Enjoy Yourself and Break Some Rules: Part Two
Five-Minute Writing Tip # 39:
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A few years ago, a friend told me about a TV series he believed represented some of the best script-writing to come around in a long time. The name of the series was Breaking Bad. I wasn’t familiar with that phrase, but it was like a slap in the face when I watched the first episode. I’m sure you’ve heard of this series, but if not, it’s about a teacher who was pushed to emotional and financial extremes and decided to break a few rules--big rules.
As strong as this TV series was, I feel equally strong about breaking the following two grammar rules—when done correctly.
But you should not break them when writing academic, legal, or scientific papers, or any other types of formal writing. So when writing fiction, nonfiction, or casual writing such as blogs, consider not doing the following:
Always Write a Complete Sentence
Tell that to H. L. Mencken. Fragmented sentences, if well-crafted, make a strong impact and present a certain writing style or voice. Some examples:
“He learned to accept her as his wife. Little by little.” The fragment after the first sentence has more impact than: “Little by little, he learned to accept her as his wife.”
Or how about this dialogue:
“The cause of death?”
“Arsenic poisoning. Possibly self-administered.”
This short, snappy-speak works better than spoonfeeding the reader:
“What was the cause of death?’
“The guy took arsenic and it poisoned him.”
Or this example from a thriller:
“Footsteps. Coming from the basement.”
And consider this by Mencken:
“Farmers plowing sterile fields behind sad meditative horses, both suffering from the bites of insects.” This sentence uses a comma and seems to be missing the verb “are” or “were” to make it complete, but without such verb, the image is clearer and more visceral.
Avoid Using Slang
Tell that to Kookie on the 1960s TV series 77 Sunset Strip. Oxford American Dictionary defines slang as “very informal words and phrases that are more common in speech than in writing and are used by a particular group of people.”
I just stumbled upon a great writing/editing website, “Writing Sideways,” and I like its definition: “slang (noun) — A kind of language occurring chiefly in casual and playful speech, made up typically of short-lived coinages and figures of speech that are deliberately used in place of standard terms for added raciness, humor, irreverence, or other effect.”
The first time I recall hearing slang was when I watched the first episode of 77 Sunset Strip and Kookie, the valet and wannabe private detective (played Ed Burns), introduced me to “hipster,” and “cool.” Fifty years later, “cool” is frequently used and “hipster” appears occasionally. His character developed a popular slang all his own:
“Stable the horses” meant “park the cars.”
“Chicks in skins” meant “women in furs.”
“Lighting up the tilt” sign “meant lying.”
So some of Kookie’s hip word-use is also an extreme example of roguish language that suited the times, but has become obsolete. The use of slang when writing a blog or column is the best way to develop your writer’s voice, since this type of writing is informal and familiar. But you don’t want to have to define each word or phrase as I did with Kookie’s examples above. In other words, sprinkle in familiar slang; don’t overdo it.
Here are some examples of words and phrases I used in recent blogs:
“Who wouldn’t say yea to that?”
“Her feedback is always on the mark.”
In comparing myself to Goldilocks in my blog about homophones (Writing Tip # 24), I described myself as “a nervy blonde chick.”
Slang helps a blogger bond with readers. But as noted, if you’re a microbiologist writing a lab report about Streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumonia), a round or oval-shaped bacterium that colonizes in pairs and infects the lungs, you do not describe the bacteria as a scum-bag germ that pollutes your air-bags.
Kathleen Kaska, Marketing Director
Being Good All the Time is No Fun
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Five-Minute Writing Tip # 38: Part One
My parents taught me to follow rules as soon as I could crawl. This rule-following was reinforced during my eight years at St. Mary’s Catholic School in West, Texas. But it wasn’t until after several years into my own teaching career that I learned the benefits of occasionally breaking rules—actually, more like finessing rules. After all, students are not all created equal. At times they should be cut some slack. Once I realized this, I became a much better, and happier, teacher. The same is true with some rules of grammar. Breaking the rules is okay as long as you know what you’re doing. But that requires understanding the rules in the first place.
Here are five examples of rules that can be broken if a skilled writer has a purpose.
1. Do Not Split Infinitives
An infinitive is a two-word verb form beginning with “to.” Examples: to live; to love; to laugh. When a word or phrase is placed between the preposition “to” and the verb, the infinitive is split.
“I want to before I get too old learn how to surf.” “Before I get too old” is the phrase that splits the infinitive “to learn.” This split needs to be corrected because the sentence sounds awkward.
“I want to learn to surf before I get too old.”
But splitting an infinitive is acceptable when the interruptive word is used for emphasis.
“I had to quickly put the car in the garage to keep it from hail damage.” The adverb quickly splits the infinitive “to put.”
2. Do Not End a Sentence with a Preposition
However, in some cases a preposition at the end of a sentence sounds less awkward:
“A classroom full of excited kindergartners is too nerve-racking to put up with.”
Putting “with” earlier in the sentence gets your point across, but it sounds more formal than what we are used to hearing:
“To put up with a classroom full of excited kindergartners is too nerve-racking.”
Another example—the first one is more conversational and the second is too formal.
“Whom do I submit my application to?”
“To whom do I submit my application?”
The awkwardness of trying to avoid breaking this rule is best demonstrated by this famous quote attributed to Winston Churchill: “Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I cannot put.”
3. Avoid Beginning a Sentence with “But”
I remember getting a lower grade than I expected on a high-school essay because I broke this rule. My parents taught me to never question my teachers; otherwise I would have challenged the B-minus I was given. But this rule is often broken, and deservedly so. One of my writing gurus, William Zinsser, strongly agrees with me in his book, On Writing Well: “Many of us were taught that no sentence should begin with ‘but.’ If that’s what you learned, unlearn it—there’s not a stronger word at the start.” He goes on to explain that when the mood is about to change, using “but” at the beginning of the next sentence works better than “however,” “therefore,” “nevertheless,” or “instead.”
Consider the following two examples from a hardboiled mystery I’m working on:
“He caught the scent of Coco Chanel and wondered how she afforded that expensive stuff on her meager salary. But, hey, with her looks and charm, there had to be a man.”
“He hoped to God that he’d have the chance to shake the missing author’s hand like all the other dopes waiting for her autograph. But hope gets an honest man nowhere.”
I could have used “nevertheless,” or “however” But those words have less impact.
I’ll be back next week with Part Two.
Kathleen Kaska, Marketing Director