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Strunk and White are Still Dead or How Writers Can Stay Alive

October 16, 2011 by Mike in Essays

There are some rules of English grammar that are, and probably will remain, nearly absolute. But that does not mean all grammar rules are immutable. After all, while gravity is the law, much of grammar is only a suggestion. So how do you know when to obey the gods of grammar and when not to? The applicable law is complex in its simplicity. Here it is: If it works, it’s right. If it doesn’t, it’s wrong.

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Sure, you say, but who decides if it works? Now you’re getting nasty. The writer is the first judge, then the editor – or your ProofreadingPal. And ultimately, the reader. Yet in order to make a valid judgment, the judge must know the law. Ignorance of the law is no excuse, whether it’s the speed limit on I-80 at Iowa City or the placement of participles in relation to what they modify. You should know the fundamental rules and then only break them on purpose – for a reason you could explain. If you write a sentence fragment that accomplishes your communication goal, it’s right. But that doesn’t give you carte blanche to ignore grammar guidelines concerning the fundamental building block of writing, the sentence. Most of the time, most of your sentences should satisfy the suggestion that a sentence include a subject and a verb. Yet just because most sentences should meet this standard doesn’t mean all of them have to. Many of the most dreadful sentences ever written have a subject and a verb. So whether it’s a sentence or a sentence fragment, if it works, it’s right. If it doesn’t work, it’s wrong.

For competent writers, the sentence fragment is a powerful tool. Without it we often bog down in wordiness and convoluted syntax, foolishly sacrificing powerful communication on the altar of grammar.

Effective, powerful writing is all about judgments. If it were simply about following a recipe, we’d be awash in brilliant writing. Yet creating effective, powerful writing is not a mystical art. It’s mostly a craft that can be taught and can be learned, at least to some degree. And when that craft is elevated to an art, we call it eloquent. Effective, powerful writing does not come in the dreariness of a five-paragraph essay, nor does eloquence evolve from the lock-step of an eight-sentence paragraph or a fanatical faith in the gods of grammar. Were it not so, they would award a Nobel Prize for Grammar, not Literature. And after all, Strunk and White are still dead…but your writing doesn’t have to be.

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