Ben Dreyer on Good Writing and the Nonrules of English

Here’s rather a long extract – one I heartily agree with – to wet your whistle. Then go and get the book.

I have nothing against rules. They’re indispensable when playing Monopoly or gin rummy, and their observance can go a long way toward improving a ride on the subway. The rule of law? Big fan.

The English language, though, is not so easily ruled and regulated. It developed without codification, sucking up new constructions and vocabulary every time some foreigner set food on the British Isles – to say nothing of the mischief we Americans have wreaked on it these last few centuries – and continues to evolve anarchically. It has, to my great dismay, no enforceable laws, much less someone to enforce the laws it doesn’t have.

Certain prose rules are essentially inarguable – that a sentence’s subject and its verb should agree in number, for instance. Or that in a “not only x but y” construction, the x and the y must be parallel elements… Why? I suppose because they’re firmly entrenched, because no one cares to argue with them, and because they aid us in using words to their preeminent purpose: to communicate clearly with our readers. Let’s call these reasons the Four C’s, shall we? Convention. Consensus. Clarity. Comprehension.

Also simply because, I swear to you, a well-constructed sentence sounds better. Literally sounds better. One of the best ways to determine whether your prose is well constructed is to read it aloud. A sentence that can’t be readily voiced is a sentence that likely needs to be rewritten.

A good sentence, I find myself saying frequently, is one that the reader can follow from beginning to end, no matter how long it is, without having to double back in confusion because the writer misused or omitted a key piece of punctuation, chose a vague or misleading pronoun, or in some other way engaged in inadvertent misdirection. (If you want to puzzle your reader, that’s your own business.)

As much as I like a good rule, I’m an enthusiastic subscriber to the notion of “rules are meant to be broken” – once you’ve learned them, I hasten to add.

But let’s, right now, attend to a few of what I think of as the Great Nonrules of the English Language. You’ve encountered all of these; likely you were taught them in school. I’d like you to free yourself of them. They’re not helping you; all they’re doing is clogging your brain and inciting you to look self-consciously over your own shoulder as you write, which is as psychically painful as it is physically impossible. And once you’ve done that, hopefully you can put your attention on vastly more important things.

Why are they nonrules? So far as I’m concerned, because they’re largely unhelpful, pointlessly constricting, feckless, and useless. And also because they’re generally of dubious origin: devised out of thin air, then passed on till they’ve gained respectability and solidity and, ultimately, ossified. Language experts far more expert than I have, over the years, done their best to debunk them, yet these made-up strictures refuse to go away and have proven more durable than Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. Put together. Part of the problem, I must add, is that some of them were made up by ostensible and presumably well-meaning language experts in the first place, so getting rid of them can be a bit like trying to get a dog to stop chasing its own tail.

Ben Dreyer – Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style

And what are the non-rules?

Dreyer’s Big Three…

  • Never begin a sentence with “and” or “but” (you can)
  • Never split an infinitive (it’s fine to boldly split them)
  • Never end a sentence with a proposition (they tend to weaken sentences, but they’re something we can all live with)

… and small seven

  • Avoid all contractions (unless one wants to sound weird, one cannot)
  • Avoid the passive voice (it’s been used by our best writers)
  • Avoid sentence fragments. They’re fine.
  • The remaining four aren’t as interesting as these three

Go! Write stuff.

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...