Breaking the Law

What a shame it would be to write an entire series on grammar and style without paying at least some cursory attention to those writers who have chosen to break the rules.

It is an oft-repeated maxim that you have to know the rules before you can break them. Unfortunately, it sometimes seems to me that writers have adopted a new maxim – once you know there are rules, you should break them.

Let me be the first to acknowledge I am not a stylistic stickler. It is not a violation of the rules to start a sentence with a conjunction. That was never a rule. It is, was, and always has been a matter of style. At one point, it was considered gauche, like wearing white pants after Labor Day. Tastes have changed.

Many of the so-called “rules” aren’t. And I’m the first to celebrate their absence.

no speed limit signBut breaking the rules is not a matter to be taken lightly. It’s an act very much like violating a traffic law. You’ve always had the ability to do so. You CAN speed. The accelerator on your car permits a velocity much higher than that allowed by regulation. Provided no object obstructs your path to enforce the law of physics stating that two bodies cannot occupy the same space at the same time, you’re golden. Of course, there is the matter of a ticket, and a fine. Or the aforesaid physical law might suddenly make itself inconveniently known and cause severe bodily harm to you or another being.

In other words, you can write a sentence fragment, and you might get away with it, or you might not. And the consequences might be as simple as someone calling you out. Or they could be far more serious.

And for anyone who is about to accuse me of making a false analogy, let me remind us that words and phrases do indeed break up partnerships, relationships, business dealings, political agreements, governments, constitutions, international negotiations, and people – every day.

So when should a writer consciously choose to break to the rules? Let me propose three situations.

1) When a writer wishes to create a distinct literary voice.

Yes because he never did a thing like that before as ask to get his breakfast in bed with a couple of eggs since the City arms hotel when he used to be pretending to be laid up with a sick voice doing his highness to make himself interesting to that old faggot Mrs Riordan that he thought he had a great leg of and she never left us a farthing all for masses for herself and her soul greatest miser ever was actually afraid to lay out 4d for her methylated spirit telling me all her ailments she had too much old chat in her about politics and earthquakes and the end of the world let us have a bit of fun first God help the world if all the women were her sort down on bathing-suits and lownecks

Joyce, James. excerpt from Ch. 18, “Penelope.” Ulysses. The Literature Network. 23 Nov 2011.

Joyce’s masterpiece of early twentieth century literature Ulysses contains many stylistic innovations. The final chapter, in which he writes in Penelope’s voice (that of the main character’s wife), is widely lauded among them, and looks abominable on the page, but if you read it out loud, especially in a rotten Irish accent, it reads pretty smoothly. All he really did, other than to run on interminably for hundreds of pages, was to omit the punctuation. (Yes, I’m being reductive, but in a certain sense, so was he.)

anyone lived in a pretty how town

(with up so floating many bells down)

spring summer autumn winter

he sang his didn’t he danced his did

cummings, e e “anyone lived in a pretty how town.” 23 Nov 2011.

e e cummings’ example is slightly more rebellious. Not only has he used an un-anteceded pronoun to act as the subject of his sentence, he’s using the adverb “how” as an adjective referring to “town;” similarly the prepositions “up” and “down.” And the verbs “didn’t” and “did,” he chooses to use as verb objects. These linguistic conversions, combined with the lack of syntactic markers (capitalization, punctuation) disorient the reader, and help to establish both a voice (or a mood) and a theme.

But while Joyce and cummings are acknowledged masters of their craft, such stylistic innovations are not strictly necessary to create brilliant literature. Witness two authors with as keen an ear for the turn of a phrase and as enduring a legacy:

I had a theoretical reverence and homage for beauty, elegance, gallantry, fascination; but had I met those qualities incarnate in masculine shape, I should have known instinctively that they neither had nor could have sympathy with anything in me, and should have shunned them as one would fire, lightning, or anything else that is bright but antipathetic.

Brontë, Charlotte. excerpt from Ch. 12.  Jane Eyre. The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women. Ed. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar. NY: WW Norton, 1985, Print. 444.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

Austen, Jane. excerpt from ch. 1. Pride and Prejudice. Project Gutenberg. 23 Nov 2011.

Both female authors color within the lines, if you will. And both offer as rich a literary mine to excavate as their male counterparts – if of a different ore. So consider carefully whether your grammatical “innovations” harmonize with your thematic intentions to create an organic whole that is the essence of an artistic work, or whether they detract from your theme and serve only as flourish, which in the end is no better than the baroque ornamentation reacted so powerfully against by twentieth century writers.

2) When a writer wishes to make a lasting rhetorical statement.

We expect our public speakers to be well spoken. They should be polished, professional, poised, and eloquent. But sometimes, just sometimes, it behooves a public persona to deviate from that standard. And in the middle of the nineteenth century, nothing could be farther from the standard than a black female slave by the name of Sojourner Truth. Take a look at her 1851 speech in favor of women’s rights:

Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that ‘twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all this here talking about?

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?

Then they talk about this thing in the head; what’s this they call it? [member of audience whispers, “intellect”] That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or negroes’ rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?

Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.

If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.

Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain’t got nothing more to say.

Sojourner Truth. “Ain’t I a Woman?” Delivered 1851. Women’s Convention, Akron, Ohio. Modern History Sourcebook. 23 Nov 2011.

Yet despite the improper diction and the lack of subject-verb agreement, is this not one of the most powerfully moving speeches you have ever read? It brings tears to my eyes just to read it. I can’t imagine being present, seeing the woman deliver it, watching her dismount from the stage. And I know in my heart that Martin Luther King, Jr. in preparing for his many battles with the white majority must have drawn strength from his rhetorical ancestress – her rhythms, her isocolons, and her rhetorical questions ringing in his ears as he delivered his own masterpieces.

Certainly, despite its impromptu nature, this is of a different ilk altogether than another grammatical infelicity committed more recently by a woman in the public sphere.

Ground Zero Mosque supporters, doesn’t it stab you in the heart as it does our throughout the heartland? Peaceful Muslims, please refudiate.

Palin, Sarah. Twitter. 18 July 2010.

3) When a writer wishes to draw attention to a singular point.

So most of us aren’t James Joyce, Jane Austen, or Sojourner Truth, yet we still have that lingering urge to let our inner rebel run free through the lexical columns of our prose. Okay, okay – there is a time and a place for that as well. Just make sure you’re willing to accept the consequences of your actions.

I will admit that I concluded the introduction to my dissertation with a sentence fragment.

And I nearly gave myself an ulcer over the decision.

No one noticed.

Was it worth it?

You be the judge.


  1. Most of thie time, when I want to be linguistically creative, I have to break a grammar law to do it in memorable style. The key, though, as you show the masters have proven, is to do it in a way that makes the result a work of art instead of an unfortunate experiment. Thanks for not being a stickler, Michelle. It makes you YOU and not your style guide.

    • Shakirah – I love the phrase “unfortunate experiment.” It totally captures so much of what we see on a daily basis. And folks, if you want to read some beautiful, inspirational pieces that abide by the laws of grammar and occasionally break them, check out her Deliberate Ink blog. She’s good!

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