Most of the rules enforced by pedants are pointless or outdated. But here are a few that may be useful
Nothing so troubled me this year as a glowing review I published on a book dismissing the supposed “rules” of English grammar. I kept reading over it and wondering if I had made a mistake.
I don’t regret the praise I gave to Oliver Kamm’s Accidence Will Happen: The Non-Pedantic Guide to English Usage (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £9.99). It is a marvellous book, which everyone interested in language should read. Kamm is quite right to say that the rules grammarians insist on are 18th-century taboos which good writers have always ignored. There is no literate reason to insist on the distinction between “less” and “fewer,” for instance, or the prohibition against splitting infinitives. No linguist on earth believes that language is anything other than usage. If most English speakers use “less” and “fewer” interchangeably, it makes no sense to say that they are wrong.
All true. But an objection made to me by Simon Heffer, one of Kamm’s many targets, nagged away. If you were trying to help poor children get on, you would teach them to observe the “rules”, just as you would encourage them to speak BBC English. Conformity would not only protect them from class prejudice, it would help them to be understood. Inarticulacy is a curse. Success comes when you make others understand you, and not just material success either. Kamm and other linguists could not see it. They were well-spoken men and women promulgating anarchist notions that would keep the poor down.
The objections holds until you realise that the worst users of English are not just poor people who cannot spit out a sentence without an obscenity. The bureaucratic-speak of the civil service, the business-speak of private-sector managers, and the jargon of academics are all the more offensive because their authors do not have the excuse of poverty.
Arguments about grammar should be arguments about style. I do not claim to be anything more than a competent writer. On the rare occasions when I have written a book or article that does not make me shudder on re-reading, I have followed my own style guidelines, which may help you to decide when you should stick by the “rules” of English and when you should ignore them.
1. Say Something. Corporate mailings from managers, academic papers written to meet a department’s research target, Daily Mail stories on celebrities who have done nothing more than show their cleavage are instantly forgotten. The authors did not want to write them. They have nothing worth saying, and it shows.
It may sound unrealistically high-minded to insist that you must believe in the importance of what you are writing. But the advice applies as much to lowbrow as to highbrow work. Many people try and fail to write pulp bestsellers because their cynicism finds them out. However little you may think of their work, popular authors who succeed in the press and fiction mean what they say as much as their serious counterparts do. They have their own integrity, and understand that the first rule of good writing is to ask why you need to write at all.
2. Read it out loud. Written and spoken English are almost different languages but there is still no better way of finding where you have gone wrong than speaking your lines. With luck, you will spot the gaffes and garbles in your text. You will also hear the false notes in your language.
Not many of the “rules” of grammar survive this test. I have given up using “whom”, for example, after hearing how prissy and archaic it sounds. English is evolving as it always does, and the “who/whom” distinction has the stench of death about it. The “rules” against ending sentences with a preposition or starting them with an “And” or “But” feel equally snobbish and dated. As do many others. A piece of writing may be perfectly grammatical. But if your words have an ugly sound or a confused meaning, throw them out and the rules of grammar with them.
3. Ignore the readers. I was taught to think about who you are writing for. And, of course, there are many times where you still should. A physicist writing on quantum theory for other physicists is not guilty of jargon-mongering if he or she uses language only one person in 100,000 understands. They are conducting a specialised debate among specialists, who do not need to have physics made simple.
Increasingly, however, you have no idea who you are writing for, whether on news sites or on Twitter. Before the web, you could assume that a conservative magazine had a conservative readership. However hard you tried, that knowledge bent your writing.
You can make no assumptions now. It is more likely than not that the readers have come to you through a Twitter or Facebook link. They have not bought a newspaper or magazine. They are fleeting visitors to a website without the faintest idea of its traditions, politics and culture. They arrive without preconceptions, and you can have no preconceptions about them.
This is a loss. Writers can no longer talk candidly to readers as allies in a common cause. But the benefits are enormous. The anonymity of the readership frees you to write without prejudice. You are talking to strangers, and must persuade them to agree with you or at least accept you have a point. Anonymity forces you to write clearly. You cannot resort to in-jokes or exploit shared biases.
In other words you must worry like hell about what you write and how you write but not give a damn about who reads you. Surprisingly, your indifference makes you a better writer.
4. Cut, cut and cut again. There are a good dozen writers’ sayings urging you to slash like a deranged axeman: “Kill your darlings”; “You can’t sub what’s not there”; “The first draft doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be finished”; “Prose is like hair — it shines with combing”; and my favourite: “In the beginning was the Word, and the subs cut it.”
Get something down. Don’t worry if it’s any good. Then rewrite it, cut it, hold it upside down and shake it until every fusty convention and meandering aside has fallen on the ground.
Then, and only then, can you produce prose that will just about do.