“The greater part of the world’s troubles are due to questions of grammar.”
― Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays
Another post about grammar? Yawn off, Sam.
There’s no need to be like that—I’m merely going to talk a little about some of the so-called rules that surround writing. If you frequent any forums inhabited by writers, you’ll see these ‘rules’ mentioned frequently. One or two may be more accurately described as ‘myths’, yet are held up as gospel by some. I’m going to keep this light-hearted—there are plenty of places where you can read serious discussions on these matters if you are so inclined. Let us begin…
To boldly split infinitives
We’ve all heard the rule: you should never split infinitives. Yeah, yeah, tell that to Gene Roddenberry, or whoever wrote the tagline for his most famous creation.
This edict arose from grammarians in times long gone objecting to separating the ‘to’ from the verb (to eat, to sleep, to read, etc) because the infinitive was never split in the Latin form of the verb. Well, it wouldn’t be, seeing as Latin verbs are usually only one word. A bit tricky to stick the Latin version of ‘boldly’ (audenter) into the middle of the Latin version of ‘to go’ (ire) and still have it make sense. And it wouldn’t be anywhere near as catchy.
If you want to split infinitives, go at it. There’s nothing wrong with writing, ‘I ran upstairs to quickly brush my teeth.’ But be cautious. Usually, we’re taking about separating the ‘to’ from the verb with an adverb and these ought to be used sparingly (see below). Take an example: ‘After a moment’s hesitation, I decided to briskly walk after him.’ For a start, that doesn’t sound natural to my ear—better if ‘briskly’ comes after ‘walk’. Better still, a new word could be substituted for ‘briskly walk’; there are plenty to choose from, such as stride, rush, hurry.
Liberally applying adverbs
Stephen King famously wrote: ‘I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs…’ [On Writing]. Some writers take this to mean that we should never use adverbs. Ever. Don’t believe me? Take a peek into any writers’ forum when this topic comes up and you won’t have to wait long before someone will come along and decry any use of the humble adverb, often trotting out this King quote in support of their position.
He is particularly scathing about adverbs used in dialogue tags, though he freely admits that he has been known to use them on occasion. I’ve just picked out one of his books at random from my bookshelves: Hearts of Atlantis. It took me under a minute to find an example: ‘“Go in your room, Bobby,” Ted said quietly.’
“No, no, no!” the naysayers will protest. “The phrase ‘said quietly’ should become ‘whispered’ or ‘breathed’ or ‘muttered’.” I heartily disagree. It’s about nuance: saying something quietly is not the same as whispering or breathing or muttering it.
To me, adverbs are another tool in the writer’s shed and to avoid them altogether is to unnecessarily limit our ability to paint the fullest picture with our words. Having said that, they should undoubtedly be used with care and often a better word will present itself. So slam the door rather than shut it firmly; shout rather than exclaim loudly; sprint rather than run quickly. But by all means sweat profusely if sweating alone doesn’t fully convey the image you want to portray.
He and she and they
Ah, gender-neutral pronouns. A tricky one this. Easy to use ‘they’ when referring to more than one gender-unspecified person; not so easy when referring to only one.
Historically, ‘he’ was understood to include ‘she’, but that is rightly no longer considered acceptable. Indeed, clumsy constructs like ‘he or she’ and ‘he/she’ are now regarded as non-inclusive since they exclude those who regard their gender as neither. (If you want to read more about this, there are many instructive articles out there, such as this one: how-to-use-gender-neutral-pronouns)
‘They’ seems to have become increasingly acceptable as a gender-neutral pronoun when referring to only one person, even though it is, technically, a plural pronoun, not singular. It doesn’t always work well, though. Take a simple, contrived example, where the writer doesn’t want to reveal the identity of either character and so conceals their gender:
‘The murderer picked up the knife; the victim cowered. They thrust it into their chest.’
I try to get around it in my blog by writing ‘he (or she, but let’s take that as read)’. That’s no less clumsy but I can get away with it somewhere informal like a blog. And I ought probably to write ‘he (or she or any pronoun of your choice, but let’s take that as read)’ so as to include those who don’t identify with either he or she.
As for fiction writing, the best advice to avoid clumsy structures like the example above is to rewrite it.
A mention of a couple of my pet hates, though they’re becoming so widely used that I suspect I’m railing against them in vain.
‘PIN number’ – PIN is an acronym for Personal Identification Number so we don’t need to say ‘number’. PIN alone will suffice.
‘for free’ – free means ‘for nothing’ so we don’t need to say ‘for’. ‘You can get it free’ suffices. With this one, in particular, I know I’m not so much peeing into the wind as into a force-ten gale. They even use the expression ‘for free’ on the BBC, for goodness’ sake.
That’ll do for now. If I think of any more pet hates, I’ll include them in the next grammar post. What, another one…?