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Feeling Frisky and Breaking the RulesScribe small

Katharine Hepburn said, “If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun.”

Today, in the spirit of Ms. Hepburn’s wit and ribald spring, I am going to talk about rules and their breaking.

As a matter of principle, I believe rules should be broken – at the very least bent – whenever and wherever possible. This presupposes the breakage is done with knowledgeable deliberation and no one gets hurt in the process. (Those falling sentence fragments can be lethal!)


Of course, in writing – as in life – some rules are more flexible than others. And some seem downright arbitrary, especially when it comes to fiction. Here are a few of my particular favorites:

Avoid split infinitives. One wishes to generally do this as a matter of clarity, and I like to think this was the rule’s intent. Though back when Chaucer’s Middle English was transforming into the language of Shakespeare and beyond, split infinitives were not as de trop as they are today. Grammar, like fashion, changes with the times. Personally, I prefer to trim my adverbs as much as possible and thus avoid the entire matter. However, there are times when an infinitive must be boldly split and roundly defended in its severed form. As Raymond Chandler wrote to his editor:

          “… when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will remain split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of barroom vernacular, this is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed and attentive. The method may not be perfect, but it is all I have.”

Don’t end a sentence with a preposition. Good advice in the abstract but this rule can tie you in knots if taken to extremes. In formal writing, we can get away with sounding, well, formal as with, “It is possible that Kiau was actually a sea serpent, washed up river by one of the great tidal bores for which the Chien-Tang is famous.” (Dragon Keeper’s Handbook) This is not only grammatically correct but, in context, aesthetically superior to “… washed up river by one of the great tidal bores the Chien-Tang is famous for.”

On the other hand, twisting “What are you waiting for?” into “For what are you waiting?” is sure to get you laughed right out of the playground. In short, use your common sense, know your audience and characters, and if it sounds artificial don’t do it no matter what your 7th-grade English teacher said.

Avoid starting sentences with conjunctions. But why would we want to do such a silly thing? This is one of those arbitrary quasi-rules not only broken but regularly shattered. Conjunction starters serve to break up otherwise long, ophidian sentences. They also lend strength and emphasis otherwise obscured. And that is as it should be. I would be concerned about conjunctions as openers is when they become a substitute for creative transitions. Or when writers just get lazy.

No more sentence fragments! When I got the galleys for my last book, Dragons for Beginners, my editor also enclosed the style guide she’d given to the proofreaders. Along with a list of text-specific capitalizations and idiosyncratic spellings, she included the admonition, ‘The author also uses sentence fragments at times – please retain her tone.’ Now, when I was writing, to fragment or not to fragment was a question that never crossed my mind. I just did it when it felt right and the spirit moved. But she was right, it’s definitely part of my “tone” – my voice. That said, it naturally took me a while to find this example:

          “…They wear the cloak of modest anonymity that allows them to avoid the dangerously acquisitive and fearfully ignorant. To linger among us a little longer.  
And then there are Dragons. 
Magnificent, preternatural, take-your-breath-away Dragons.”

[Note: I also have no problem with one-line paragraphs.]

The fact is, there are times when a fragment speaks more eloquently than the most meticulously constructed sentence with neatly placed subject, predicate, direct and indirect objects, and well-chosen adjectives and adverbs. C’est la vie.

If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun.... Katharine Hepburn - Alfred Eisenstaedt

If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun….
Katharine Hepburn – Alfred Eisenstaedt

So, raise a glass of wine – or bowl of tea – to the freedom that comes with breaking the rules. Then take to your keyboard with your guilty writing transgressions. The more the merrier.