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Three Writing Rules to Disregard

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I have nothing against rules. They’re indispensable when playing Monopoly or gin rummy, and their observance can go a long way toward improving a ride on the subway. The rule of law? Big fan.

The English language, though, is not so easily ruled and regulated. It developed without codification, sucking up new constructions and vocabulary every time some foreigner set foot on the British Isles—­to say nothing of the mischief we Americans have wreaked on it these last few centuries—­and continues to evolve anarchically. It has, to my great dismay, no enforceable laws, much less someone to enforce the laws it doesn’t have.

Certain prose rules are essentially inarguable—­that a sentence’s subject and its verb should agree in number, for instance. Or that in a “not only x but y” construction, the x and the y must be parallel elements. Why? I suppose because they’re firmly entrenched, because no one cares to argue with them, and because they aid us in using our words to their preeminent purpose: to communicate clearly with our readers. Let’s call these reasons the Four C’s, shall we? Convention. Consensus. Clarity. Comprehension.

Also simply because, I swear to you, a well-­constructed sentence sounds better. Literally sounds better. One of the best ways to determine whether your prose is well ­constructed is to read it aloud. A sentence that can’t be readily voiced is a sentence that likely needs to be rewritten.

A good sentence, I find myself saying frequently, is one that the reader can follow from beginning to end, no matter how long it is, without having to double back in confusion because the writer misused or omitted a key piece of punctuation, chose a vague or misleading pronoun, or in some other way engaged in inadvertent misdirection. (If you want to puzzle your reader, that’s your own business.)

As much as I like a good rule, I’m an enthusiastic subscriber to the notion of “rules are meant to be broken”—­once you’ve learned them, I hasten to add.

But let’s, right now, attend to a few of what I think of as the Great Nonrules of the English Language. You’ve encountered all of these; likely you were taught them in school. I’d like you to free yourself of them. They’re not helping you; all they’re doing is clogging your brain and inciting you to look self-­consciously over your own shoulder as you write, which is as psychically painful as it is physically impossible. And once you’ve done that, once you’ve gotten rid of them, hopefully you can put your attention on vastly more important things. 

Why are they nonrules? So far as I’m concerned, because they’re largely unhelpful, pointlessly constricting, feckless, and useless. Also because they’re generally of dubious origin: devised out of thin air, then passed on till they’ve gained respectable solidity and, ultimately, have ossified. Language experts far more expert than I have, over the years, done their best to debunk them, yet these made-­up strictures refuse to go away and have proven more durable than Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. Put together. Part of the problem, I must add, is that some of them were made up by ostensible and presumably well-­meaning language experts in the first place, so getting rid of them can be a bit like trying to get a dog to stop chasing its own tail.

I’ll dispatch these reasonably succinctly, with the hope that you’ll trust that I’ve done my homework and will be happy to see them go. I’m mindful of Gertrude Stein’s characterization of Ezra Pound as “a village explainer, excellent if you were a village, but if you were not, not,” and no one wants to be that guy. Also, if you persist in insisting that these nonrules are real and valid and to be hewed to, all the expert citations in the world won’t, I know through experience, change your mind one tiny little bit.

An admission: Quite a lot of what I do as a copy editor is to help writers avoid being carped at, fairly or—­and this is the part that hurts—­unfairly, by People Who Think They Know Better and Write Aggrieved Emails to Publishing Houses. Thus I tend to be a bit conservative about flouting rules that may be a bit dubious in their origin but, observed, ain’t hurting nobody. And though the nonrules below are particularly arrant nonsense, I warn you that, in breaking them, you’ll have a certain percentage of the reading and online-­commenting populace up your fundament to tell you you’re subliterate. Go ahead and break them anyway. It’s fun, and I’ll back you up.

1. Never Begin a Sentence with “And” or “But.”

No, do begin a sentence with “And” or “But,” if it strikes your fancy to do so. Great writers do it all the time. As do even not necessarily great writers, like the person who has, so far in this essay, done it a few times and intends to do it a lot more.

But soft, as they used to say, here comes a caveat:

An “And” or a “But” (or a “For” or an “Or” or a “However” or a “Because,” to cite four other sentence starters one is often warned against) is not always the strongest beginning for a sentence, and making a relentless habit of using any of them palls quickly. You may find that you don’t need that “And” at all. You may find that your “And” or “But” sentence might easily attach to its predecessor sentence with either a comma or a semicolon. Take a good look, and give it a good think.

Let’s test an example or two.

Francie, of course, became an outsider shunned by all because of her stench. But she had become accustomed to being lonely.

Francie, of course, became an outsider shunned by all because of her stench, but she had become accustomed to being lonely.

Which do you think Betty Smith, the author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, chose? The former, as it happens. Had I been Smith’s copy editor, I might well have suggested the second, to make one coherent, connected thought out of two unnecessarily separated ones. Perhaps she’d have agreed, or perhaps she’d have preferred the text as she’d written it, hearing it in her head as a solemn knell. Authors do often prefer their text the way they’ve written it.

Here’s another, in two flavors:

In the hospital he should be safe, for Major Callendar would protect him, but the Major had not come, and now things were worse than ever.

In the hospital he should be safe, for Major Callendar would protect him. But the Major had not come, and now things were worse than ever.

This is E. M. Forster, in A Passage to India, and I suspect you’ll not be surprised to learn that version 2 is his. For one thing, version 1’s a bit long. More important, version 2, with that definitive period, more effectively conveys, I’d say, the sense of dashed expectations, the reversal of fortune.

These are the choices that writers make, and that copy editors observe, and this is how you build a book.

One thing to add: Writers who are not so adept at linking their sentences habitually toss in a “But” or a “However” to create the illusion that a second thought contradicts a first thought when it doesn’t do any such thing. It doesn’t work, and I’m on to you.

2. Never Split an Infinitive.

To cite the most famous split infinitive of our era—­and everyone cites this bit from the original Star Trek TV series, so zero points to me for originality—­“To boldly go where no man has gone before.”

There’s much more—­much more—­one could say on the subject, but I don’t want to write about the nineteenth-­century textual critic Henry Alford any more than you want to read about the nineteenth-­century textual critic Henry Alford, so let’s leave it at this: A split infinitive, as we generally understand the term, is a “to [verb]” construction with an adverb stuck in the middle of it. In the Star Trek example, then, an unsplit infinitive version would be “Boldly to go where no man has gone before” or “To go boldly where no man has gone before.” If either of those sounds better to you, be my guest. To me they sound as if they were translated from the Vulcan.

Otherwise, let’s skip right to Raymond Chandler. Again, as with the Star Trek phrase, everyone loves to cite Chandler on this subject, but it’s for a God damn [sic] good reason. Chandler sent this note to the editor of The Atlantic Monthly in response to the copyediting of an article he’d written:

By the way, would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-­down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split.

Over and out.

3. Never End a Sentence with a Preposition.

This is the rule that invariably (and wearily) leads to a rehash of the celebrated remark by Winston Churchill that Winston Churchill, in reality, neither said nor wrote:

“This is the kind of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.”

Let me say this about this: Ending a sentence with a preposition (as, at, by, for, from, of, etc.) isn’t always such a hot idea, mostly because a sentence should, when it can, aim for a powerful finale and not simply dribble off like an old man’s unhappy micturition. A sentence that meanders its way to a prepositional finish is often, I find, weaker than it ought to or could be.

What did you do that for?

Why did you do that?

has some snap to it.

But to tie a sentence into a strangling knot to avoid a prepositional conclusion is unhelpful and unnatural, and it’s something no good writer should attempt and no eager reader should have to contend with.

If you follow me.

Benjamin Dreyer is vice president, executive managing editor, and copy chief of Random House. He began his publishing career as a freelance proofreader and copyeditor. In 1993, he became a production editor at Random House, overseeing books by writers including Michael Chabon, Edmund Morris, Suzan-Lori Parks, Michael Pollan, Peter Straub, and Calvin Trillin. He has copyedited books by authors including E. L. Doctorow, David Ebershoff, Frank Rich, and Elizabeth Strout, as well as Let Me Tell You, a volume of previously uncollected work by Shirley Jackson. A graduate of Northwestern University, he lives in New York City.

Excerpted with permission from the new book Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, by Benjamin Dreyer. Published by Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. Copyright © 2019 by Benjamin Dreyer. All rights reserved.

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