They’re Not Rules, They’re Price Tags

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Never write in second person.

Always start with a powerful first line.

Never change POVs in the middle of a scene.

Eschew adjectives. And adverbs.

Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah…

Magical Words is a blog devoted to helping people write better, and there’s a lot of great advice to be found here.

And it’s all negotiable.

Seriously. There isn’t a bit of writing advice here that someone, somewhere (probably multiple someones and multitudinous somewheres) hasn’t broken, and broken really damn well.

So should you listen to what Faith and David and A.J. and Misty and Stuart and everyone else is saying? Of course you should. They’ve been doing this for a long time; they know what they’re talking about.

Well, then what the heck are you talking about, Edmund?

That would be a logical question to ask.

What I’m talking about is this: I’m replying to a certain question before it’s even asked, a question I hear all the time. The minute any writing conversation turns in the direction of ‘rules’ or ‘guidelines’ or even just plain old ‘advice,’ it inevitably crops up.

That question is: “Yeah, but what about ____x____?”

Because yes, there are exceptions to every rule. In fact, those exceptions are usually exceptional. People hold them up as shining examples of why the rules don’t apply. They do so wrongly, but that doesn’t stop them from doing it.

That’s why I want you to stop thinking of them as ‘rules’ and start thinking of them as price tags. Even the rules of grammar and punctuation. They are all price tags.

Why price tags? Because there is a price to be paid for breaking the rules. If the gain outweighs the loss, then it’s worth doing. If not…

Let’s start with the rules of grammar and punctuation; they seem to be the most immutable. You want to break those rules? Generally, the price you pay is a lack of clarity and, as a result, a lack understanding. There was a great book that came out several years ago called Eats Shoots and Leaves that talked about the importance of punctuation. Just punctuation. That subject alone filled an entire book. But look at the difference one little comma (or the lack thereof) makes in the title. If you say “eats shoots and leaves” without the comma, you’re talking about a panda’s diet. What do they eat? Bamboo shoots and leaves. But add one little comma so that it reads, “eats, shoots and leaves,” now you’re talking about a mafia hit-man who sits down in a restaurant, eats his dinner, kills the guy at the next table, and then walks out. A panda bear and a mafia hit man – and all that differentiates the two is one single comma.

There simply aren’t a lot of good reasons to mess with punctuation. Period. But grammar is a little more flexible. Look at the second sentence in this paragraph, the paragraph you’re reading right now. That’s really not a sentence, is it? “Period.” There’s no verb, there are no independent or dependent clauses; it’s just one word, sitting there, all alone. It’s – gasp – a sentence fragment. And doggone it, it’s not the first one that’s been used in this piece.

What price did I pay? Not much of one, because there was no loss of clarity. I knew when, where, and how to use them. What benefit did I gain? That fragment carries extra emphasis. It makes it perfectly clear that I think there are very, very, very few reasons to mess with punctuation.  And that’s what fragments do best: narrow the focus down so as to emphasize a point. But you still have to be careful to construct. Them properly. Because the sloppy, unintentional use of sentence fragments only causes confusion (see my previous sentence-fragment mess, right before this sentence). 

Here’s a different example, one that comes up often when talking about writing: don’t write in the present tense, or, heaven forbid, the future tense. Has it been done? Of course. Should it be done? Well, that’s really up to you. As always, there’s a price to pay.

In this case, because past tense is the tense used in the vast majority of writing today (especially if you disregard ‘literary writing,’ which accounts for two-thirds of the uses of other tenses), unless other tenses are used seamlessly, it’s going to jump out at the reader. Look at me, it screams. I am writing in the present tense. I am going to be writing in the future tense. If that’s the effect you want – if it serves your story somehow – then by all means, go for it. Some writers can do so in a way that is unobtrusive, so that you hardly notice it’s being done. And other writers use it intentionally, so that it’s not a problem if you notice. But here’s the thing: most readers want to be swept up in a story and carried away by it. They want to be immersed in the world they’re reading about to such a degree that they forget about the real one they’re living in. That can not happen if the writing is calling attention to itself. Using tenses that scream “look at me” are not going to allow that to happen. Again: “can it be done” is not the question you should be asking yourself. “Should it be done” is the question.

I could go on about this at length, but I’m sure you see my point by now. The bottom line is that the rules are there for a reason. And it’s not to say you can never, ever, ever do ____x____. It’s to say that if you do _____x_____, make sure you know why you’re not supposed to do it. Make sure you understand the price tag that comes with doing it. Make sure that you understand that even though great writing breaks a lot of rules, no one breaks the rules effectively without thoroughly understanding them.

Once you truly understand the rules, then by all means, go ahead and break them. Break them into a million shining pieces that people will hold up and bask in the glory of.

Break them so well that you’re the one that people are talking about when they come up to me at my next convention or workshop and say, “Yeah, but what about ____x____?”

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26 comments to They’re Not Rules, They’re Price Tags

  • I really like this way of looking at “the rules”.

  • What many people call rules of the language are actually stylistic conventions, and they change from era to era. (Think of “show don’t tell” when reading Dickens, for example.) And even when a convention is generally accepted and applied, it can be flaunted if done so elegantly and if the author shows clearly that he knows what he is doing. There is no “grammatical rule” about splitting an infinitive or ending a sentence with a preposition; one example of an actual grammatical rule is that when a noun transform into a verb, the final consonant often gains voice–house, for example, changes from HOWS to HOWZ and mouth from MOWTH to MOUDH. And to this rule there are exceptions so numerous that calling it a rule seems rather silly.

    In terms of conventions of style, there will be differing schools of thought. People argue about the use of “that” and “which” in restrictive clauses. People argue about whether the Oxford comma is necessary. (To my mind, the title of Lynn Truss’ little book is simply wrong: it should be Eats, Shoots, and Leaves. That absent second comma distresses me, but obviously, some people think it’s fine.) People argue about placement of apostrophes on names ending in “s” and in abbreviations, such as TVs and CDs. And so on. When it comes to style, it’s a matter of – well – style.

    I sometimes wish there were a single, authoritative body that writers and speakers of English could turn to who could decree which stylistic convention is the “correct” one to use. However, if there were such a body, I would no doubt feel constricted by it and find reason to resent its dictates. I find many things to take exception to in Strunk & White’s Elements of Style and The Chicago Manual of Style, and my copy of Eats, Shoots and Leaves is marked up by red ink where I feel Truss went astray.

    Style has always been recognized to be a personal thing – and that is true in certain matters of grammatical style as well.

  • Well said, Ed. This is the fundamental and only true rule in all art forms. You must understand the “rules” in order to break them effectively. Even those few geniuses who break all the rules perfectly at age 4 — I believe even they actually understood the rules at some instinctive level. Whenever somebody breaks the rules without any concept of these rules, it is often glaringly evident. We tend to think of such art as crap. In fact, using that word makes me think of AJ’s post. There are many reasons genre fiction gets labelled “crap” by academics, but perhaps one reason is that genre breaks the rules of literary fiction — including on a rich, action-packed plot, possibly having a happy ending, making the language invisible (no matter how artistic). Now I must go think……

  • Great post! I say similar things to students about grammar.

    I admit, I’ve become a fan of (almost) purely meaning based grammar and style. If I don’t get what an author is trying to say (and I’m trying to get it) then it is probably a problem with their grammar or style. And if I can’t see a good reason for why they’re being non-standard, I’ll get annoyed. I’ve recently become a fan of the second comma (so it would be eats, shoots, and leaves instead of eats, shoots and leaves). Mostly because I’ve had moments of confusion when it isn’t there.

    I’m rather vehement about apostrophes. I like no apostrophe in 1980s, CDs, TVs, or whatever when they are not possessive. Because TVs is more than one TV. TV’s is the possessive form (TVs’ if plural possessive).

    Wolf’s right that so much of what we call “rules” are conventions. I’m all for not ending a sentence with a prep. most of the time (thanks, Alexander Pope), because most of the time there’s a better way to say it. And I use which with restrictive clauses, too. But those are choices. Showing vs. Telling (I’m not sure Dickens or Chaucer would have known what you meant) and the slow death of the adverb in fiction are both current market styles that will, no doubt, someday look dated. But they are current market styles and must be known before they’re broken. My writing got a lot better (and I mean better, not just more in line with market expectations) once I learned the difference between showing and telling–when I started writing I’d never even heard there was such a difference.

    Also, I think people get confused about “rules.” There are two types of rules: prescriptive: the Strunk and White (or Chicago, or MLA, or whatever) that tell us what the Standard English use is, and then descriptive: the “houz” vs. “house” rule Wolf pointed out which describes a phenomenon (boy is my punctuation a mess there!) Some cross barriers–that is they are both (the period at the end of the sentence, or the way we express past tense). I prefer the descriptive school of discussing grammar and style rules. If you can communicate successfully and are breaking the rules, it’s still functional communication.

    Of course, a non-standard cover letter filled with what would be perceived as errors/typos might get your pitch dumped before it is considered. Which brings us back to yeah, rules are important. :)

  • I agree, as well. I think I might print this out and post it in my Middle School English classroom. This illustrates and addresses one side of the battle: those who are authoritative about styles and opinions. The other side, however, is equally dangerous: those who don’t know enough to do it right, but want to claim the lack of “right” as their right to do it sloppily.

    I particularly love the look at punctuation, and I totally agree with Wolf, we so need that second comma! Without it, as you yourself point out, inhibits the clarity of a series.

    Here’s my example: Make sure that you place siblings, criminals, priests and parishioners, nuns and innocents, warlords, child molesters and children in separate rooms, or they won’t get along.

    Each comma sets off a group. The criminals are apart from the siblings, but the priests and parishioners are together. Now, do YOU want that comma between the child molesters and the children, or not?

  • The difference between “Eats, Shoots, and Leaves” and “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” — that additional comma —
    is called a serial comma. The Chicago Manual of Style calls for its use, while the AP Style book does not. This a result of newspapers looking to make things as concise as possible. The reasons for this concision has changed over the years, but they never seem to want to use it. It makes a difference — consider “He ate apples, tuna, peanut butter, and jelly” vs. “He ate apples, tuna, peanut butter and jelly.” — which is why I always use the serial comma.

  • Pea, you’ve easily convinced me on the apostrophes. I’m suddenly going to find myself being more careful of that! I do feel the need, however, to point out that the “Howz” vs “House” example you mentioned is classified as a “phenome,” not a phenomenon. Phenomes are part of the study of linguistics, among other things, and discuss the ways in which words change as they are applied to differing sets of given circumstances.

  • I’ll tell you why they don’t want the serial comma: It adds up to an extra penny in their printings!!

    Greedy, comma-stealing columnists…

  • Wow, what a great conversation. You all clearly ‘get’ it; now we just need to educate the rest of the world.

    One of my favorite examples for demonstrating the need for hyphens in words also comes from Truss’s Eats Shoots and Leaves: the difference between a “pickled herring monger” and a “pickled-herring monger” (she’s British, which creeps into the book). One is a man who sells pickled herrings, and the other is a drunk who sells regular herrings.

    And David, I REALLY have to agree with you about those people who use the argument that there is no such thing as right or wrong when it comes to ‘style’ as a way to somehow justify their ignorance. They should be taken into an alley and beaten with a very large dictionary.

  • OK, Edmund, I can’t find an email for you on here or your website (gonna take my time to go through the Intergalactic Medicine Show site), so I guess I’ll just put it here. This is an awesome piece. Awesome to the point that I will be talking about it and linking it into my own blog first Monday in July. (This Monday was already scheduled.) I just wanted to apologize that it will be a delayed posting and thank you for giving me something so worth sharing. I look forward to continuing my new discovery of you.

    ~Jace

  • David> I meant “phenomenon” in the most vague sense of the word as “a happening.” A shift in pronunciation of two words spelled the same way that change pronunciation to change meaning–in this case the noun vs. verb form (as opposed to say, bass and bass, the instrument and the fish). Indeed, the linguistic term you point out is the technical one. I was just being general (perhaps errantly and overly so). But I meant it rather in the same spirit as the happening known as the Great Vowel Shift (which no one has been able to fully explain to me) or the dropping of the pronunciation of the final “e” in many words from Middle to Modern English (like the modern “root” shifting from “roote” with the final “e” pronounced in Chaucer’s “General Prologue”). That is, the linguistic rule notes a persistent occurrence, but most linguist (I think) wouldn’t say it is “wrong” to pronounce the verb of house as house (s rather than z). I stick to morphemes and phonemes (and not many phonemes), then syntax and semantics, in my English language class (and, frankly, grammar is the focus of it.) I’m certainly not a linguist, so I try to tread lightly on their territory. :)

    And I first read your last post as “greedy, comma-stealing communists!” and I wondered why they’d need them. “Comrade, here, in our nation, the PEOPLE will own the COMMAS!”

    Aside from the serial comma rule, and a few others (basic ones) I have a very hard time teaching students (or anyone, really) how to use commas. My students sprinkle them in like salt on bland food, or, perhaps, like godmothers with faerie dust. A lot if it is stylistic, which in this case amounts to authorial “feel.”

  • Pea, I didn’t mean to affront or insult. I hope that I didn’t.

    I can, at least answer the dropped ‘e’ for you. In 1056, the Normans invaded England and conquered. The French ruled for some time and while they were in power, all government documents, courts of law, political arenas, etc, were conducted in French. Only the commoners still used the old English tongue. (And most of them couldn’t write anyway.) Even after the English took their country back, it was considered a point of pride to use the French as the “higher” language. This, for example, is why Tarzan’s father kept his diary in French, which completely confused Tarzan, who had taught himself to read using an English primer.

    All of that is to say this: Modern English was drastically altered and influenced by French between Chaucer and Shakespeare. In French, the ‘e’ on the end of a word is not not pronounced. In many cases, even the last consonant isn’t pronounced!

    I hope this helps shed some light for you. :)

  • Some of you know so much about our language that I’m starting to develop an inferiority complex. Thanks!

    Seriously, this is the most fun I’ve had in a long time. I guess that makes me a serious geek, but so be it.

    Jace – you’re more than welcome to repost this piece. I’m honored.

    If anyone wants to reach me but doesn’t have my email (I know some of you do), I can be reached at igmseditor (at) yahoo.com

  • Pea/Emily — “My students sprinkle them in like salt on bland food, or, perhaps, like godmothers with faerie dust.”

    That’s hysterical, and exactly my experience. A few years ago I taught some writing classes at UNC-G for their adult continuing-education department, and I can’t think of a better way to describe their use of commas — they were a bunch of happy godmothers with faerie dust. I actually had to back up and do a basics-of-grammar-and-punctuation lesson, something I never expected to have to do with a group of ‘educated’ adults.

  • You guys are having a lot of fun today! I’ve enjoyed the word play. :)
    The lovely thing about the English language is the way it grows with us a people. Creating new words is easy; rules bend according to usage. That fluidity allows our culture to grow quickly, and our language to change with us. All it takes to see this evolution is to watch an old B&W movie from the forties. We have come a long way fast.

  • Edmund,

    First of all, because I was at a luau last week, I just wanted to say congratulations on the comic! I used to be heavily involved in the webcomics scene, and I love that you guys took some time to plan out the characters. Of course, a lot of webcomics are used to develop skills, too. Like art style. (I’ve been lucky enough to write a guest script for a fantasy comic I love. It’s a great feeling when an artist puts your words into images.)

    Second, you make a great point about the rules. The one I hear a lot is “know the rules before you break them”, but I really like the idea of price tags. Says the woman writing a fantasy in first-person, present tense. *blush*

    I really did think a lot about this when I started writing my WIP. And I did receive a few warnings from the beta group. If an agent were to ask me to rewrite it in past tense, I would try, but this main character speaks to me in such a way that it’s almost impossible to imagine her voice in another way. There are places where she refers to things that have happened in past tense, but only where past tense applies. It does make me a bit nervous, but it also makes me want to write the best dang manuscript. And that way, maybe the price tag won’t be *so* bad.

  • Tom G

    Comma usage. Aaagggghhh. Do you know how long it took me to successfully eradicate that second comma? Now I learn I was wrong. I prefer “Eats, shoots, and leaves.” Can I do it? Is the return of the Second Comma imminent?

    This makes me wonder if I should actually drop that second space between sentences. Another “style rule” I’m told. (Notice there are two spaces between every sentence in this comment.)

  • Tom G

    Hey, did the software on this site automatically remove all my second spaces? I’m being edited by a machine? This has to violate my Constitutional Rights.

  • Haha! Yeah, it does…edit them…not the…Constitutional rights thing. It’s funny, I’ve actually taken to editing them out myself depending on what I’m writing. If I’m on here I’ll tend to edit them out myself and if I’m writing a screenplay I’ll write without the double space, but I still use them in novel and short story writing. Call me old fashioned. That’s just how I’ve always been told to do it and that’s how I used to see it.

    Actually, with the final comma thing, high schools still teach you to use them. My bro caught every time I didn’t use one after I stopped using them because I read about not using them. So, I’m using them again.

  • Allow me to tell you a short story. A sixth-grade language arts teacher had an affair with a sixth-grade social studies teacher. The copy machine was in the social studies department office. Language arts students worked on worksheets all sixth grade, while the language arts teacher made even more copies. I was a student in that sixth grade language arts class. I never diagrammed a sentence, learned where to put a comma or understood why a preposition is scared to be next to a period.

    Where can I turn for help?

  • Thanks, Moira. I hope the luau was a blast. First-person present tense fantasy? Won’t be a problem. Knock their socks off and no one will notice. Well, they won’t complain, anyway.

    Tom, I’d call the ACLU if I were you. Demand your second spaces!

    Daniel, Second comma usage varies according to who you’re writing for. For better or for worse, whoever it is that buys your stuff will let you know what they want and then expect you to edit accordingly.

  • Great stuff Ed (and commenters). It was a real adjustment for me moving to the States because in the UK the approach to grammar (even in university English classes) was always descriptive rather than prescriptive (which was largely rejected as old fashioned and misrecognizing the nature of linguistic development). Imagine my surprise to find myself forced into much more strict use of grammar and punctuation when I came to grad school in the US! Puritans… :)

  • Beatriz

    Great post, Ed! Only you could spark such an interesting (and funny) discussion about punctuation.

    (Personally, they can take away my liberty but they can’t take away my serial comma!!)

  • I despise the serial comma. It just looks incorrect to me. I guess I was taught from the AP Style Manual, since all through school I was trained not to include a comma in front of a conjunction. It’s good to know that Ed likes serial commas, though. *grins and writes it down in her Book of Secret Editor Preferences*

  • […] Edmund Schubert @ Magical Words: They’re Not Rules, They’re Price Tags […]

  • I know I’m coming to this late… but awesome post!! I really enjoyed it.

    I’ve read Eat, Shoots and Leaves. In fact, I own it. :) Great book. Funny AND educational – scary!

    If you want a great example of a book written in present tense, read Grimspace by Ann Aguirre. You’re reading and loving it and thinking ‘something it’s normal’. It took most of the book to realize it was in present tense but it’s so well written and such an intriguing story, you’re like ‘meh’ and keep reading.

    Thank you!