When rules can be broken

Let’s start with an old grammar joke.

Two women are sitting next to each other on a train. The first turns to the second and asks “So where are you from?”

The second sniffs. “I’m from a place where we do not end a sentence with a preposition.”

Ever the courteous conversationalist, the first corrects herself: “So where are you from, asshole?” 

Grammar’s funny like that.

Almost nobody adheres to the joke’s preposition rule, because bending over backwards to avoid a preposition can make sentences ridiculously convoluted. Seriously, how could you possibly rephrase the opening question? “From whence do you hail?”

There’s nothing casual or friendly about that, unless you’re at a renfaire. So the first woman did the sensible thing and sacrificed the grammatical rule for the sake of her message.

Meaning can be more than clarity

When you understand a rule, you can break it in a way that leaves an impression on the reader.

If you spend much time on Tumblr, you’ll notice that text will randomly go into all caps and jumbled letters whEN THE WRITERS GET SUPER EXCITED AFKLSDJLKFDSL. The point is that the writer is so incredibly excited and/or angry that their emotion becomes more important than the subject they’re talking about, conveying that the thing they’re talking about is either too amazing or too awful for words.

It works just as well in fiction.

Sentence fragments can indicate fragmented thought. Run-on sentences can convey anxiety. Particular errors can become hallmarks of a character’s voice. For example, Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes famously begins with so many spelling and grammatical errors that it can seem nigh unintelligible, because throughout the story, the way Charly writes signals as much (if not more) to the audience as the content of his words. During the entire book, you can map his mental state by his writing style. The same can be said about Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn, in which individual letters are systematically excised from the text throughout the novel. The more draconian the town’s laws become, the more convoluted the prose becomes.

If you’re tempted to use style in this way, though, keep three things in mind:

  • These flourishes are all deliberately placed by the writer
  • The reader’s attention is drawn to the dramatic flourishes and away from the text itself
  • The dramatic flourishes actively reinforce the most important part of the text

It’s important to beware, though. Get too bold with your style, and you may sacrifice the content of your words altogether.

Do you have any flourishes you favor? Know any good grammar jokes? Are there styles that drive you batty? Tell us in the comments!


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