Rules and Those who Misunderstand Them

4th March, 2013

Someone smart, whom I'll honor by quoting, but dishonor by forgetting his name, once said, or wrote, that "You do not follow the rules of chess because you play chess: you play chess because you follow the rules of chess." This probably isn't verbatim either - and I would make an effort and look it up and find out who it was and where it was said, but I'm not paid for this. You probably don't care all that much anyway. (But I do, and I've just done research, i.e. spent 20 seconds typing keywords on Google, and I can't find the source; all I know is that I heard of this quote and person during a linguistics class.)

In other words, rules aren't these pedantic, restrictive parameters that prevent you from anything: they are what defines what you do. You could easily counter any attack at chess by throwing a handful of pawns at your opponent's hapless face, but you'd no longer be playing chess.

The type of rules I mean to discuss here are more specific than game rules or laws: grammar rules and rules related to writing. Contrary to hard sciences, rocks, plants, animals, planets, chemicals, and more, languages contain a significant part of the arbitrary and evolve less through logic than habit. In any given language, you can find numerous illogical expressions, constructions, and what not. English has "irregular verbs", for instance. These did not happen through a conscious decision. In fact, no self-respecting linguist calls them "irregular"; these are called "strong" verbs. They're tough cookies because they survived while the other verbs died (and that's why "regular" verbs are called "weak"). Basically, strong verbs were the only way to do verbs, and then the weak form came along and turned most of our verbs into zombies, except the strong verbs. If you happen not to know what regular and irregular verbs are, have a reminder:

- regular verb: like, liked, liked

- irregular verb: sing, sang, sung

In which the first form is the infinitive, the second is the Past Simple, and the third is the Past Participle. I could go on at length on this and even explain how the "weak" form came to be - or at least how we assume it came to be - but I'm not entirely certain this would be relevant to the topic.

The point is this: some things are the way they are because that's how they are, against all logic and common sense. Now, just because that is the state of things in many cases does not mean all nonsense has to be accepted.

To wit: the number of unfounded "rules" you may have heard here and there, or even be taught at school. Here is one of them: "Do not start a sentence with 'and'." Grammatically speaking, there is no reason not to do such a thing if it fits your purpose. Now, not being devoid of a brain, I understand the reason behind the pseudo-rule: "and" is a conjunction and conjunctions are used to put together two phrases, words, etc, and therefore there should be in between any of these two things, and thus, not at the beginning of a sentence. Correct? Yes and no. It makes perfect sense, but other rules come into play as well. In this case, it becomes more a question of rhythm and how related you want your sentences to be. These things are better explained elsewhere, so I won't spend too much of your time (and mine) on them. But consider the following:

I worked all summer on my exams. And I didn't pass.

Undeniably, there is an effect which otherwise would be absent had there not been a period in between these two sentences. The rule (or reason, and one might wonder if all good rules can't always be renamed "reasons") here is that you want your reader to pause after that first part - studying all summer - before getting to the failure; it makes you appreciate and imagine that hard work, only to sucker punch you with the next sentence. Without that period, you'd associate the two, which would be perfectly fine as well, it'd just have a different effect, if not meaning. In this case, style over-rides basic rules, not for lack of discipline or understanding, but because of a more subtle understanding of other rules that are also at play and which one would be profoundly obtuse to disregard. And this happens all too often.

Indeed, you can always disregard the higher implications of doing this or that by falling back on those basic rules and feel like you're right, but you're not. I am in no way trying to justify a lack of rigor and discipline in our written expression, but I do insist that we should know what it is we're doing and never mistake an effect/reasonable choice with a vulgar mistake. Consider the following:

I had to clean my car. And then I had to wash my clothes. And then I had to take out the trash. And then I had to walk the dog. And then...

Here, unless you're possessed by stupidity, you understand that the period is used to separate each sentence to create the following effect: every time the narrator did something, he stopped and assumed it was done, and yet it wasn't; or at the very least that there was a pause between these actions, and these pauses only made the tasks more burdensome. You can feel the annoyance in these sentences. That is the point, the reason, and therefore the rule for the use of "and" and periods in this example.

Incidentally, stringing all these sentences into one, with no periods in between, would also have an effect, just not the same. The effect here would be to pile task upon task to create a sense of being overwhelmed. The pseudo-rule you might have heard before, in relation to this example, is that when making a list, you don't rewrite "and" all the time but place commas between each element, until the last one: "A, B, C, D, and E". Once again, that rule is all nice and good but here we're beyond that: we're creating an effect, and such effects are often, though not always, achieved via what Paul Grice would call "flouting the rule (or maxim)". What's that, you say? It's stuff like irony: saying one thing to convey the opposite meaning. In this particular case, being ironic does not mean that you don't understand the most basic of rules (which would be to tell the truth), but that you both understand it and play on it to create extra meaning. This is what happens with irony. (Notice that lying is a similar "flouting of the maxim": it doesn't mean that you don't know or understand how to tell the truth, you do, but that isn't your objective when lying.)

(A word must be said here of the Oxford Comma, which I support. The Oxford Comma is the comma you place, in my example, before "and". In some languages, such as French, it is a mistake to have a comma there, the reason being that "and" does the job already and the comma is superfluous. Naturally, this is bullshit, but why would you trust me over the Académie Française? For this very simple reason: "and" is a word and a comma is not. That alone ought to do the trick; they are not the same, they can't replace each other exactly. The other, more important reason is that the meaning can be affected. To me, if you say: "A, B, C, D and E", I will always have the impression that "D and E" are closer to each other than all the other elements listed before, because they are put together through a conjunction ("and") while the others are not, and, mostly, they are not separated by a comma. To put all elements on the same level, I would separate all of them with a comma. No couples allowed. The following image should illustrate my meaning.)

I could list subjects which relate to this, and each could have its own chapter, but this isn't my focus here. Instead, a few words about people.

And not just any people (notice the use of "and" to start a sentence, and even paragraph, gasp! Bonus points if you can spot the sentence that began with "but") but those people who have a rigid point of view on basic rules and close to no understanding of what I'd call subtler rules (the realm of figures of speech, style, and the likes). In my impression and opinion, some people have made a Faustian pact with the devil of the obtuse: they've traded talent, intelligence, insights, and style for rules. And by trading, I'm being nice because there was nothing to trade in the first place. Those people usually don't understand a thing about the rules they follow except that they were taught them and they stick to that. If you're lucky, they understand the basic reason, but fail to understand why you would do things differently, even though your reasons are just as sound, as in the examples shown above. To compensate for this lack of creativity (when it comes to writing), some people - those people - will fanatically adhere to the rules. The irony here is that the ones who go beyond these rules usually have a better understanding of them, which is why they can expand on them and create more out of them than those who simply, and blindly, follow them. I can drive a car just fine, but I can't undo my car and put it back together; a mechanic can, and he can do that because he understands exactly how a car works.

Does that mean you can justify any sort of nonsensical activity within your written expression? No, of course not. If there is no other effect from your "flouting" other than making your reader wonder about your instruction or lack thereof, you might want to reconsider your flouting of the rule in the name of higher rules. Mistakes happen, and it's not always easy to see what rules can be flouted and which ones aren't subject to it. There is no easy way to generalise on these; it's a case by case thing more often than not.

Back to those people. For what it's worth, I am reminded of a thing one of my university teachers once told my class: that she found it difficult to both study literature and write it. In a paradoxical way, knowing too much about a thing can sometimes stunt your ability to do that thing. My personal example is this Smashing Pumpkin song, "Stumbleine", which I once patiently learned to play on the guitar. It's finger-picking, where you use all your fingers, not a pick. My fingers know how to play this song in its entirety, but there is one thing that will always make me fail this song and even prevent me from remembering how to play it at all: trying to consciously know how I play it. As soon as I try to know which finger plays what string, that is the death knell to my song. And the only way back is to let my fingers do their thing without trying to consciously know. I guess it's something like this for my teacher who couldn't separate studying stories from writing stories. Hemingway once discussed how stories were fragile things and discussing them too much could break them. I would agree to a point, and only very specifically in his stories, where intuition must often over-ride intellect.

Being bitter about one's inability to write interesting texts may lead to a fanatic adherence to (not fully understood) rules; it is the outlet of the weak. I am the strictest person when it comes to rules, but such strict usage of basic rules (to the detriment of higher rules) is, in my opinion, lacking in discipline. Discernment is rather important in any area: you can't lump everything together because it looks similar.

A good example of such people is one of my previous chapters, specifically "The Critique's Critique: Twilight", in which I demonstrate how poorly understood mechanisms can lead one to foolishly attack any and all adverbs because one has learned to hate them, just because. The status of the adverb in fiction is an excellent example of what I'm discussing here. We're beyond strict grammar rules, but the subject is still related, as it is literally a rule to many writers to never use any adverbs, no matter what. I won't discuss adverbs again; suffice it to say that you should never apply a rule 100% of the time if you are not sure why you do so exactly. (And "Because I've been told" is not enough.)

One day, I was bombarding my mother with questions related to music, and how to read and write music on paper. My father, somewhere in the background, thought we were arguing, and said, "You can't do anything you want with music; there are rules!" He was right and he was wrong. In the absolute, there are no rules: you can sit down at a piano and play whatever you want, in any manner you want. Nothing can stop you, and the only rules you can break are those we invented for ourselves. This wouldn't be true of language, but it is of music. That said, music writing does have rules, not rules about the music per se, but on how to transcribe that music into a readable document one can use to re-play that music. Yes, dad, there are rules, but they aren't where you thought they were.

True rules are reasons. Rules without reasons are excuses.


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