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  • Writer's pictureWilliam I. Atkinson

Rules Are Made to be Broken

There are two main ways of looking at English. You can be prescriptive, setting and enforcing strict rules of speech. Or you can be descriptive, contenting yourself with noting how the tongue is used in bedrooms, boardrooms, blogs, and alleyways. Both schools have their adherents. Both are right. Both are incomplete.

The prescriptivists are right: Apply for a job by writing Youse oughtta shouda hire me and see the result. The descriptivists are right: Whisper to your lover To whom do I owe my deepest allegiance? and see [and feel] the result. English with no rules falls apart: It has no subtlety. But English shackled by rules is restricted to municipal bylaws.

Here’s the lesson. Proscriptive English trades vigor for precision; descriptive English trades precision for vigor. To resolve this impasse, I adduce Atkinson’s Law: Vitality comes first. In other words, imperfect-but-vigorous cuts it; precise-and-dull does not. Writing must spurn grammar the instant grammar drains its blood. All good writers know this.

Here’s Charles Dickens, describing a suicidal villain: ‘Dead, dead, dead.’ One adjective, twice repeated; no subject, object, verb. So what? In fact my last two sentences wouldn’t be passed by a fourth-grade teacher: Both omit vital parts of speech. Again, so what? The diction is vivid, the meaning is clear. And that last sentence used a comma splice. And this sentence, like the last one, began with a conjunction. None of those broken rules matters a damn.

This vigorous unpredictability of English, its blithe delight in smashing rules and still being clear, drives prescriptive grammarians nuts. The Edwardian author Henry Fowler, who in his textbook Modern English Usage put precision above all, considered legal language the acme of English because it could not be misconstrued. To Fowler, the perfect sentence would begin ‘The party of the first part…’

A century later, Fowler is dead, dead, dead. His book fits Mark Twain’s definition of a classic: “Something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” Fowler, the ultimate prescriptivist, gathers dust on the shelf. In a sentence without a verb: Good riddance.

More to come.

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