Learning Grammar Rules to Break Grammar Rules

This is a guest post from Celine Low. A dabbler in everything from painting to astronomy, Celine graduated from the National University of Singapore with an honours degree in English Literature, surprised that she’d managed to pass at all after failing all those Einstein courses. She decided that if she couldn’t calculate the earth’s wonders she could at least write about their incalculability, so now she spends her time in her glass house of books, writing and tutoring children in creative writing by using her giant mirror as a whiteboard. Her fiction works have been published by The Bride of Chaos and Marshall Cavendish, and her illustrated poem “Wild” won second place in the 2014 Eye Level Children’s Literature Awards. Follow her on Twitter @celine_low_

We all know them. Some of us have suffered under them. The frowning school teacher who constantly rampaged our scripts for run-on sentences and double negatives, the vulture-eyed editor who swoops down on the slightest punctuation mistake. Woe to anyone who puts a semi-colon out of place! Failure to conform to the grammar bigot’s (often arbitrary) rules will immediately be condemned for “bad writing.”

I remember the profound sense of irritation I had whenever I got back my essays to see my teachers’ invasive red ink marring my carefully penned scripts. In Singapore, students must stick to the conventions of formal writing if they want to ace English, despite being tasked to write fiction. (I don’t know why it doesn’t seem to have occured to our Education Ministry that if they wanted to test our formal writing skills they should set that for exams instead.) So teachers here are often what C. S. Lewis calls “Stylemongers.” Besotted with grammar, they’d give no thought to whether the repetitive words and run-on sentences they so avidly slash out contribute to the expressiveness of the language. They’d underline sentence fragments with furious relish, replace commas with full-stops for no good reason other than that they had to prepare us for exams and change “guys” to “boys” regardless of the story’s context or narrative voice.

I don’t blame the teachers. In fact, I admit I’m not entirely free of the grammar bigot either (she lurks at the back of my mind whenever I read, giving me annoying little pinches whenever we see certain word choices or grammatical constructions she’s capriciously taken a dislike to). Teachers need to help students pass exams, so it’s understandable if they have to play by the rules of the education system they’re part of. But it’s scary this attitude lingers on even outside of school.

Recently a friend of mine submitted a script for an educational film to be screened in schools, and the education ministry-trained teachers who made the edits corrected words like “thanks” to “thank you,” complaining that the former was too informal. That, naturally, threw believable dialogue right off the stage (and they wanted something that would engage students—good luck with that). This is an extreme case of linguistic dogmatism, but we see variations of this all the time: book-bloggers picking on oversights in editing while paying comparatively little attention to the book’s contents; reviewers attacking a book for its meandering narrative, for deviating from accepted plot structures. Hunger for social media approval has churned out titles like 10 Rules for Writing FictionThe Golden Rules for a Good PlotTop 5 Grammar Rules Not to Break; guided, of course, by articles titled along the same lines: 17 Easy Tricks to Writing Catchy Headlines, 6 Steps to Writing Click-Worthy Titles … Who’d dare create the next literary revolution, the next Ulysses equivalent, with all these rules in place? That poor book would probably be—God forbid!—ranked lowest on Amazon. At most we’d probably just get a Ulysses copycat; then maybe it’d get some award and get chucked to the rank number #500,000.

We need guidelines, yes. The ability to write and speak according to set linguistic conventions is a good practical skill. Knowledge of effective, tried-and-tested story structures is also certainly useful. But if we are going to set exams that involve the writing of fiction, then these conventions should not be imposed as incontestable laws. To any reader or writer of fiction they are tools, or stepping stones, towards greater creativity. Students may follow them temporarily for training purposes, but should eventually learn how these rules can be artfully used, manipulated or broken to enhance the reader’s experience. And if an author seems to make a mistake or two, it may still be worthwhile for us to receive, with open minds, the text in its entirety instead of shredding the manuscript at once.

We must be careful not to espouse or promote a greater concern for rules than with the poetic style and usage of language; because doing so, whether intentionally or otherwise, would limit language itself, and literature, in all its diverse ways of sounding and signifying. Let one generation of bigots breed another, and we may find ourselves languishing one day in a stale and monochromatic literary desert with far fewer than fifty shades of grey.

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