We’re ready to examine Rule #2 of The 7 Reasonable Rules of Writing: Good grammar. Notice that I said good. You’ll recall that the ideal communication goal for spelling may be perfection, but that we settle for excellence, because of Murphy’s law. However, good grammar is sufficient to achieve the goal of our Art, which is communication.
Writers who have difficulty communicating on real or virtual paper would be well-advised to consult some specialists. They include dictionaries (use an old one and a newer one), and grammar books. These are two from my reference library.
The grammars you use don’t have to be the most current editions. Anything that was published before or during your lifetime will work; but in order to learn what has stood the test of time, and will help you communicate best with the largest number of readers, consult only general grammars that were published at least 20 years ago, and cross-reference with your reasonably new dictionary, to verify current usage.
Also, note my use of the term, “consult.” Learn or review the rules that these books advocate, but the acid test is to choose the form of usage that suits your voice, category of writing (fiction or non-fiction), topic or genre, setting and character development.
For example, most writing gurus and gatekeepers swear by Strunk.* I can live with much of what he and his student, E. B. White, had to say – when I’m writing academic papers. It’s important to know that Strunk’s book was a rubric he wrote for students in his classes to follow: it details his own pet peeves and preferences about parts of speech and their usage. Making up rules is the prerogative of teachers, and obeying them is the responsibility of students: You must learn how to be a successful follower before you can assume the role of an effective leader.
Unfortunately, Strunk has been canonized by the gurus and gatekeepers, and his dicta and dogma are enthusiastically enforced by the Writing Art’s fifth column known as the Grammar Police – and largely misapplied. It’s kind of like the Framingham Heart Study: If you’re aged 30-62, it might be advisable to adopt recommendations based on the study’s findings, but if you’re an infant or an elderly person, your needs are very different to those of the study’s cohort.
Here’s an interesting take on why the diet and exercise regimen prescribed by Strunk & White may be bad for your writing health: http://chronicle.com/article/50-Years-of-Stupid-Grammar/25497
Strunk (with or without his partner in crime) can be a very helpful reference for non-fiction writers to consult, in order to achieve the appearance of correctness that’s so important to academia. If you’re writing for that audience, by all means, adhere to what Strunk himself called, “the little book.” It will fill that limited bill.
So, if you’re past the stage of learning – and you’re not writing for the inhabitants of Planet Strunk – but you find that your writing voice has become unnaturally squeaky, gravelly, or you’ve developed literary laryngitis, then you need to break the prescriptive and proscriptive bonds of the Grammar Police. Just use grammar that communicates.
Occasionally, we all need to review the basics, especially when what we’ve written doesn’t seem to make sense. If you don’t have access to feedback from trusted and capable alpha and beta readers, read your writing aloud, and have it read aloud to you. If you don’t have a willing and able reader, send your writing through the Balabolka text-to-speech converter. Reading aloud usually clears up things.
The Author as an Artist communicates by painting pictures with words. Spelling and grammar make up the paint we use in our Art. The next time we revisit the Rules, we’ll talk about how the paint is applied.
* Before reading Strunk, first read the last 5 paragraphs of E. B. White’s Chapter V in the revised edition (pp. 69-71 in the Macmillan 1959/1962 paperback, twenty-fourth printing, 1971).