Tuesday, November 14, 2006

English with a hockey mask

Looks like the columnists are up on the high horse again about how You Kids are Murdering Our Language. And once again, English is acting like a hockey-mask-wearing loser with a chainsaw in a slasher movie: Better kill him a little harder, kids, because he's sneaking up on another cheerleader right now!

The pros have the requisite butt-kicking well in hand, so we'll just spend a moment on one idea in the abovementioned dreadful column, because it tends to crop up every now and then in the first week of class:

But the talent and appeal of good writers comes through knowing the rules and knowing how most effectively to break them.

Let's just go ahead and put that one out to pasture. You don't want to break the rules, which are your friends. When people tend to mean when they say "I want to learn the rules so I can break them" is ... oh, "I want to split me an infinitive!" Or "I want to use adjectives like nouns!" Or "I want to say [naughty word] so [naughty word]ing often your [mom][naughty word]ing eyes pop out!"

To which the rules say: Knock yourself out! Those situations aren't covered by "the rules." They can represent better or worse writing decisions, depending on your skill and the context you're writing in (say, a context in which you want to keep your newspaper job past those heady first 3.11 seconds). But we don't have a "rule" to spend 15 weeks teaching you just so's you can break free of it when the semester ends.

That doesn't mean there aren't rules. There are. If we didn't have rules, we'd have a hard time telling a "man eating blancmange" from a "man-eating blancmange."* They're the ones your self-respecting literary lion wouldn't be caught dead breaking. And they don't appreciate being mistaken for the sort of people who pick on sentence-final prepositions.

So be kind to the poor rules (they're not real happy about the adverb placement in the quoted sentence as it is). They're the things patiently making sure that the adjective you used as a noun is likely to be perceived as a noun. They're the tireless guys who make sure your attribution is pointing at the phrase you want to attribute, because if there's one rule you never, ever want to break, it's "Don't libel anybody unless you mean to."

Be wild, be carefree (except on my watch), be bold, but don't listen to some silly columnist who thinks you need to break "the rules" to be any good. It's a pretty good guess she doesn't know nearly enough of the things herself.

*Thanks, H.W.

2 Comments:

Blogger MassBile said...

Very good article...infomational for sure...looking forward to reading some more posts placed on this topic...will be checking this page again..have saved in favorites and bookmarked...thanks

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1:04 PM, November 18, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very informative article and the points on 'murdering the english language' are really interesting. I have a colleague who is currently in the middle of his PHD on related issues and I am sure that this will be of use to him so I will forward this on to him.



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5:17 PM, December 01, 2006  

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