Hugh Howey

Bestselling author of Wool and other books. Currently sailing around the world.

Celebrating 50 Years of Ignoring Rules

(Or simply not being aware of them)

As a bookseller in a university setting, I sold hundreds of copies of Strunk and White’s classic every semester. And I felt guilty each time. While the work is still mandatory for most college classrooms, I much prefer EATS, SHOOTS, AND LEAVES and wish everyone would read this text instead.

It appears Geoffrey K. Pullum agrees. This incredible refutation of the grammar of Strunk and White is a must-read for writers (I want to argue that everyone should read this, but I realize that many won’t care). Absolutely brilliant. Especially:

There is of course nothing wrong with writing passives and negatives and adjectives and adverbs. I’m not nitpicking the authors’ writing style. White, in particular, often wrote beautifully, and his old professor would have been proud of him. What’s wrong is that the grammatical advice proffered in Elements is so misplaced and inaccurate that counterexamples often show up in the authors’ own prose on the very same page.

5 replies to “Celebrating 50 Years of Ignoring Rules”

In my opinion, the best way to learn grammar (if perhaps not the most efficient — although I’d argue that point) is to read a hell of a lot. Eventually, you develop an ear for what’s right, and an itch for what’s wrong (without ever knowing exactly what the rules are that are being violated). And if you have a good ear and you’re still uncertain, odds are you’ll find that the experts aren’t quite in agreement anyway, or that the rules on that particular subject are flexible or “evolving”. (In other words: if even your good ear isn’t sure, there’s no wrong answer.)

Personally, although I think style guides are great as a reference (and I do refer to them, though mostly because I find the subject interesting), I find it hard to imagine that even the best of them can be very useful as textbooks. If you have to memorize a set of mechanical rules to use when writing, your writing will suffer for it. I think learning good English grammar is much like learning to speak a foreign language: at some point, you’ve got to just “know” it. You can’t carry on a sparkling conversation with that beautiful mademoiselle if in your head you’re constantly running through rules about verb endings. French classes can only take you so far; to be fluent, eventually you’ve got to move to Paris. Similarly, those style books may be okay for high school (maybe). But eventually you’ve got to just read — or write — or both. And then, once you’ve got an ear for what sounds right? Feel free to break all the rules you want.

I always despised the harpy nature of style books like this one, but for a long time I was ruled by them (eek, passive voice!). My writing suffered for it because as I wrote I would constantly edit myself. Oh no no I mustn’t split an infinitive or end a sentence with a preposition. That’s just wrong, wrong, wrong.

Then, I got a grip and realised that English is a wide and varied language. It’s constantly changing and the best writers (including you, Hugh) are able to navigate it without being bogged down by antiquated notions of what language ‘should’ be.

Now imagine the French Academy and their odious rules for that language. The horror.

The best thing for my writing was reading more poetry. Prose should sing as much as make sense. It should communicate and also tickle the part of us that knows harmony. It should invade the neighboring portions of our brains where touch and smell live and trigger these as well. And then there aren’t any rules — just language. And you’re writing the good shit.

Great tip, Hugh. Similarly, I find that my non-fiction writing, which is what I deal in primarily, is much more compelling because I read a lot of fiction. I pay close attention to structure and colourful description, which makes what could be dull as dirt more interesting to the reader.

Comments are closed.