By Bryan Garner for the ABA Journal,
Itâs often said that you must know the rules before you break them. But why is that, exactly? Itâs a question worth pondering.
I recently flew coast to coast sitting beside a young filmmaker with an MFA from New York University. Heâs a finalist this year at the Cannes Film Festival. I asked him whether heâs ever met someone who wanted to do something with the camera that nobody had ever thought of doing beforeâsomething boldly original.
âI think youâre describing me before I got serious!â he said.
âThatâs funny,â I said. âWhat would you think if you handed a violin to someone who said, âI am going to do something with this instrument that nobody has done before.â Or what if you handed a set of golf clubs to someone who said, âI am going to play the game with these clubs in a way never before imagined!ââ
âIt would be foolish,â he said.
Naturally, I agreed.
Mastery of any discipline begins with imitation. You must know whatâs been done before, and you must know about technique. You must know the rules of the discipline so that you can produce consistently strong results. Otherwise, youâre just acting in ignorance, and the quality of your results will be wildly variableâand generally poor.
So great pianists play in very much the same way, and their individual virtuosity comes through only in subtle ways. Professional golfers may look very different from one another, but theyâre very much alike in the fundamentalsâespecially how the clubface, shoulders, feet and body look at the moment of impact with the ball. If thereâs variation among true experts, itâs at the fringes. And all true experts have begun by imitating their great predecessors.
SENSIBLE RULES FOR WRITERS
The same is true of writers. You have to know certain rules. I can think of eight offhand:
- You must fervently want to be understood, and therefore you must see things from the readersâ point of viewâand itâs best to think of your readers in the broadest possible way.
- Sentences need to be linked to one another, fore and aft.
- The same is true of paragraphs.
- The first paragraph or two are the most valuable real estate you have, so you must make the most of them.
- The closing paragraph is the second most valuable real estate, so you mustnât squander itâbut instead cinch the deal (youâre selling your ideas).
- Because the primary position of emphasis in an English sentence is the end, you must try to end sentences emphatically if you want to keep your readers from dozing.
- Once youâve written a draft, you must ruthlessly cut every unnecessary word (not being too hard on the wordÂ that).
- You must be attentive to the fine points of phrasing, word choice and punctuationânot for the sake of pedantry but for the sake of making comprehension effortless for your readers.
Those are good rules.
KICK THESE EDICTS
But many of us, at an impressionable age, picked up lots of bad rules that no reputable authority countenances. Unlike the eight just listed, theyâre all simple prohibitions:
- You mustnât begin a sentence with a conjunction, such asÂ And,Â ButÂ orÂ Nor.
- You should never begin a sentence withÂ Because.
- You mustnât write a one-sentence paragraph.
- You should never use first person.
- You mustnât end a sentence with a preposition.
- You mustnât split an infinitive (those who believe this often donât know what an infinitive is).
- You should never useÂ sinceÂ as a softer equivalent toÂ because, and you should never useÂ whileÂ to meanÂ although.
- You must never use contractions.
Those arenât really rules. Theyâre the stylistic equivalent of hearsay upon hearsay. Reputable writing authorities repudiate them, one and all. So part of the problem is to figure out what the real rules areâand then figure out when it makes sense to break them.
Notice that the simple-Simon prohibitions above are probably intended for young children. An analogous rule would be that of the Suzuki method of violin instruction, in which children are taught that before playing, they must begin with a zip-and-step (parting their feet [zip] and then moving the right foot forward [step]). But imagine the reaction youâd get from a virtuoso violinist if you accused them of violating a âruleâ by not zipping and stepping at the beginning of a performance. It would be absolute nonsense.
When it comes to supposed rules of writing, itâs good to know whatâs at their foundation. Some are aimed at curing young schoolchildren of elementary blunders. We teach kids not to begin withÂ AndÂ orÂ ButÂ precisely because they tend to begin all their sentences that way (especiallyÂ And), and they need to be weaned off the habit. We teach them not to begin a sentence withÂ BecauseÂ just to keep them from perpetrating sentence fragments by mistakenly putting a period rather than a comma after theÂ BecauseÂ clause.
We teach them not to write one-sentence paragraphs so theyâll learn how to compose well-developed paragraphs. We teach them to write withoutÂ IÂ andÂ meÂ because beginners easily become addicted to mentioning themselves excessivelyâand need to learn to write with a more objective tone. All the while, we ignore the fact that theyâll ultimately need some sentence-starting conjunctions, someÂ BecauseÂ sentences, some one-sentence paragraphs and some uses of first person.
Other âprohibitionsâ are mostly nonsense and always have been: the idea that you mustnât end with a preposition or must never split an infinitive. The great H.W. Fowler demolished these false idols in his 1926Â A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Nobody has successfully countered him. Most writing authorities, if they mention these bugaboos at all, take pains to eliminate them.
What about contractions? Again, itâs arguably useful to teach children a type of formal prose style before they mature and learn to relax their style (relax, I said, not beÂ lax). Itâs good that they learnÂ you are, and laterÂ youâre, so theyâre not hampered by a fundamental confusion betweenÂ yourÂ andÂ youâre. The same could be said ofÂ theirÂ andÂ theyâreÂ (andÂ there, for that matter). But contractions are an effective antidote to stuffiness, and they aid readabilityâdemonstrably. Consider this sentence fromÂ The Law of Judicial PrecedentÂ (2016): âTo say that a trial court or appellate court generally wonât rethink a prior ruling isnât to say that it canât.â An uncontracted style there will strike many as either stilted or downright laughable.
LEARN FIRST, IGNORE AS NEEDED
I should point out that my late co-author Justice Antonin Scalia disagreed with me about contractions. But he broke his own rule and allowed contractions throughout our first joint book,Â Making Your Case. And on occasion he broke his own rule, even in judicial opinions.
There areÂ BluebookÂ rules worth breaking. One is the notion that explanatory parentheticals are ârecommendedâ with many citationsâa convention that spoils any product with in-line citations. Even proponents of in-line citations, such as Justice Scalia and Judge Richard Posner (no fan of theÂ Bluebook), acknowledge that trailing parentheticals bastardize paragraphs when the citations are interlarded within the writing. Another is the idea that underlining is an acceptable practice in court documents.
Still, I would never say you shouldnât learn established citation form just because you can later decide to ignore certain elements of it.
When it comes to breaking rules, Paul J. Kiernan of Washington, D.C., cites the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team. They know how to play basketball, make passes, dunks and so on, but theyâre entertaining because they then break or bend those rules for comic effect. If they couldnât play a real game, their breaking the rules wouldnât work. Or consider the comic classical pianist Victor Borge, who followed the same pattern. Or if you appreciate fine couture, think of Alexander McQueen and what he did with clothing design.
Only after you can truly perform as the discipline requires can you break rules to good effect.
Bryan A. Garner, the president of LawProse Inc., is the author of many books, including Garnerâs Modern English Usage (also available as a mobile app), The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation and The Law of Judicial Precedent co-authored with Justice Neil M. Gorsuch and 11 other appellate judges. Follow on TwitterÂ @bryanagarner.Â This article was originally published in the ABA Journal.