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Thursday, 25 April 2013

What Rules Do You Swear By as a Writer?

Greengrocers' apostrophe 2
Greengrocers' apostrophe 2 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Writing, in common with most occupations, has rules. Society has rules. Games have rules. Do we always obey them? And does it matter whether we do or not?

Clearly, societal rules, often elevated to laws, are supposedly there to prevent chaos and injustice. The law that prevents the taking of life under most circumstances seems sensible for all concerned. The law that allows a company to take advantage of unsuspecting customers might appear a little less acceptable.

In games, rules stop the unscrupulous from overcoming opponents by cheating; or, at least, that’s the intention. Football (soccer, that is), of course, is the exception that proves the rule here.

With writing, however, the rules are made for a number of different purposes. Some are intended as general guidelines to enhance understanding.  Some exist in order to standardise certain aspects of the process. Some have been invented to ensure that all but the most persistent will give up the idea of ever becoming a writer. And some are there to influence that most indefinable quality known as style.

Can any, some, none or all of these rules be broken without causing the end of the world to descend and obliterate the written word from existence? Well, I suspect one or two are rules we can, perhaps, bend a little. A few we might test to the extreme. And a small number can be ignored with impunity by those wise enough to recognise them for what they are.

There is a boring, but factually accurate, saying that suggests that all writers should learn the rules before they attempt to break them. If you break a rule in ignorance, you’ll probably remain unaware of your sin until one of the grammar, syntax, spelling or style police hands you a ticket and demands restitution. This, of course, means you are in danger of committing multiple instances of the same rule breaking. You are destined for disgrace and ignominy.

If, however, you break a rule in the full knowledge of the consequences, understanding that you are rebelling and may cause a frown on the face of the purist, you may just get away with it.

We all have our favourite rules; those we would never fail to obey. Perhaps they hold some special significance for us. Perhaps they’re the foundations upon which our own confidence in our writing is based. Perhaps they illustrate our skill. Or, perhaps, they don’t actually mean what we think they mean. What? You mean we may be obeying rules we could possibly break? And get away with it?

Before I invite you to participate and state your own particular rules that you feel deserve your loyalty, let me start the ball rolling with a few of my own. After all, it’s my post.

There’s a rule that states that, in presenting speech, the author should use only ‘he/she said’. Contentious, especially amongst newbies, this one. But there’s a good reason for this simple rule. It is that the tag ‘he said’ becomes ‘invisible’ after a very short while. It retains its purpose, in identifying the speaker, but it doesn’t intrude upon or interrupt the story. Yes, I know: you use ‘he expostulated’, ‘she swore’, ‘he shouted’, ‘she cried’ etc, etc, etc. The problem with such dialogue tags is that they should be unnecessary. The words and context should indicate the way in which a response is made. In most, though not all, cases, the how of the delivery is, or should be, evident by what is said and the situation in which it is spoken. There are, of course, circumstances in which the words alone may be insufficient to prevent ambiguity. Usually, the context will help here. But there are circumstances when, for example, sarcasm may not be evident or grief may be hidden. In these cases, if a description of the speaker does not fit the situation, it may be necessary to fall back on the more expressive attribution and tag the speech with a, ‘she giggled,’ ‘he smirked’, ‘she threatened, or ‘he winced’.

Of course, anyone familiar with my writing will know I rarely use dialogue tags at all. I rely on the words themselves to identify the speaker. Occasionally, I’ll toss in a name to keep the reader on track. Or I might attach the speech to an action so that the speaker is thus identified.

Another rule, this time an absolute, is one I’d never dream of breaking. In fact, in common with ninety per cent of the educated masses, I wince every time I see an instance of this rule in ruins. I mean, of course, the apostrophe; that simple piece of punctuation that’s so easily misunderstood by those who sell by the roadside, allowing them to advertise, ‘Potato’s for sale’, or ‘Pick your own Tomato’s’. Such a simple rule: if it’s a plural, the apostrophe is incorrect, wrong, bad, wicked and a hanging offence! If it is possible to reconstruct the phrase in such a way that possession forms part of the syntax, then, of course, the apostrophe is there to express that fact. ‘George sells his potatoes to the grocers, who place them on their carts.’ No possessives, so no apostrophe. But ‘George sells potatoes and places them on the grocers’ carts.’ Here, George performs a service to multiple grocers, each of whom possesses a cart on which he places the items he sells. Okay?

There is, of course, the other apostrophe ruling that’s constantly under attack by the ignorant: I speak of the difference between the possessive and use of contraction. ‘It’s on the floor’, which translates as ‘It is on the floor’ and, as a contraction, requires an apostrophe to indicate there is a letter missing. But ‘That’s on its own floor’, contracts ‘that is’ to ‘that’s’ and leaves the possessive ‘its’ alone to show that the floor belongs to it.

So, a few of my ‘favourite’ rules. You have your own. So, let’s have them. Those rules that make steam emerge from your ears every time you hear them broken, bring bulges of rage to your eyes each time you see them abused. Please feel free to express your loves here. In a future post I’ll look at rules we hate and examine a few of those.

PS. You'll note that the 'tags' below include an instance where an apostrophe would be applicable, but it is absent. Thsi is because in 'tags' the convention is to exclude punctuation to prevent confusion, apparently!

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