Grammar rules rule—or do they? They certainly did in my day. As a grade school student many decades ago, I would anxiously approach the blackboard when called upon to diagram sentences. The challenge back then was analogous to completing a crossword puzzle in The New York Times today.
Years later when I was teaching English and journalism, many of my high school students would question those grammar rules—some tongue-in-cheek—with queries like, “Why isn’t the plural of you ‘yous’?” “Why are the titles of books in italics, while titles of songs are in quotes?” “What’s wrong with using lots of commas?” And endless hours in class were spent discussing the difference between lie and lay.
It is difficult for me to gloss over a grammatical “departure” when reading an article in a newspaper or magazine. Yet in literature, I realize that it’s acceptable to bend grammar rules—even break them altogether. Poetry often ignores conventional punctuation and syntax in favor of a dynamic use of language. And many novels set a pace, as the narrator speaks to the reader while throwing grammatical caution to the wind.
E. E. Cummings decided to become a poet when he was still a child. Between the ages of eight and twenty-two, he wrote a poem a day. While at Harvard, he penned avant-garde poems, revising grammatical rules to suit his purposes. He occasionally assigned his own private meanings to words, with a number of his poems featuring parts of words or punctuation symbols scattered across the page. They often made little sense until read aloud, when their meaning and emotion became clear. Despite their nontraditional form, Cummings’ poems became popular with many readers, and they remain so today.
Tom Wolfe, well-known author of fiction and non-fiction, has toyed with language and has been credited with introducing the terms “statusphere,” “the right stuff,” “radical chic,” “the Me Decade,” “social x-ray,” and “pushing the envelope” into the English lexicon. One of my favorite Wolfe novels is The Bonfire of the Vanities. I must admit that the first time I read it, I thought his use of ellipses was overdone. The second time I read the novel, the ellipses didn’t distract me as much. And the third time I read Bonfire (yes, when the plot and characters intrigue me, I’ve been known to re-read a novel, gaining new insights along the way), I realized that the ellipses contributed largely to the momentum, the characters’ dialogue, and the overall tone of the tome.
So don’t discard your grammar book, but keep it closed while you open a short story, novel, memoir or book of poetry. And once you’ve finished reading that written work for pleasure, you can do what I did with my students’ submissions: give it a dual grade—for grammar and content.
-Francine Pappadis Friedman