More Rules to Ignore

Grammar is important. Dax would never advocate ignoring rules, but even he notices all sorts of new writing laws popping up. Is there a committee that votes on these? How can he get elected to this committee?

gears_Elsie_esqEven now, the cogs of this impressive grammar/style machine are turning. The Committee on Grammar and Style (COGS) is most likely scrutinizing this post and pointing out its errors to one another. They are enjoying themselves, he knows. He would too.

But (never begin a sentence with ‘but’ or ‘and’) he also knows that there is a difference between grammar and style. Maybe not a huge difference, but a difference nonetheless (fragment). Grammatical errors are heard in everyday speech (passive voice), and can be used (more passive voice) to create a narrative voice or to make dialog realistic. Nobody says, “Go back from whence you came!” Characters need to should talk the way normal people talk. (Hmm. ‘need to’ vs. ‘should.’ There ought to be a rule about that.)

In his mind the difference is this: grammar rules ensure that the meaning is understood (again — passive voice!); style is a set of conventions, guidelines that writers and readers favor for various reasons. Both grammar and style can change over time and, depending on whether you are a descriptive or prescriptive grammarian, you either think this is intolerable or just fine.

Some examples:

Style: There is nothing wrong with the passive voice; it can vary the emphasis in a sentence, putting the object of an action as more important that the subject (which may be unknown.) “Someone shot the president” is less effective than “The president’s been shot!” Politicians use the passive voice to avoid blame: “Mistakes were made.” It is perhaps as a result of this use that it has fallen into disfavor. Very often it weakens prose, and can easily be overused.

Grammar: There is something wrong with participles that are not grammatically attached to the right word: “Driving down the street, a dog ran in front of the car.” Unless dogs can drive and run simultaneously, this sentence is incorrect.

Style changes, and varies from language to language. In Latin, participial clauses can dangle; this is called the ablative absolute. Latin loves the passive voice and uses it all the time. A Roman might say, “There’s a fight in the cafeteria!” but he might just as easily say, “It is being fought in the cafeteria!” English favors subordinate clauses, but not too many in one sentence. Latin has many types of subordination – participles are used a lot – and admires long, complexly subordinated sentences (ala Cicero). (This is written Latin, by the way; Romans didn’t really talk that way. They probably forgot the gender of words like ‘locus’ and ‘manus’ occasionally, used ‘i’ instead of ‘e’ as the ablative ending in a participle used substantively – in fact, they most likely didn’t know what a substantive or a participle was. They knew what sounded right, and that is something that time can change.)

Read a novel written over a hundred years ago, and you will see that style in English has changed greatly over the years.

Grammar and spelling have not changed much since the printing press began churning out all sorts of books for people to read; this is one reason English spelling is a nightmare and even adults can’t spell. Nobody wants to change the spelling in all those books. And who would get to decide how things ought to be spelled? Another committee, of course.

Dax advocates a return to Latin as the language of letters. In the first place, it is a logical language with firm rules and dire consequences. Secondly, it is dead, so style is of no concern to its speakers. Thirdly, he would have a good chance of getting elected to the Scribendi Consilium Usus et Dicendi. (Some Latinists will no doubt correct me here; I rather like SCUD.)

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