(A modified version of this article was first published on Book Riot under the title “Learning Grammar Rules to Break Grammar Rules“.)
We all know them. Some of us have suffered under them. The frowning school teacher who constantly rampaged our scripts for run-on sentences and double negatives; the vulture-eyed editor who swoops down on the slightest punctuation mistake. Woe to anyone who puts a semi-colon out of place! Failure to conform to the grammar Nazi’s (often arbitrary) rules will immediately be condemned for ‘bad writing’.
I remember the profound sense of irritation I had whenever I got back my essays to see my teachers’ invasive red ink marring my carefully penned scripts. In Singapore, students must stick to the conventions of formal writing if they want to ace English, despite being tasked to write fiction. (I don’t know why it doesn’t seem to have occured to our Education Ministry that if they wanted to test our formal writing skills they should set that for exams instead.) So teachers here are often what C. S. Lewis calls ‘Stylemongers’. Besotted with grammar, they’d give no thought to whether the repetitive words and run-on sentences they so enthusiastically slash out contribute to the expressiveness of the language. They’d underline sentence fragments with furious relish, replace commas with full-stops for no good reason other than that they had to prepare us for exams and change ‘guys’ to ‘boys’ regardless of the story’s context or narrative voice.
I don’t blame the teachers. They have to play by the rules laid down by the Ministry. But it’s scary this attitude lingers on even outside of school. Recently, a friend of mine submitted a script for an educational film to be shown to school students, and the school teachers who made the edits corrected words like ‘thanks’ to ‘thank you’, complaining that the former was too informal; and, of course, throwing believable dialogue out of the window. This is an extreme case of linguistic Nazism, but we see variations of this all the time: book-bloggers picking on oversights in editing but paying scarcely any attention to the book’s contents; critics or Goodreads reviewers attacking a book for its meandering narrative, for deviating from accepted plot structures. Hunger for social media approval has churned out titles like 10 Rules for Writing Fiction, The Golden Rules For A Good Plot, Top 5 Grammar Rules Not To Break; guided, of course, by articles like 5 Data Insights Into Headlines Readers Click. Who’d dare create the next literary revolution, the next Ulysses equivalent, with all these rules in place? That poor book would probably be–God forbid!–ranked lowest on Amazon. At most we’d probably just get a Ulysses copycat; then maybe it’d get some award and get chucked to the rank number #500,000.
We need guidelines, yes. The ability to write and speak according to set linguistic conventions is no doubt a good practical skill, as is the knowledge of effective story structures. But if we are going to set exams that involve the writing of fiction, then these conventions should not be imposed as incontestable laws. Writers and readers alike should see them as tools, or stepping stones, towards greater creativity; perhaps to be followed temporarily by students for training purposes, but able to be artfully used, manipulated or broken after they’ve been mastered. And if an author seems to make a mistake or two, let us consider them with open minds instead of shredding his manuscript at once.
It’s part of the job of Language Arts educators to mark the works of young writers. This means evaluation. Which means, like it or not, they contribute almost as much as critics do in setting the course of literary taste and standard for next generation. The way young writers are graded would influence their judgment of other works. If what we are teaching is a greater concern for arbitrary rules than with the sound and signification, the poetic style and usage, of language, then one generation of grammar Nazis would breed another; and soon we may find ourselves suffocating in a dreadfully dull, colourless literary landscape, with far fewer than fifty shades of grey.