Thursday, March 4, 2010

Up With Which I Will Not Put and Other Rules

The rules of writing are sometimes meant for bending or breaking. That being said, we must first know what the rules are in order to ignore them.

I love the way Winston Churchill made this point apparent concerning the age-old rule of ending a sentence with a preposition.

“Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.”

By following the rules we learned in elementary school, we see how ridiculous that sentence sounds. Now I ask you, is there anything wrong with ending this sentence with a preposition? Most grammarians will say it's OK to end sentences with prepositions when the preposition doesn’t create a relationship between other words. Yet violations of this rule might tick off editors and land our manuscripts in the slush pile. If we are preparing letters or manuscripts for publication, we might make a better impression by using proper grammar. I might have rewritten the sentence this way, avoiding the issue all together: I won’t put up with using a preposition at the end of a sentence. I used one less word and it gets right to the point.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never completely understood what my elementary teachers taught me about the more complicated grammar rules and can never remember the meanings of the odd titles they used to describe grammar mismanagement, like split infinitive and dangling participle. Back then, I thought the English language had to be the most complicated gibberish in the world.

It wasn’t until I started writing regularly that grammar usage started dripping, one rule at a time, into remote locations of my brain. Even so, my hands shake every time I write a blog or submit a manuscript for fear I have yet to learn another important rule and have proven my ignorance. The remedy: continue to write, continue to learn grammar.

If you choose to ignore the standard grammar rules, make sure you do it in a way that makes your purpose apparent—like in the quote mentioned above or in dialogue. But please sacrifice a misuse of the rules if, by doing so, you sacrifice clarity and a foot in the editor’s door.