Breaking the Rules of Grammar

I’m a hypocrite on this subject. I don’t easily forgive what I call bad grammar. Using then for than drives me crazy. Using the apostrophe for simple plurals, not possessive, makes me unhappy. I hate sloppy spelling. I react to that like spinach on your teeth or fingernails on the chalkboard.

But I like to begin sentences with “But“. I like short sentences. Sometimes I like incomplete sentences.

For example, the first paragraph of Body Surfing, by Anita Shreve. I read this book over the holidays, on planes and on the beach. It was a good story and, in my opinion, good writing:

Three o’clock, the dead hour. The faint irritation of sand grit between bare foot and floorboards. Wet towels hanging from bedposts and porch railings. A door, caught in a gust, slams, and somewhere near it emits the expected cry of surprise. A southwest wind, not the norm even in August, sends stifling air into the many rooms of the old summerhouse. The hope is for an east wind off the water, and periodically someone says it.

An east wind now would be a godsend.

There are two sentences there that aren’t really sentences. Brother Salvador, who taught senior English at St. Francis High School in 1965, would have flunked the author for that. Which two, you ask? “Three o’clock, the dead hour” has no verb, so it shouldn’t be a sentence. “Wet towels hanging from bedposts and porch railings” has no verb –even if you thought “hanging” was the verb — and is therefore not a complete sentence. Brother Salvador did not excuse grammar or spelling errors. One single grammar or spelling error turned a 10-page paper from whatever it would have been to an F. Much as I hated that then, I’m still grateful today. He was a good teacher.  I got an F on a paper for using “it’s” instead of “its.” I learned the difference.

Curiously, she could have corrected both grammatical errors easily. For the first, just add “It’s,” as in “It’s three o’clock, the dead hour.” For the second, changing hanging to hang, as in “Wet towels hang from bedposts and porch railings.” But she didn’t. And I like it her way better.

I like crisp short sentences, even when they are so crisp and so short that they aren’t even sentences.

This reminds me of an encounter years ago with a talented copy writer named Cahill Brown (or Cal Brown) who produced the copy for the first red box with yellow pushpin design of Business Plan Pro, in 1996. He wrote tight copy that wasn’t always in complete sentences. He did bullet points. Easy to use. Powerful. Things like that. Collections of words that worked, sometimes words in sentences without verbs. For example:

You’ve put in the ideas. The words. The numbers. Now it’s our turn to make you shine.

Not a numbers person? Not to worry. We’ve input the formulas. Built the charts.

Writing like that made me and Teri Epperly (she was then our on-staff editor, now she manages a group of editors) nervous. Cahill answered our concerns with “It’s not writing, it’s copy writing. It doesn’t have to be correct; it has to work.”

Right on.


  • Chris S says:

    I've had this argument with several teachers, and even college professors. Check out the last chapter of 'All the Pretty Horses,' or the first page of 'A Tale of Two Cities.' Non-grammatical sentences make for better art.

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