16 January 2016
In Support of the Grammar Police
by John Floyd
by John M. Floyd
Lately I've found myself wondering about some of the so-called "rules" of writing. On the one hand--maybe it's my engineering background--I like having a structured set of guidelines. (Call this the S&W approach--Strunk & White, not Smith & Wesson.) On the other hand, like all fiction writers, I enjoy breaking some of those rules now and then. Anytime such breakage suits my needs, I happily splice commas, fragment sentences, split infinitives, begin sentences with conjunctions, make up words, and otherwise ignore the firm orders issued by my English teachers in both high school and college.
I also understand that language has evolved, over time. I won't go further into that, here, but you know what I mean: new words and phrases pop up, others fade away, and separate words eventually become hyphenated words and hyphenated words eventually become combined words (example: on line/on-line/online). That kind of thing happens, and will continue to happen.
Just between you and I . . .
I suspect that some rules will always stand--especially most of those governing punctuation, capitalization, spelling, the basics of grammar, and so forth. Others are subjective, like the late great Elmore Leonard's "ten rules of good writing." (Most of the ten are helpful but arguable, and a few are merely witty.) In reality, writers usually apply their own sets of rules regarding style and structure, at least to some degree. Just consider the vast differences in the styles of successful authors. Faulkner's complexity, Hemingway's minimalism, Fitzgerald's flowery descriptions, Christie's two-plots-converging-into-one, Clancy's technical details, Coben's multiple plot-twists, Patterson's ultra-short chapters, Leonard's realistic dialogue, McCarthy's experimentalism, O. Henry's surprise endings, Michener's margin-to-margin wordiness, and so on and so on.
The interesting thing about that mismatching of singular (everybody) and plural (their) is that it has been done so often and by so many people, the rule against it is actually in danger of becoming obsolete. Yep, you heard me: so many people get this kind of thing wrong, there's a movement afoot to just say it isn't wrong at all, and make it okay to write or say things like "Everyone take their seats and open their test booklets."
Lowering the bar
Those who propose such an acceptance of incorrect word usage have a point, I suppose. Some of them maintain that clarity is the only really important thing, in writing and in speech, and that the meaning of statements like "Everybody does their own thing" is perfectly clear.
Those who feel uncomfortable, though, when they hear or read that sentence (I'm one of them), say you can't abandon a rule just because it's inconvenient to obey it. And it is, by the way, inconvenient. "Everybody does his own thing" (which is one of the proper ways to rewrite it) doesn't sound bad, but it borders on being politically incorrect: shouldn't it be "his or her" own thing? And if you say it that way you sound a little dumb, which is a rather high price to pay for correctness, political or otherwise. Besides, if you take that approach with my second example, it becomes "Everyone take his or her seat and open his or her test booklet," which sounds not only dumb but ridiculous.
So what's a wordsmith to do?
Since I'm usually an S&W supporter, I try to do it the correct way. In my stories and in my speech, the singulars and plurals match, or at least I attempt to make them match, unless doing so makes it sound idiotic. If it does, I sometimes dodge the problem by writing or talking "around it." In other words, I change it to other words. Instead of "Everyone take their seats," I might say "Everyone find a chair," or just "Sit down." No harm, no foul. The Grammar Police, probably responding to a call involving comma errors, march right by without giving me a second glance.
So, what's your take on all this? How do you feel about the singular/plural issue, and the possibility (probability) of making its misuse acceptable? What about other widely accepted rules of writing? Which ones do you regularly and voluntarily break? Which ones do you hold sacred? And finally, how far do you feel we, as writers, should go to maintain grammatical (and political) correctness?
Meanwhile, I hope everybody has their best writing year ever.