Good grammar does not always equal good writing. We must find a balance between the precision afforded by correct grammar and the nuances of the author and characters’ voices. Sometimes they are the same, sometimes they aren’t. Look at the dialogue in Huckleberry Finn. Many people don’t speak in correct grammar, and for some characters, to use perfect grammar would seem unnatural and unbelievable. For instance a non-native English speaker speaking English.
Good grammar is important, don’t get me wrong, it’s just that good writing is more than good grammar. It’s easy to lose sight of the writing because we’re too busy looking at the grammar and punctuation. The old saying that expresses this is: you can’t see the forest for the trees.
This is why a copy edit is not enough to ensure that writing is of a professional standard. A copy edit focuses only on the trees. It will check that each tree is straight and well pruned, but there is more to a beautiful forest than straight trees. The occasional bent, cracked or fallen one adds interest and variety, but if most of them are broken, the forest is a mess we can’t negotiate, or it is so ugly that we don’t want to go there. Vines, ferns, epiphytes and shrubs add colour and texture, but too many of them obscure the trees, make the forest impenetrable and, at the very least, throw us into sensory overload. Clumped together, they prevent us from seeing any one of them to its best advantage.
In this analogy, the straight trees are grammatically correct sentences. The bent, broken and twisted ones are the more fluid parts of our language, things that have changed, or are in the process of changing or, though strictly speaking grammatically incorrect, can be used stylistically to good effect or to reflect modern speech and cultural differences.
The split infinitive is one example. Since we mostly speak in split infinitives now, to insist on writing without the splits is petty and will sound wrong in situations where informal speech is required. The fragment is another example; although traditionally grammatically incorrect, we often speak in fragments, and their judicious use in written English, even outside of speech, adds punch and rhythm to writing. Writing dialogue in dialect also breaks grammatical and spelling conventions (note that I don’t call them rules), but it adds colour and reality. Overused, however, it becomes difficult to read.
It’s usually pretty clear to any experienced reviewer where ignoring grammatical convention works and where it doesn’t. Where it works, it improves the reading experience. Where it doesn’t, it diminishes it. Where used in ignorance, it appears clumsy; where used knowingly, it adds texture and style. It is safer for the beginning writer to stick to the conventions, but not so fanatically that they apply conventions indiscriminately and remove all personality from their writing: for example, continually using ‘is not’ where ‘isn’t’ would be more appropriate for the tone and style of the work.
The understory of shrubs, ferns, epiphytes and vines is an analogy for adverbs, adjectives, metaphors, similes, euphemisms, alliteration, allusion, personification, paradox, understatement and other stylistic devices. Well placed and used judiciously, these add to the reading experience, but overused or badly placed, no matter how grammatically correct, they detract.
A whole forest of trees planted in straight lines, without vines, understory or ferns and so on, could be an analogy for a technical writing style incorrectly applied to fiction, or for grammatically correct sentences that do not vary in their construction and are so void of embellishments that the reading experience is quite dull. It could also refer to an awesome science fiction novel where the bare language expresses the aliens’ personalities perfectly. It’s not a matter of right or wrong, but of how you use the tools available and for what effect.
Passive writing can be grammatically correct, which is why a copy editor will not ‘fix’ it, but too much of it makes the prose flat and unengaging. Sentences beginning with participial phrases (starting with words ending in ‘ing’) are grammatically correct—so long as the participial phrase is attached to an agent—but when overused, it is the mark of a hack writer. And it’s the same for beginning sentences with prepositional phrases prefixed with the word ‘as’.
It is the line editor’s job to do this kind of landscaping, and a good one is aware of the current trends in writing. Of course, you can ignore current trends, such as the preference for active over passive constructions, but you need to be aware of the point of the convention that you’re ignoring. In this case it’s that active writing is generally more immediate and engaging than the passive form.
The writer’s challenge is to use good grammar well, while feeling free to occasionally and judiciously use what strict traditionalists might consider incorrect grammar. We need to remember that grammatical conventions change as our language changes, that what is acceptable varies according to local usage, and that we shouldn’t be too picky over what may be outdated conventions; but at the same time, we should not disregard grammatical conventions for no good reason.
As with most things in life, it’s a matter of balance.
This post is an excerpt from my book The Elements of Active Prose: Writing Tips to Make Your Prose Shine
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