Wednesday, 7 August 2013

The Three C's (or Why the Rule's Do Not Really Matter)

We have all come across jobsworths at one time or another. You know the type. The kind of person who is such a stickler for the rules that they apply them without reason or logic. Whether it is the uncooperative service assistant, the over-zealous public official or maybe even your boss at work. These people all share one thing in common. They all know the rules (sometimes a bit to well), they just do not understand the purpose of them.


Okay, before everybody descends into complete anarchy, allow me to explain. I will use an example from my old workplace (a bank, which has since gone bust). The rule in question, regards the criteria for allowing employees to take holiday. It is as follows:

1) At least one weeks notice must be given in advance of holiday.
2) No more than two team members can be off at any one time.

It sounds straightforward and is clear to see in black and white. The rule was adhered to without question, which led to an overuse of the word "no" (as well as a vast increase in employee sick days). What the management failed to take onboard when so liberally alienating the staff, was the reason for the rule. Primarily, to ensure that the office was always adequately staffed. Due to a fluctuating workload, what could be defined as adequate staffing changed quite drastically from day to day. If everybody is stretched to their limit and struggling to meet their workload, it makes sense not to allow any more people time off on that day. If there is no work and half of the office are sitting twiddling their thumbs, then the rule is surely obsolete. There are times, like this, when something may contradict a rule, but it does not conflict with the REASON for the rule. This is when common sense should take over and rules should be broken (or simply ignored).


During the first draft, an author lets creativity and inspiration guide his or her hand. When it comes to editing however, they have certain boundaries. This is the time when they have to apply the rules. It is also a process that so many writers and editors get wrong. The problem is that they look solely at the rule and not the PURPOSE of the rule. Basically, the rules of grammar serve three functions. I will call them the three C's.


Grammar and punctuation are really just signifiers. They tell the reader how to read a particular text. Authors should not be consulting text books to decide the placement of a comma, they should be looking inwards, using instinct. One has to think about how they want the reader to read their work. Rhythm and flow are integral to producing an engrossing read. Therefore, do not ask whether a sentence is grammatically correct, but notice how it sounds when you read it back. It can be different for everybody and it is really a question of style. Basically, if I need to take an intake of breath during a sentence, then that will be a comma. Sometimes though. It will be a full stop. This really annoys Microsoft Word, because it will furiously start underlining everything with ugly green pixels and tell you that it is a fragment and to consider revising. I have many arguments with Word and I win every one of them. Why? Because I know what sounds best.

I am currently reading a thriller released through a major publishing house and one thing that I have noticed is that grammatically speaking, it is far from correct. A misuse of the Oxford Comma, missing Signifiers and a lot of fragmented sentences are common throughout. Do I care? No - because the story flows and that is what is important. The story has Cohesion, Comprehension and Consistency. It may not strictly follow the rules, but it sits perfectly with the purpose behind the rules.

One major problem that I see with self published novels is the fact that they are a bit too grammatically correct. What I mean by this, is that because all of the focus is placed on meeting rules, the reason behind the rule is often forgotten. A lot of writers use overly long sentences, which are clunky and awkward to read. When this occurs, I often have to reread a segment, because the meaning was lost in the impractical (albeit correct) sentence structure. When writers have this pointed out to them, they often hide behind the excuse of; "well, it is grammatically correct, so it cannot be wrong" as if it is out of their hands. Nothing is out of the writer's hands. Do not let so called correct punctuation disrupt the flow of your story. Not ever.

A reader will abandon a grammatically correct book, which is dull. They will not abandon an engrossing, exciting book, because the punctuation does not strictly adhere to a certain text on the rules of writing. 


When I read a book, I want to hear the writer's voice. It is as much about the storyteller as the story. When we hear somebody speak with a particular accent, we do not refuse to listen until they start using Received Pronunciation. Why then, do we insist upon forcing a particular form of grammar on them when they write? So long as a story is Cohesive, Comprehensible and Consistent, I could not care if it is grammatically correct or not. Writing is an art form and with all art, part of the beauty is that you can see the individual strokes. These are not blemishes, they are adornments. It is about time that we stopped airbrushing them out.

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