Today I spent quite a bit of time reading about rules of grammar. I have to confess to having been something of a prescriptivist myself in my younger days, so I think it’s healthy to get a better understanding of the zombie rules which infest the English language, so that I have an idea of the people I’m likely to be pissing off with my writing style.
I’ve been a fan of Language Log for many years now, and reading through their archives has been an educational experience. I have come across a fascinating number of ‘rules’ which go into incredible detail, and I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface. It seems there are people out there who are memorising pages and pages of rules because they are so unsure about how to write in their native language.
I found this monstrosity, which is a mind-boggling attempt at scoring a given piece of text for things like whether it has exceeded some apparently arbitrary number of adverbs. I’ve had Grammarly.com pushed at me regularly over the past few weeks on various sites I’ve visited, and that doesn’t exactly seem like a particularly high-quality tool either. I put the text of the post so far into its checker, and it told me it had detected two errors, and also evidence of plagiarism. Of course the next step was to sign up so that I could discover exactly what these egregious faults are and obtain their expert help in dealing with them. The first app’s opinion on the same piece of text was that I had used 4 adverbs but that I was only allowed two, and that only the very first sentence in the post was understandable. Right so.
There are also a whole bunch of things like ‘comma splices’ and ‘avoid passive voice’, which I had never even heard of until a few years back, but which seem pretty pervasive in guides to writing.
It made me wonder about other people’s experience of learning to write English. I don’t mean as a more-or-less adult learning techniques about characters and worlds and compelling plots, but the kind of writing done in primary school. I’ve been racking my brain to think of examples of writing I had ‘corrected’ when I was younger, and the few that come to mind seem straightforward and uncontroversial:
- Ending a story with “and they woke up and it was all a dream” is a lazy way of avoiding writing a proper ending.
- ‘Nice’ is not an adequate description in most circumstances.
- Try to avoid overuse of a specific word or phrase. (If I recall correctly, the culprit in this particular scenario was the word ‘actually’)
- Vary the lengths of your sentences – use short snappy ones for action, or longer and more descriptive ones for a relaxed passage.
Other than these, I’m struggling to think of any specific instructions, although it’s possible I simply blanked out the ones which didn’t mesh with my experience of the language.
Looking at the masses of misinformation out there, I can’t help feeling like I dodged a bullet.
Gloria Hanlon 2016 All Rights Reserved
Title in homage to English As She is Spoke. Any and all errors intentional, naturally.