Beware the nonrules

Last time I noted that there are lots of misconceptions about what constitutes “grammar.” There are also lots of misconceptions about what constitutes “rules” of writing.

Adverbs modify verbs is a rule. Don’t use adverbs is a nonrule. You may use adverbs, as long as you do so judiciously.

split infinitives
Black Chalkboard illustration by jaylopez •

Many nonrules are bandied about in writing circles. Usually, they are just style preferences that have, for one reason or another, been elevated to the level of “rule” in some people’s minds, perhaps because they learned them from a teacher they respected, or an editor they admired, or a writer they considered authoritative. Nonrules come in many varieties, which John E. McIntyre of the Baltimore Sun has cataloged in “Rules and Nonrules.”

Any prohibition against contractions, for example, is not a rule, as some people have been taught. It is a style preference of some educators, who expect your dissertation to sound formal and not like a chat with your roomie. There’s no place for this nonrule in fiction, and it’s not much use in nonfiction either. Removing contractions from your writing gives the text a stiff, formal feel. Of course, if that is what you are going for, you are welcome to it, are you not?

Likewise, words like coulda and gonna, though out of place in serious nonfiction, are perfectly at home in fiction. At a writers conference, I once heard a writer say her editor had changed every instance of gonna in her dialog to going to. That’s an editor with a tin ear.

You may split infinitives all you like. The prohibition against it is a superstition, as is any insistence that you not begin a sentence with a conjunction or end one with a preposition. These are and always have been standard in respectable English.

Double negatives are perfectly understood to be intensive, not reductive. (Isn’t it funny that most writers claim to be lousy at math and yet in this case, they try to apply mathematical principles to something not at all mathematical.)

None can and often does take a plural verb, e.g., none of them are here.

Sentence fragments are often useful and artistic. If handled well.

The conclusion I draw is that singular they is fully grammatical, at least with quantifier-like antecedents such as everyone, nobody, etc.—Geoffrey K. Pullum

For more examples of nonrules, read the Language Log’s extensive collection of posts tagged “Prescriptive Poppycock,” or search that site for “zombie rules,” a term coined by Arnold Zwicky to describe superstitions and nonrules that keep coming back from the dead no matter how many times sensible grammarians try to kill them.

I like to apply some of these nonrules in fantasy dialog to show just how stilted their application can make a language sound. Several of my critique partners have tried to correct the sentence in my first novel that reads “every woman he ever had met…” to “every woman he had ever met.” My construction, which readers instantly notice sounds odd, employs a journalistic shibboleth that’s based on the Associated Press Stylebook entry on verbs, which says, “avoid awkward constructions that split infinitive forms of a verb (to leave, to help, etc.) or compound forms (had left, are found out, etc.).”

You see, AP is partly responsible for the anti-split-infinitive nonrule also.

The thing is, the adverb (ever) rightly belongs between the two parts of the compound verb (had met). So when I, AP-style, take it from its rightful place and stick it in front as many newspaper editors would, it strikes my readers as off-kilter. This is very helpful when I want to create a “foreign” feel in my fantasy language. But it’s got no place in plain English.

Please understand, I am not saying, “You have to know the rules before you can break the rules,” a maxim I am heartily sick of.

I am saying you have to know the difference between real rules and nonrules.

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  1. You wrote:

    Of course, if that is what you are going for, you are welcome to it, are you not?

    I did the following: ROTFL!!!!

    As always, soooo good!


  2. Or the fellow who read a few pages of my text and insisted that “they would NOT have used nicknames for each other back then.” I was too dumbfounded to respond with “Really, and you know this because??? Oh, wait, I know. You can read 7th C Syriac and you are sure they would have spoken in the same manner as they wrote legal documents.” Oy.
    Thanks for the breath of fresh air!

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