How Much “Grammar” Do You Need? Part II

In which I continue to make my case that we may not need as much as we think:

In 1982, the late Joseph M. Williams, then a professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Chicago and author of the book Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, played a trick on his academic colleagues in English. In an article in a major journal for writing teachers, he challenged the idea that there were sacred grammar rules that every educated person recognized and blasted when they turned up in other people’s writing.

Torn up draftsHis argument had several parts:

  • There are several categories of “error”: the ones educated English speakers definitely would recognize and avoid, but also those that even the most well-trained among us read right over—even in our own writing!
  • Whether you are likely to see errors that you and other people make depends on why you’re reading: If you’re specifically looking for mistakes, as teachers tend to do when reading student papers, you see them, but if you’re reading for content, you gloss right over them.
  • Most of us are all too likely to accept something as a rule because some supposed authority said so, not because the rule actually matters in communication—or even makes sense!
  • And many supposed rules DON’T make any difference in communication, which is why we read right past them (and I just made one of those errors in this sentence).

To support his claims, Williams looked at rules from many of the “language mavens” of the time, including some revered experts like E. B. White of Strunk & White fame, William Zinsser, author of the perennial classic On Writing Well, and George Orwell, whose essay, “Politics and the English Language,” has been a staple of many an English classroom since it was published in 1946. In each case, Williams shows that these authors broke their own stated rules with apparent abandon.

Particularly delicious is his takedown of Orwell’s rule that we should avoid the passive voice. As Williams illustrates, “Orwell, in the very act of criticising [sic] the passive, not only casts his proscription against it in the passive, but almost all the sentences around it, as well.” What’s interesting to him, Williams says, is not that Orwell made this egregious stylistic “mistake.” What’s interesting is that he and his editors never noticed it! Nor have the legions of English teachers who’ve praised Orwell as an example of good writing for eons. None of these experts have ever noticed that he was wallowing in the very slough of error he told us to avoid. Question marks(I just inserted another one of those mistakes that I would argue we tend to read right past.)

At the end of his article, Williams challenges his readers: In the article, he says, he’s made more than 100 of the kinds of “errors” his colleagues swear they would never commit and never tolerate. How many, he demands to know, did you spot on first reading (no cheating, going back and doing an error hunt)? He filed a marked-up copy with a respected college-writing professional to document that he really played this trick.

His point again: to document that many things we think are wrong are only visible if we’re actively looking for them.

Where does that leave us lowly query writers? Just possibly, our readers (agents and editors) are reading for mistakes. After all, with thousands of queries to slog through, an error is a good excuse to move on to the next letter in the stack.

I agree: Agents and editors reading queries and pages are likely to be much more sensitive to error than many of us are in our casual reading. But here’s the rub: we can’t possibly know which errors he or she will recognize, let alone which ones are likely to kill the deal.

For example:

  • How many passive-voice constructions am I allowed? One? Three? None? Or is she like the woman who once critiqued some pages for me at a conference. She told me to stop using the passive voice so much. Turns out she meant I was overusing the past progressive. (She was right, however, that I was relying on the past progressive too much —as just now?).
  • Or does he care about the difference between “that” and “which”?
  • Or what is her stance on “hopefully”? On split infinitives? On ending sentences with prepositions?
  • Does he want me to say “Everyone ate his or her lunch,” or is he okay with “their”?

Sometimes we just have to make tough judgment calls. I started a sentence with “but” a few lines back. Is she the kind of editor for whom that is forbidden? But what if that capitalized “but” works beautifully to illustrate the contrast and transition I want to make visible? Should I edit my prose to follow a rule that I may not even think is valid, or should I take a chance?Happy editing!

I agree with Williams that there are different levels of error. In the next post I’ll share his categorizations and begin making the case for my own.

In the meantime—ain’t this fun?



Filed under correct grammar for writers of fiction, Editing your novel, grammar rules for writers, Learning to write, Myths and Truths for writers, self editing for fiction writers, Self-publishing, style for writers

8 responses to “How Much “Grammar” Do You Need? Part II

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  6. I liked this. I think sometimes we writers sometimes talk ourselves out of writing out of fear we’ll make writing mistakes. There’s different levels of mistakes, some acceptable, some not, and sometimes something can be technically wrong but acceptable as the thought can’t be expressed another way.

    People don’t like to think so, but our language does have limits.


    • It’s pretty well-accepted among writing teachers that if students worry about mistakes in first drafts, they freeze up. Another take on it, one I may get to later, is that if certain things become automatic, they stop interfering with your working memory. But what “rules” deserve to become automatic? What should we hope to internalize? And how do we do that?
      I love these kinds of questions. Thanks for your comment!!

      Liked by 1 person

      • To make matters worse, there will always be grammar issues where equally intelligent people can disagree.

        For example, I’m an Oxford comma addict whereas some people won’t stick a comma in to save the world.


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