Whenever I taught English Composition and Creative Writing in the same semester, I was forcibly reminded of one important rule in writing: “There are rules, and there are rules.” Writers of expository essays and other non-fiction have, at ground, a single task—to communicate an idea effectively. This generally means following a series of conventions developed over the centuries to allow readers to understand such writing, evaluate its success, and decide whether or not the thesis and supporting materials are acceptable. To do that requires a number of elements: clear, precise, and complete sentences, each identifying agent, actor, and acted-upon; consistent use of the conventions associated with spelling, grammar, punctuation, and syntax; logically arranged evidence, with specific, concrete detail; and an overall structure guiding the reader from stated thesis to conclusion —no suspense is needed.
Everything that happens in a composition class, from grammar school to graduate school, serves this primary principle: to communicate an idea.
Unfortunately, too often the dicta established to help writers and readers become codified, lithified actually, and seem more important than the communication itself. I have had colleagues who would readily fail a twenty-page paper for a single fragment, for example, or allow only a certain number of punctuations errors before returning the essay as “unreadable.” And I taught any number of students who emerged from high school English courses convinced that every essay had to have four paragraphs—no more, no less.
In actual practice, English grammar, spelling, punctuation, and syntax have had a long and extravagantly checkered career, to the extent that many of the “rules” learned by rote in school—and often continued in the workplace—have little relevance to the language as actually used. Some grammarians accept this. One of my favorite texts for Freshman Composition reprinted a list of key rules on the end papers, concluding with one in bold-face, capitals, and red ink: “BREAK ANY OF THESE RULES IF IT WORKS!” Other purists stick to their linguistic guns and enforce any criminal offenses with ruthless thoroughness. I still remember when one of my favorite professors (from whom I perhaps learned more about literature than anyone else before graduate school) handed back an in-class exam. He had circled one phrase and made one comment: “Why did you split this infinitive?” My only answer was unacceptable to him: “If felt right.”
I know better now.
In the fundamental rules of writing (they’re rather like the Pirate’s Code, though; they’re actually more like guidelines), the differences between expository writing and storytelling become crucial.
The storyteller’s job is not to communicate a specific idea. That may result through the story, but it is not the purpose of the story. The story must entertain, or no one would bother reading it; but at heart, it must speak Truth. Not factual data, although facts incorporated into it should be accurate; but the deeper, more honest Truth of human existence. Sir Philip Sidney placed writers of fictions (he called them “poets,” but in his day the two terms were largely synonymous) above philosophers, mathematicians, theologians, musicians. Because, he argued, the others were wedded to the truths of this world. Only the poets were free to explore the Truths of a wider world. Nature expressed herself in brass; Poets delivered gold.
As a result, many of the rules devised for exposition do not fit with narration. I would like to point to seven that, however useful they might be in formal communication, might not be that important in writing fiction.
1. Never Split an Infinitive.
Briefly put, an infinitive is a grammatical structure that allows a verb to function as a noun. It is formed by joining the infinitive-particle it to the first-person present-tense form of a verb. “I dive for fun”—no infinitive, and the verb is dive. “To dive makes me happier than anything else.” The subject of the sentence is the infinitive to dive; the verb, a weak one at that, is makes. The strongest verb-like word in the sentence, dive, has been placed in the strongest structural position, as the subject, the thing the whole sentence promises to talk about.
Splitting an infinitive, according to traditional grammarians, occurs when one slips an adverb between the infinitive particle and the verb: “To gracefully dive.” Oops. Mistake!
The problem with this position is that in English, infinitives are already split. That is what the space between the to and the verb indicates.
In fact, the origins of this rule go back, not to the beginnings of the English language, but to Latin. In Latin, “I sing” is expressed by a single word: cant?. The –? identifies the first-person form. The infinitive form is cant?re, with –?re identifying it as such. Notice that the two meaningful parts of the infinitive are connected; in Latin they cannot be separated without altering their meanings, or perhaps better said, without turning them into gibberish.
During the Renaissance, when English grammars were first constructed, scholars believed Latin to be the superior language, so instead of developing a grammar based on what English actually did, they tried to force it into the mold of Latin. Unfortunately, English has strong Germanic roots and doesn’t fit. That didn’t hamper the scholars, however. They cut and pasted until they created parameters for the grammar, then imposed it upon the language. And for centuries, students were taught not to do something that the language had always done.
There are times, especially in narratives and in conversation, when the adverb makes more sense coming between the to and the verb. “Boldly to go” or “to go boldly” effectively diminishes the adverb boldly; “to boldly go” places the adverb on a par with the verb (a rather insipid one) and the combination becomes stronger than either part.
(By the way, please note that the split infinitive creates a nearly perfect iambic structure. Neither alternative—“Boldly to go where no man has gone before” or “To go boldly where no man has gone before”—creates a clear rhythm. The split infinitive does: “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” The single exception to an iambic rhythm, the double stress in “no man” emphasizes a key phrase.)
The stricture becomes even less defensible when the infinitive is ‘split’ by an adverbial phrase. “The deficit is expected to more than triple in the next four years” makes sense. Neither “The deficit is expected more than to triple…” nor “The deficit is expected to triple more than…” does. There is no option for the phrase other than to split the infinitive.
In narratives—and especially in dialogue—the key is not an archaic rule but the rhythms natural to the speaker. To return to the Star Trek example, I’m sure the writers knew that they were breaking a rule; I’m equally sure that they chose to do so on the basis of emphasis, rhythm, and cadence.
And we as writers are free to do the same—to carefully choose when to break the rule.
2. Never Use Fragments.
A sentence, according to the books, consists of several parts: a subject (the actor), a verb (the action), a complete thought, an initial capital, and end punctuation. If any of these parts are missing, the result is a fragment.
The prohibition against fragments makes a certain amount of sense in expository prose. The purpose of such writing is to explain. That requires identifying something to speak about (subject), saying something about it (verb), and, if needed, adding any additional information to ensure understanding.
A sentence may require only two words: “Jesus wept.” There is a subject, a verb, and a complete action. That is, by the way, one of the most intense and effective—as well as the shortest—verses in the King James Bible.
In certain cases, a single word may qualify as a sentence: “Go!” There is a subject (you-understood), a verb, and a complete idea…especially with the exclamation point.
In writing narrative, however, complete sentences may not be necessary. We do not always speak in complete sentences. When writers construct dialogue, therefore, they may wish to truncate a statement to replicate colloquial rhythms. “I don’t know what to do next. Or where to go.” The two could be joined, of course—“I don’t know what to do next or where to go”—but doing so changes the rhythm of the utterance, makes it sound more thoughtful, more considered, which might jar with the emotional overtones the fragment makes.
In narration, the same is true. A fragment may concentrate attention on a particular thought or idea: “He was being herded by the zombies toward the open gate of the pen. The last place he wanted to go.” Separating the latter from the former gives last place more emphasis. There is no subject, there is no sentence verb (wanted is part of a subordinated clause); but the idea is clear and complete.
A fragment composed out of ignorance may weaken a story; a fragment chosen for its emphasis, its jarring effect, its contribution to characterization may strengthen it.
3. Never Use a Preposition at the End of a Sentence
My favorite version of this rule runs: “Never use a preposition to end a sentence with.” My favorite anecdote relates to Sir Winston Churchill’s purported response when an over-zealous editor put all of his prepositions into which-phrases: “This is nonsense, up with which I will not put!”
Either way, the suggestion is strong that there is something wrong with this rule.
In one sense, there is not. A preposition is, by its very name, a pre-position, that is, it comes before something, that something being its object, a noun or a noun-substitute. In its easiest definition, a preposition is intimately linked to that object: “A preposition is anything a rabbit can do to a hill”—in the hill, on the hill, to the hill, beyond the hill, around the hill. Of course, there are many more prepositions in English, not to mention prepositional phrases, but they all share that one element—they are connected to an object.
Thus, one literally cannot end a sentence with a preposition. For example, “I hit my brother with.” A fragment—no complete thought.
The difficulty is that not all prepositions are merely prepositions. Many also function as separable verb particles. That is, they do not connect with an oncoming object but rather with the preceding verb, completing it and giving it its full meaning. For example, if I mean, “Hurry up the stairs,” omitting the object (the stairs) and concluding the sentence with the preposition completely destroys that meaning. No one will know what must be hurried up.
If, however, I mean, “You are lagging behind, so hurry up and catch up to me,” both hurry up and catch up would be incomplete without their separable particles: “You are lagging behind, so hurry and catch.” Catch now means something completely unintended, since the verb almost always requires an object. Catch up does not.
This structural ambiguity suggests that writers need to be aware of what preposition-like words are doing at the end of sentences and why they are there. But there is no need to restructure every sentence to place them inside. In other words, “Get on the bandwagon and come on—prepositions are fun.”
4. Never use a Conjunctions to begin a sentence.
Conjunctions are short words (occasionally phrases) that join structures. The most common are and, or, but, for, nor, yet, and so—note that for can be either a conjunction (“I bought glasses, for I needed new ones”) or a preposition (“I bought glasses for my sister”), so be wary of it.
Joining structures, be they phrases, clauses, or sentences, in most cases requires two elements.
First, a mark of punctuation—generally a comma, a semi-colon, or a dash—primarily to indicate that the first structure is closing. A punctuation mark other than a period lets readers know that something will follow that first structure and that they must prepare their minds for it.
Second, coordination requires a coordinator. If you choose and, you tell readers that the sentences are equally important, one following logically from the other: “I woke up, I stretched, and I dragged myself out of bed.” But indicates a contradiction between them: “I liked her, I even thought I might love her, but I decided not to ask her for a date.” For indicates cause and effect or, as in the example above, because. Or suggests alternatives. Nor indicates a negative connection, a denial, a reversal: “I do not like him, nor will I ever like him.” Yet and so also indicate cause and effect, although weakly: I ran out of food, so I went to the store.” That so often seems weak is evident in the frequent but redundant structure, “and so….”
General rule of thumb: think carefully about using either yet or so, and even more carefully about and yet or and so. Where possible, replace the weaker conjunctions with the stronger, more meaningful and, but, and for.
Traditionally—and more formally—conjunctions were held to be valid only within a larger structure; that is, joining two sentences with “, and” was acceptable as long as the conjunction appeared in the middle of the structure. After all, the words were called conjunctions, as in ‘to join with, to join together.’ And two sentences are not joined if the first concludes with a period.
In contemporary prose, however, the uses of conjunctions have expanded sufficiently to allow the second sentence to begin with and, but, nor, etc., as long as the logical connection between the two is clearly defined and unambiguously supported by the conjunction: “I tried and tried to move the dead branch. But to no avail.” The but accurately defines the relationship between the two; and the concluding fragment (see Rule #2 above) emphasizes futility and reversal. In a very real sense, it is not only beginning the second structure but, more importantly, bridging the momentary white space demanded by the period—the momentary pause in thought—to make the abrupt reversal that much more compelling.
5. Never use dashes; there is always a better mark of punctuation.
I was tempted to punctuate this rule with an internal dash but thought better of it. The internal debate did remind me of an incident in high school, however, that has effectively influenced my attitude toward dashes.
As a senior, I attended the Advanced English class, thirty-some students who, because of test scores and grades, had been moving through high school rather as a homogenous lump, seeing each other year after year not only in accelerated English but in similarly accelerated math and science courses. We knew each other well, and we recognized the awkward fact that in some ways we knew as much or more than some of our teachers (especially one poor substitute in Math who spent six weeks with us, despite the fact that her specialty was English; we were cruel to her in countless small, petty ways).
We received our just comeuppance, however, when we began Senior English. The teacher, married but nevertheless an archetypal “old maid school marm” type, would not let us slip anything by her.
When we entered the portion of the class devoted to grammar, she stood before the class and intoned in her best manner, “Never use dashes; there is always a better mark of punctuation.”
“But what it…,” one student began.
“But how about…?”
“Not even if…?”
We finally got the point. I think one of the students tried to slip a few dashes into an in-class essay, and the result was, for her, disastrous.
We learned the lesson well.
Then I graduated, went to college (where the rule still applied), and, while on a mission for my church, began to write poetry.
And discovered that, indeed, the dash has its uses. Traditional punctuation, primarily semicolons and parenthesis, were simply too formal for the kind of colloquial verse I wrote. Periods were too final. Ellipses interrupted rhythms.
Dashes worked—and I’ve used them in informal writing ever since. I chose to avoid them in writing my Ph.D. dissertation since the style sheet indicated that they were still in disfavor in expository prose, but after that, when no was one grading my prose, in came the dashes.
There are, however, several considerations when using them, primarily typographical.
First, the appropriate mark is what is technically called an “em-dash,” a single line the width of the letter m in Times Roman font. It is created by typing two “en-dashes” (a shorter line the width of the letter n). Most computers will automatically transform — to —, eliminating the possibility of ambiguity.
If the computer does not change the mark, simply leave it as two hyphens–readers will understand that they indicate a break in thought between the first part and the second part. Some writers include a space before and after the em-dash — doing so emphasizes the fact that a logical, syntactical, or conceptual break has occurred.
Problems arise when writers use a single hyphen instead of an em-dash and consequently create a hyphen-bridge rather than a structural break.
Hyphens join—dashes separate. Because the two marks are so similar, it is easy to confuse them. And confusion is the last thing effective writers want to invite.
6. Never use run-on sentences.
Run-on sentences—the infamous RTS (run-together sentences) of strict grammarians—occur when two sentences are joined with the improper conjunction, usually and without the preceding comma: “It was raining and I went outside to smell the fresh air.” Technically an RTS, although in this case, the meaning is clear.
RTSs become problematical when they create structural ambiguity, that is, when they allow a sentence to be read in either of two ways, with no clues as to which is preferred. For example inadequate punctuation for an adverbial conjunction: “The night was dark and foreboding, however, no zombies were in sight.” The problem arises with however. To which part of the structure does it belong, the first or the last. Either way makes sense: “The night was dark and foreboding, however. No zombies were in sight” or “The night was dark and foreboding. However, no zombies were in sight.” The reader is confused and will probably have to go back and start the sentence over—never a good thing.
On the other hand, judicious RTSs may give a passage a sense of urgency by forcing readers to rush through it without a stop, may characterize a narrator/speaker by education or intelligence (as Mark Twain does brilliantly with the persistent and-RTS in Huckleberry Finn), or may create shorty, pithy parallelisms all the more memorable for their flaw (“I came, I saw, I conquered,” which, without the and, is technically incorrect).
Case in point: during my first year teaching composition at UC Riverside, I assigned a narrative essay; students were to tell me about an important event in their lives.
While grading the results, I picked up one paper, noted that the first sentence was an and-RTS, and started to lower my red pencil. Then I saw that the second one was also. And the third. The pencil dropped, and I simply read the essay.
The student told about the night of her brother’s celebration for having been accepted at the local college, the first member of her family to do so. He went out, intending to pick up some additional sodas at a nearby convenience store. She followed him.
Midway there, he was accosted by several former friends, drug dealers who felt that he should not have quite the enterprise and while she watched from shadows a few feet away they stabbed him to death.
She had never told the story before. The essay was both a response to an artificial assignment and an act of catharsis. She had to get the words out as quickly as possible, and to do so she simply dropped the connective commas.
It was a perfect essay.
I spoke with her about it later and told her how impressed I was by what she had accomplished and quietly requested that she never do this to me again. For the next assignment—a definition paper—she wrote in nicely punctuated, objective sentences, appropriate for the content.
Run-ons can work. But as with all of the ‘rules’ discussed here, only when the context is appropriate.
7. Never use one-sentence paragraphs.
This rule also stems from expository prose. In exposition, a paragraph is a unit of meaning, a part of a controlled series of thoughts providing evidence for a particular point of view. Each of those units in turn recapitulates the structure of the essay in small. Where an essay has a thesis, each paragraph has a topic sentence. Where an essay has several paragraphs supporting the thesis, the paragraph as body sentences supporting, modifying, defining the topic sentence. And where an essay has a concluding paragraph, each paragraph has a final sentence rounding out the argument just made.
Hence, multiple sentences.
Writing fiction is different, however. There is not—or should not be—an overriding concerning for making a point. Fiction is about story. While it may use expository structures to facilitate that story, it depends primarily upon showing events in motion, characters in crisis. It may be impelled by dialogue, which has no need for a specific number of sentences to make its point. A single word may suffice.
* * * * * * * *
Just as I was completing the draft for this essay, I picked up Joe McKinney’s taut story The Crossing (Print is Dead, 2012) and began reading. The first paragraph contained an example of McKinney adroitly and effectively ignoring one of these ‘rules’; the second paragraph provided an example of him ignoring a second one.
Just for fun, I decided to keep count and see how long it would take to find an excellent author creating better fiction by ignoring the seven traditional ‘rules.’
Answer, fewer than six pages.
Here are some samples (my italics added):
Rule 1: “Jessica hunkered down in the corner to get out of the seething wind. She had a tattered bath towel wrapped around her shoulders, but it was too threadbare to even warm her, withered as she was from starvation.” (p. 1)
McKinney has placed the adverb even between the infinitive to and the verb warm, the best position for the word. The phrase “too threadbare even to warm her” places even closer to threadbare than to warm, creating a momentary ambiguity as to which word it modifies; its relative distance from the verb tends to de-emphasize its impact. “Too threadbare to warm even her,” the alternate way of avoiding a ‘split infinitive’ changes the meaning of the sentence entirely. Jessica is now one of several and the most likely to be warmed—not at all what the passage indicates. “To even warm her” is the only acceptable position, even though it violates a conventional stricture.
Rule 2: “I was scared like I’d never been in my life, but I wasn’t sorry. Not a bit.” (p. 3)
“Not a bit” is a fragment; it contains no subject, no verb, and no complete thought. In fact, it completes the S+V+completer in the previous sentence: “I wasn’t sorry.” Yet it is the ideal structure for McKinney’s purposes. To incorporate it into the previous sentence, perhaps including intensifiers, would paradoxically weaken it: “…but I wasn’t sorry, not even a bit” detracts from the solid impact of the phrase when it is given the full rhetorical weight (indicated by capital and closing punctuation) of a sentence. For the duration of those three words, pace slows; the plosive t sounds in not and bit come to the fore; and the increased stress on the two words parallels the narrator’s resolve and courage.
Rule 3: “Sam it is. Come on, let’s try to get you warmed up.” (p. 4)
A twofer! In the second sentence (which is actually a run-on sentence composed of “Come on” and “Let’s try to get you warmed up”), neither proposition-like word—on or up—actually functions prepositionally. Come on, taken as a unit, is the first verb; there is in fact no possible object to be modified. Similarly, warm up is a two-part verb.
The simplest way to verify this is to complete each statement with a modifier. “Come on into the house”; note that the modifier is a prepositional phrase. Likewise, to complete the second sentence, we have to add another prepositional phrase: “…to get you warmed up by the fire.” Since on and into, like up and by, contradict each other as prepositions, one of each pair must be functioning as something else, in each case, as a verb-particle.
Rule 4: “I never really believed, even as a little girl, that a place could be haunted. But if ever a place had a right to be, it was that shack.” (p. 2)
Here, the conjunction but does two things: it negates the previous thought and it connects the second sentence conceptually to the first. They remain separate, each given the impact of a full sentence, yet the but completes a bridge between them.
Rule 5: “The place smelled of stale beet and sweat, mildew and rot, and the dim morning light revealed a lot of ice-encrusted trash on the floor—broken beer bottles; tin cans; a scattering of cigarette butts; an occasional spent shell casing—sad markers of others, like Jessica and me, who had taken refuge here.” (p. 1, para. 1)
There really is no other way to craft this sentence and maintain the sense of dereliction and dissolution required. There are actually two intruded phrases. The first, beginning with “broken beer bottles,” is an appositive further clarifying “ice-encrusted trash.” Traditional grammar would set it apart from the main sentence with commas. However, the intruded phrase(s) contain internal punctuation, and the comma separating the two parts might read as a continuation: “ice-encrusted trash on the floor, broken beer bottles….” The bottles do not necessarily create a subset of “trash” but rather could be the second element in the series. The dash between the two structures makes it clear that the second provides examples of the first.
The phrase beginning with “sad markers” similarly modifies the preceding element. All of the things listed, the accumulated trash on the floor, act as “markers”; yet to separate the two with a comma would increase the ambiguity: “an occasional spent shell casing, sad markers of others….” Here, shell casing and markers function on the same level, and the final phrase merely indicates that there are other, unnamed and unenumerated, bits of trash.
To create precisely the meaning he needs, McKinney must separate the first and the second elements. A parenthetical intrusion won’t work, because then “sad markers” would grammatically look back to “trash,” ignoring everything in between. The only option for this sentence is the pair of dashes, linking all three elements yet indentifying how each relates to the other.
(I would quibble with the semicolons in the second part. Since there is no internal punctuation within phrases, and since the series is clearly set off from the first and third parts, commas would suffice.)
Rule 6: “Be the reporter, I told myself. Watch, observe, soak it all in.” (p. 2)
Here is a Julius-Caesar sentence: Three short clauses (with the subject I-understood), closely related, rhythmically complete. To add the requisite and would create a more formal sentence, as if she had the time and the leisure to contemplate her choices: “Watch, observe, and soak it all in.” It would also give the last phrase perhaps too much emphasis by the addition of one word.
Instead, McKinney opts for a more telegraphic approach. Reduce words, eliminate the understood subject, let each verb stand on its own, and let the final object—“it all”—stand as the object for all three, undisclosed until the end. Suspense, tension, tautness.
(Note that soak in is a two-part verb and that this sentence does not end with a preposition but with a separable verb particle.)
Rule 7: “We didn’t know who was in the other shack, but every once in a while one of them jabbed a sharpened stick through the walls at the crows.” (p. 2)
The single-sentence paragraph establishes tone: fear, curiosity, the unknown. And it impels the narrative forward. The previous paragraph had described in detail the first shack, its inhabitants, the actions of the zombies surrounding it, the screams and shrieks emanating from it. The next paragraph could have been fully developed, with details of what the narrator saw and heard; but to do so would simply be to repeat what readers already know from the previous one. All that is needed here is a reminder of the threat, of the desperation of whoever is in the second shack.
The same desperation experienced by the narrator.
Seven rules ‘broken’ within six pages. And every one of the choices made for stronger sentences, more appropriate to the narrative.
This is not to suggest that McKinney agonized over each one, mentally going back and forth, exploring every option. Rather, it is to suggest that as a writer he knows the ‘rules’ so well that he can almost instinctively twist them, turn them, break them, perhaps even as he drafts his story, knowing that in each case, the story is enhanced.
After all, there are rules, and there are rules. And some of them are made to be broken.
* * * * * * * *
Michael R. Collings is the Senior Publications Editor for JournalStone Publishing; an Emeritus professor of English from Pepperdine University; author of the best-selling horror novels The Slab and The House Beyond the Hill, as well as other novels and collections of short fiction, poetry, and literary essays; and an inveterate fan of all things grammatical and syntactical. His writing are available here, at starshineandshadows.com, at journalstone.com, and at hellnotes.com.