Tuesday, January 12, 2016

How to Break Grammar Rules Without Looking Dumb (Hint: It’s a Lot Like Fashion)

I’ve seen a lot of articles, memes, and infographics passed around social media lately with titles like “5 Grammar Rules It’s Okay to Break.” They worry me. Not because I’m a member of the Grammar SS and/or inflexible about rules. (For proof, see the fact that the previous sentence is an incomplete one.) As a freelancer, I have to be ready to switch style guides at the drop of a fedora, so you won’t catch me popping a vein about whether or not one should use a serial comma—for me, it just depends on the client.

When bad grammar and fashion collide. (Photo: bfishadow/Creative Commons)
No, my worries about these lists that encourage rule-breaking have more to do with the fact that some people aren’t ready for creative interpretation of rules that they never learned in the first place. In other words, you need to have mastered the rule you’re breaking before you can effectively break it. Try it before you’re ready, and you won’t look clever. You’ll look like you don’t know any better. 
It occurred to me that grammar can be a lot like fashion. What you say or write—just like what you wear—can influence other people’s perception of you. Now, if you don’t give a fig what anyone thinks of your writing, just move along. But, if you do, here’s what you should know about breaking grammar rules without looking like an amateur.

Know the rules first.

Have you ever noticed how fashion mavens can get away with outfits that would seem like a joke if anyone else were wearing it? They can combine patterns, wear non-matching colors, or make a flower pot into a hat, and the critics go wild. It’s because they know that the model or designer is aware of basic fashion concepts, so when they turn them upside down, it becomes a commentary on something: the rigidity of rules, the absurdity of fashion itself, or what-have you. When a little kid picks out his own outfit and it doesn’t match, it might seem hilarious or adorable, but no one thinks of it as a statement. The kid doesn’t know how to match clothes in the first place, so he’s not staging a protest.

It’s the same with grammar. There’s a difference between writing incomplete sentences because you can’t keep up with subjects vs. verbs and writing incomplete sentences for effect. (Like this.) It’s a difference that shows. Believe me, you won’t look clever when yelling that splitting infinitives is perfectly fine these days if you’re still using apostrophes to make plurals.

Context matters.

There’s nothing at all wrong with rocking your sweatpants at the grocery store. Wear them to the banquet to receive your Nobel Prize, and you might get a few stares. (Which is okay, if that’s what you want. See #5.) Some style juxtapositions just won’t serve your purpose well, like wearing stiletto heels on a treacherous hike. You’ll not only look silly, but you risk breaking your ankle. Context matters in choosing a writing style, too. While some may tear their hair out when they see textspeak, there’s nothing wrong with using it when sending a text to a friend. There’s nothing wrong with using it in the context of a novel to indicate a text conversation between young adults. You could also get away with writing a poem laden with LOLs and <3s to create a certain vibe. Places you might not want to use textspeak: your master’s thesis, job applications, grandma’s epitaph.

Make Sure It Fits You

When it comes to clothes, even the trendiest look will fall flat if it’s the wrong size, or even worse, if it doesn’t suit your own personal style. It’s why we laugh when we see a nerd character on TV put on a leather jacket and try to act like a tough guy. It’s not the leather jacket itself that’s funny—it’s seeing a guy try to be something he’s not. Ever heard little kids swearing for the first time? They tend to use the words incorrectly, or as the wrong part of speech, and it’s laughable because it’s so obvious they have no idea what the words even mean. If you choose to bend grammar rules in your writing in an attempt to mimic some sort of style or trend, make sure it’s one that you understand, and that suits you. Otherwise, your sentences will look less like the cool, urban street talk you’re aiming for, and more like mangled nonsense. (This goes in the opposite direction, too. Verily I say unto you that trying to write flowery, ornate speech looks just as silly if it’s not your style.)

Stick to One Theme

There’s a brief moment in Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments when a crowd extra’s wristwatch is visible as he waves his arm around. It’s barely one or two seconds of film time, yet people still laugh about it sixty years later. It stands out—in a bad way—because it doesn’t belong with the costume or the time period. When writing, you should take care not to drop ungrammatical or colloquial phrases where they don’t fit the theme. I read plenty of Southern food blogs, and many of them use a folksy, conversational style, peppered with aint’s and y’alls and even a don’t got no or two. It’s perfectly charming. If I encountered the same wording in the instructions for my bookcase, I’d be fairly surprised. (Not to mention, instructions are difficult enough to follow even when the language is kept straightforward and simple.)

If You’re Doing It to Make a Point, Make Sure the Point Is Clear

In 1996, after gossip mags had speculated endlessly about which famous fashion designer would dress Sharon Stone, she showed up wearing a turtleneck from the Gap and wowed everyone. Her point—not being part of the Hollywood machine—was crystal clear. When it comes right down to it, you can misspell or manipulate words any way you like. If you’re doing it to be funny, though, make sure you’re actually funny. If you’re bucking convention as Sharon Stone did, or making a statement, you’ll have a better reception if your audience is in on it.

As a final word of advice, if you choose to break the rules, be prepared to own your decision. Once you’ve made that choice, be prepared to defend it. Ultimately, you can do whatever you want. Wear black to a wedding or white after Labor Day. Mix patterns. Strut topless in New York City. Know, though, that everyone won’t love it. Just as some old ladies will be shocked at your choice of magenta hot pants for a funeral, some folks will have a conniption if you don’t use dialogue tags. If you don’t care, that’s cool. Know what you’re doing, and the choice you make can be an informed one.