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Who Needs Rules? Writers & Readers Do. (In The Word Cellar)

image by Horia Varlan

In general, I have a complicated relationship with rules. On the one hand, I tend to be a goody-two-shoes who obeys the rules because I'm afraid of getting in trouble. On the other hand, I long to rebel, to break out and do my own thing, rules be damned!

And so it is with my writing. I use this tension between rule following nerd and raucous rebel to my benefit. When we know the rules, we can decide when and why to break them. This enables us to use language, grammar, and punctuation more effectively.

But why must we writers bother with rules in the first place? Maybe you're thinking, "Isn't writing all about creative self-expression?" Yes. But as long as you're writing something for other people to read, you need to care about the rules.

Why? Because the rules of grammar, word usage, and punctuation are a form of etiquette between you and the reader. Writing is communication. An essay, blog post, story, or novel is an interactive entity. You may write it when you're alone, and a reader may read it on her own, but you both need to understand the rules of the game in order for the piece of writing to work.

First of all, using proper punctuation and grammar shows readers that you use language with authority. This helps them to put their trust in you and what you're writing. Have you ever read something pockmarked with mistakes? It's hard to give the author or the material much credibility when that happens. Second, following established rules is a way to give readers signposts and signals about the rhythm and meaning of your writing. If you suddenly made up new punctuation marks or used a comma when you should have used a question mark, you risk diminishing your authority while also confusing readers.

Consider capitalization, another device that helps to direct readers. We capitalize the beginnings of sentences to show that a new "unit" or thought has begun. Likewise, we capitalize proper nouns to indicate that we're referring to a particular person or place. Look at the following sentences.

I walked to sandy shores.

I walked to Sandy Shores.

In the first example, I'm telling the reader (in a rather poetic voice) that I walked to some shores that are sandy. In the second sentence, I indicate that I walked to a specific place called Sandy Shores. Depending on the context of the sentence, this could be an important point for the reader to know. (For example, maybe Sandy Shores is five miles away or is just around the corner. Maybe the narrator's red hot lover or estranged mother lives in Sandy Shores. Maybe Sandy Shores is the name of a Christian missionary house or a seedy bar. Either way, "Sandy Shores" tells us something different than "sandy shores.")

These are basic examples of why writing rules matter. Now, let's talk about rule breaking!

Last week I wrote a blog post using all lowercase letters. I ignored the rules of capitlization because I wanted to create a feeling of intimacy with the reader. I also wanted the words to show visually that I felt tired and small. Of course, the poet e.e. cummings is known for his use of lowercase letters, and I referenced him at the beginning of my post. I invoked cummings' name for several reasons. First, I was making a bit of a joke. But I also wanted people to know that I was aware of breaking the rules and to show that I was doing it on purpose. I felt confident that my readers could follow this tiny act of rebellion.

When I decided to use lowercase letters, I decided to let my desired style trump the established rules. I didn't do it wrong simply because I didn't know any better. Rather, I made a conscious choice to do something different. In this case, I'm comfortable with that risk. This doesn't mean that all rule breaking, even conscious rule breaking, will work well or to your advantage.

Rule breaking is one of those grey areas in writing that depend on the author, the intended audience, the format, the desired effect, style, tone, and the individual piece of writing. You should make the decision to go against a rule based on all of these factors. For example, writing for a blog may be different than writing for a major magazine. Different rules of style may apply, but you should always be in control of your writing. (In other words, informal writing isn't an excuse to be sloppy.)

So. Does that help to clear things up or just create more confusion? (See how I made a whole sentence out of the word "so"? I'm breaking rules all over the place!)

This post just grazes the surface of rules and rule breaking in writing. Let's get a discussion going in the comments. Are you a stickler for rules? Do you hate them? What are your rule breaking questions?

**I'll be answering community questions in the coming weeks. Send your writing questions to jennifer{at}thewordcellar{dot}com with "In The Word Cellar" as the subject line.**

In The Word Cellar runs on the second and fourth Wednesday of the month. Check out other articles in the series here.

Reader Comments (11)

I've always been a sucker for rules, too. Only recently have I decided to break a few. Shhhhh. ;o)
I don't have a discussion point. My eyes are bleary. BUT! I did want to say that I actually knew a woman whose NAME was Sandy Shore. So, your example up there? It had a whole extra DIMENSION for me. I mean, when you start needing those flying commas and all.....
March 24, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterdanielle
I feel the same way in writing and in life. I hate getting in trouble, but I long to be a rebel.

I mostly follow the rules when I'm writing, but I understand that I probably know the rules more than others (a grammar class taken AFTER college) so I allow myself to break them in order to make a point. Secretly, I'm worried the whole time that the grammar police will stop by and notice.

So, the biggest rule I tend to break is beginning a sentence with a conjunction.
March 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAmie aka MammaLoves
I love that this conversation is taking place in the blogosphere because it's here and in textland that all the rules seem to have been lost or forgotten.

I cringe alot while reading and I suspect I could guess the age of most by the way they write.

Though I sometimes allow myself to slip down into the pit of blogword to maintain a casual mood, I otherwise carefully use all the rules I can remember and frequently argue with the spell and grammar check in Word.
March 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDiane Cipa
I like the fact that you spelled grey correctly. American rule breaker you... :)
March 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterClaire
I break rules constantly, and have complained about rules in my blog, but you're right - it's only because I know the rules that I can break them.
March 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDebi
i like to break the rules but because the writing i do in my day job is so restrictively rule bound ... my favourite rule to break is capitalization but only when i write cozy emails to my friends, blog comments and ahem about 90% of my blog posts ... it makes me happy and i feel free like i'm having a conversation with good friends :-) xo
March 25, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterdarlene
I am a stickler for rules, but I do like to break them when I'm trying to make point or attract a certain feeling.

I find it hard to remember the rules though when I read a lot of informaiton that is incorrect. The lines become blurry. Our newspaper has a tendancy to do this.

I think a reminder on the rules is refreshing.
March 25, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterab*
oh, i so break the rules all the time. i do think it's the editor in me. knowing them makes them that much more tempting to break. thanks for reminding me that they are important!
March 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAmy
I like the feelings I get when I break the conventions of writing - confidence, a sense of identity, and a certain authority.....because rebelling like that emphasises (in my own mind at least) that I must already know the rules in order to break them.

As for which rules I most often violate....I scatter dashes and little lines of dots liberally throughout my writing (which may well irritate some people); I frequently start sentences with 'And' or 'But'; and I write short sentences containing no verb (which aren't, therefore, sentences at all).

But you know what? I like to write that way. And now you know. That I know. So there.
March 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterHelen (Dixon Hill Girl)
I think the main thing is that you have to know what the rules are before you can break them, If you break them by accident, because you don't know what they are, that is an error. If you know them and you break them on purpose, that is creative license. It seems that these days, not enough people know the difference.
March 27, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermrs
Hello! i just found your blog courtesy of the lovely Maddie{of Persisting Stars} & my visit has been beyond beautiful, so Thankyou!!! im sure you would find my blog horrifyingly rife with grammatical errors & [phrase] structural damage{not too mention run-on sentences!} but more often i like to leave a general impression of feeling rather than a declarative atatement of sorts. & i decided long ago, that unlike Leonardo da Vinci{who always signed his name Io, Leonardo}, id do the opposite, so i gave capital I the boot. :) along with alot of other capitals, to make it much less formal. from that perspective i really loved your post on e.e.cummings, as i had no idea of his wonderful style. Also, im sure i know less than half the rules of grammar so i really appreciate the beauty & the bounty of your posts!!
Thankyou!! It has been a breath of fresh air!!!
loveliest thoughts
April 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChenoa
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