How to Write Great Sentences: A Break From the Rules of Grammar
Grammar: Rules or Tools?
I was raised in and around the construction business, and if I learned anything it was that a fine craftsman knows the rules of his trade, but a master craftsman knows the tools of his trade.
Almost any trained carpenter can make precise measurements and cuts and produce a good product. However, it is most often the less precise, but more skilled carpenter whose work is truly a thing of beauty. Give me someone who can eyeball a near 45 degree angle over someone who will measure out a 43.87 degree angle anyday, and we can compare results.
The same is true of the wordsmith. When a writer learns that the rules of his or her trade are actually the tools of his or her trade, then and only then can a good writer become an exceptional writer.
Fun Grammar Guides.
Basic Sentence Writing.
If the rules of grammar are the tools of the writer's trade, words and sentences are the materials. Sentence construction is key. Most writers will advise that sentences need to be simple, preferably short, and include one and only one thought or idea. Sage advice, but another tool, not rule.
I am, of course, assuming a basic understanding of the rules of grammar and sentence composition. If this assumption is incorrect, please visit the grammar and writing resources included in this hub.
Here are a few examples of how to use the rules as tools.
Rule: Short, Sweet, One Idea Per.
- Rule: My uncle was an excellent storyteller. He told ghost stories. They were so scary they kept us up all night long.
There is nothing technically wrong with these three sentences. They are short, sweet and contain one idea per. They follow all of the rules of grammar, but, rather than keep you up all night, they make you want to go to sleep. Here is an example of how to use this rule as a tool.
- Tool: My uncle was an excellent storyteller. His ghost stories were so scary they kept us up all night long.
Shorter and sweeter, although not exactly one idea per. The second sentence compounds two ideas into one. The grammar police will probably leave you alone, and the reader will be appreciative.
Rule: No Run-on Sentences.
- Rule: My uncle was an excellent storyteller who told ghost stories that were really scary and they kept us up all night long.
This is a run-on sentence, not pleasant to read. It is perfectly acceptable to communicate these thoughts in one sentence, but do so appropriately,
- Tool: My uncle, an excellent storyteller, told us ghost stories that were so scary they kept us up all night long.
All the ideas are included, the run-on sentence is avoided, and the reader is happy, running on his or her merry way.
Rule: Don't Begin a Sentence With "And".
- Rule: My uncle was an excellent storyteller, and he told ghost stories so scary they kept us up all night long.
Again, there is nothing wrong with this sentence. It is an appropriate use of the "and", but these sentences are a dime a dozen. A well-placed "and" can break the monotony and grab the attention of the reader.
- Tool: My uncle was an excellent teller of ghost stories. And they were so scary they kept us up all night long.
Nor is there anything wrong with these sentences. And the "and" provides the readers with a nice transition between thoughts.
Rule: Don't Split Infinitives.
- Rule: My uncle was an excellent storyteller. As children, we anxiously awaited for him to dramatically tell his scary stories that kept us up all night long.
Such a dramatically split infinitive is frightening indeed, but without split infinitives the Star Trek Enterprise would not have boldly gone anywhere, it would have just gone. So, split infinitives aren't all bad.
- Tool: My uncle was an excellent storyteller. As children, we anxiously awaited the scary stories he told to (really, genuinely, intensely, truly, etc.) scare us. They kept us up all night long.
Admittedly, this is not the ideal construction, but, if you want or need to occasionally split an infinitive to really make your point, it can be an interesting oddity rather than an eyesore.
Rule: No Incomplete Sentences.
- Rule: My uncle was an excellent storyteller. He told us ghost stories that kept us up all night long. Because they were scary.
Quite right. This incomplete sentence is completely inappropriate. But, no incomplete sentences? Bunk!
- Tool: My uncle was an excellent storyteller. He told us ghost stories so scary they kept us up all night long. Seriously, all night long!
See? It is okay. Where a little extra emphasis is needed, add it (not the subject of this hub, dangling modifiers will be addressed later).
Beware. The rules of grammar are the rules for good reason. It is very tempting to let the exceptions rule the rules. Do not.
without rules there is anarchy and everything would eventually end up like the email you read or txt msgs you get where nuthin is capitalized punctuated speled corektly and everything is abbv until there is nuthin left xcpt txt that makes no cents ;) LOL XOXO
However, when employed sparingly, and lovingly, even a little curiously, a little rule breaking can make your writing a whole lot better.
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