Thursday, May 24, 2012

Rules vs. Suggestions

A friend recently sent me an article about comma use. It was nice. Nothing terribly new or exciting for me, though I did appreciate that my friend thought of me. The specific point of the article was explaining critical and noncritical information, and how commas, usually parenthetical, are used to add noncritical information.

One of the last points was on comma splicing, which is joining two complete sentences with a comma (which is a big no-no). After going on about all the different ways one can change a comma splice into an acceptable alternative, the author then bring up Samuel Beckett, praising him for thoroughly and unabashedly shattering that rule. And all the author has to say afterward is, "Which goes to show, I suppose, that rules are made to be broken."

Rules are not made to be broken. Rules are made to be obeyed. The very point of going to the effort of making rules is that they exist to make the world a better place in any of a number of ways. If rules were made to be broken, then we would have been told every day by our parents that we aren't allowed to put pants on unless we can get a goldfish to eat a whole apple.

If this author seriously believes that rules are made to be broken, then he wasted his entire day writing an article on a bunch of rules. After all, who gives a damn? They're made to be broken. Go get a real job.

This is why I have a real problem with Grammar Nazis. Language is alive. It may have rules, but they are definitely subject to change. If you truly believe that you must follow the rules of standard written English (assuming you can decide on which set of rules to follow), then you will miss out on a tremendous amount of ability that the language has to evoke.

The real lesson here is that English doesn't have rules so much as it has suggestions. We are just too flexible to be rigid. Sure, some of the suggestions would be foolish to ignore, but I bet that every "rule" of English has a wonderful example that completely breaks it in the most wonderful way. So don't sweat the small stuff too much. Sure, proper grammar is a great skill to have, especially in the professional world, but as long as your sentences are compelling, people won't care what "rules" you had to break to make them.

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