punctuate from the heart, and consider the comments made about those aspects of my writing by my editor/s…then decide if it’s worth arguing the toss, or not. When I read, poor grammar and punctuation can burst my bubble of immersion in the book…the only rule I follow, therefore, is – “Does this work for me/my character?” rather than “Is this grammatically perfect?” I don’t want my grammar or punctuation to break the spell – so I hope my readers can cope with that, and enjoy the story.

Cathy Ace is the Bony Blithe Award-winning author of The Cait Morgan Mysteries and The WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries.  You can find out more about Cathy, her work and her characters at her website, where you can also sign up for her newsletter with news, updates and special offers:


Susan C Shea said...

Did Canadian schools force you to diagram sentences? That just about did me in in 7th grade, I think. But by then, I was reading such wonderful literature that I figured I'd do better following the lead of the authors instead. I still believe reading is the best way to learn grammar - and how breaking the rules can be a spectacular way to liven your writing.

Unknown said...

Sometimes poor g&p punctures the spell, and sometimes perfect g&p does too - so I agree with Cathy, it's what fits the character, and the bottom line is don't puncture the spell!

Cathy Ace said...

Hi Susan - I grew up in Wales, so have no idea what Canadian schools do, sorry. But in Wales, no, we didn't do that. I wouldn't know how to do it even now. And I'm fine with that, largely for the reasons Rae gives above...spell puncturing takes many guises :-)