To Boldly Split Infinitives

Ever since I started taking writing seriously (catch me on most days and I’ll tell you I still don’t) I have been amazed at how fluid the rules for grammar, and in fact all of writing, are.

As kids in English Class, we’re taught how to follow the rules. You don’t end sentences with prepositions. Passive voice is always wrong. Never split an infinitive. Hard and fast rules like that are good for attention-deficient sproutlings like the ones that shared my high school classrooms (and me, of course. I was mostly thinking about boobs and lizards and Megadeth in those days), because telling a fifteen-year-old to do something is hard enough without having to tack on an exception or two or nine.

But still, one of my English teachers (thanks, Mr. Furlow) made a point of saying at least once that the reason you learn these rules is so that you can break them. Read any accomplished author, he said, and see how many times they break the rules. That, of course, mostly just fueled apathy toward the subject, but that portion of the lesson stuck with me more than anything—even more than the endless sentence diagrams we were all inculcated with.

These days I find myself frequently researching the proper use for punctuation. I just spent an hour working on how best to use ellipses in Shame the Devil. I overuse them, I’m told, but I choose to stick with the usage I know. I also don’t put spaces before, after, or inside of them. I don’t add punctuation at the end of an ellipsis if it precedes a dialogue tag. I use them when dialogue trails off AND again when it picks back up, if it picks back up at all. But I don’t do this if it doesn’t feel right for the character’s rhythm of speech.

All of these strategies are advised against by some, and are endorsed by others. There isn’t a rule of rules to go by, that has since been re-thought, nor was there ever a rule which was slowly perverted by repeated misuse. It’s author’s choice. Always has been. Just about the only hard and fast rule there is in such matters is to be consistent inside the work (and I’m ready to see an example of why this rule should be broken, too).

I run into this situation any time I research a usage issue that isn’t obvious. And by obvious I mean there’s little point in breaking a rule that doesn’t accomplish anything. Why use a semicolon when a question mark is called for? Why omit an apostrophe from a contraction? You’re just going to look stupid if you break a rule for the sake of breaking it. Don’t be a punk.

But overuse of ellipses or dashes? Look what it did for Emily Dickinson. Offsetting internal dialogue instead of working it into the character’s unquoted voice? Ever read Dune? How about Cormac McCarthy…I mean um…just LOOK at his work.

My point is, they (and many others) broke the rules and wound up creating something better. Sort of like when a band purposefully employs substandard production values in the recording studio, resulting in a more visceral/thrilling album. *Ahem* I am am NOT referring to the poseurs who dumb down their production for the sake of having a dumbed-down production.

I’m just saying that in the world of writing, as long as you’ve read Strunk & White, no one can beat you over the head with it anymore.

Breakin’ the law, breakin’ the law… I love it! Because guess what? It means we can do whatever we want. That’s great! Not because I just love to slop up my pages with whatever suits my fancy, but because creative writing ought to be as free as the inspiration behind it. The right tool for the right job, my dad would say. Composing fiction is a job, and writing is a tool that needs to be capable of it, no matter whose hands it’s in.

There will always be the grammarian elite out there, sneering at methods that don’t follow the “accepted” guidelines. “Accepted”, in this case, means whatever most people do. But who cares? Are you writing for them? I’m not.

But then, I’m forgetting my audience. If you are reading this, and you write, all of the above is probably very old news to you. But I felt like writing about it, dammit, and that’s good enough reason to do so. Motivation is the most valuable tool in writing, I think… Same as other arts. And I don’t have to spend it making sentence diagrams, analyzing Steinbeck, or coming up with lame acrostics using my school’s name if I don’t want to.

This isn’t English class anymore.

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