Grammar rules and how to break them: the run-on sentence

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Breaking rules are what all the cool cats are doing these days (and have been doing for years, to be honest with you – it isn’t something that goes out of fashion). Even though new writers may find themselves drawn to the myriad number of ‘rules’ for writing that exist on the internet, there are a lot of writing ‘Dos and Don’ts’ that were made to be ignored – so long as you do it right, of course.

Chief among these are often rules of grammar, syntax and punctuation. Not least because attempts to standardise language and the written word often leads to the suppression or marginalisation of communities and peoples.

Grammar rules do exist for a reason; yet learning when and how to ignore certain rules can enhance your writing.

To give you an example, in this article we’ll look at the run-on sentence – and show you how you can throw all conventional wisdom out of the proverbial window in order to write one hell’uva good story.

Cool runnings – an introduction to the run-on sentence

First things first; the basics: run-on sentences, also known as fused sentences, occur when two complete sentences are squashed together without using a coordinating conjunction or proper punctuation, such as a period or a semicolon. Run-on sentences can be short or long. A long sentence isn’t necessarily a run-on sentence.

What’s the problem with using a run-on sentence?

A run-on sentence lacks the correct punctuation to tell the reader where to pause or to signal that a new idea is being expressed. The reader may be confused about the meaning of the sentence or have to make their own decision about where to pause.

Correcting a run-on sentence can help your sentences read more smoothly and should help your reader understand what you’re trying to say more easily. The independent clauses help the sentences make sense and they are much tighter and concise by comparison to the run-on sentence structures.

Breaking the grammar rule

Now, we’re not advocating ignoring the rules around run-on sentences completely: you can’t use them for everything you write, constantly. But if you understand how to conveniently forget about the grammar rule around them from time to time, you can help bring some new-found life and variation to your stories that will leave your readers gasping for breath – and gasping for more of your writing.

In the spirit of one of the most frequently touted rules of writing – we aren’t going to tell you how to do this; but rather show you, by using examples from some of the greatest writers who didn’t think twice about what grammatical rules they may or may not have been breaking.

First up – and perhaps not surprisingly – we have James Joyce’s Ulysses, which  famously concludes with Penelope, or Molly Bloom’s Soliloquy, which has 24,048 words punctuated by two periods and one comma. Here’s a part of the final episode:

“…I suppose he was thinking of his father I wonder is he awake thinking of me or dreaming am I in it who gave him that flower he said he bought he smelt of some kind of drink not whisky or stout or perhaps the sweety kind of paste they stick their bills up with some liquor Id like to sip those richlooking green and yellow expensive drinks those stagedoor johnnies drink with the opera hats I tasted one with my finger dipped out of that American that had the squirrel talking stamps with father he had all he could do to keep himself from falling asleep after the last time we took the port and potted meat it had a fine salty taste yes because I felt lovely and tired myself and fell asleep as sound as a top the moment I popped straight into bed till that thunder woke me up as if the world was coming to an end God be merciful to us I thought the heavens were coming down about us to punish when I blessed myself and said a Hail Mary like those awful thunderbolts in Gibraltar and they come and tell you theres no God what could you do if it was running and rushing about nothing only make an act of contrition the candle I lit that evening in Whitefriars street chapel for the month of May see it brought its luck though hed scoff if he heard because he never goes to church mass or meeting he says your soul you have no soul inside only grey matter because he doesnt know what it is to have one yes when I lit the lamp yes…”

If you find this difficult to follow, you’re not alone. At the time of writing, this soliloquy contained the longest sentence ever written at 4,391 words, which made it the master of all run on sentences.

Nonetheless, while you might not want to go quite as far as Joyce, you can see how ignoring conventional grammatical wisdom can enhance the intensity, voice, and style of your writing. It helps your words to flow freely, adding life and vigour to your writing.

For our second example, we’re turning to another literary great, David Foster Wallace. His short story Incarnations of burned children was first published in Esquire magazine and you can read it online for free (do it now).  The story consists of only nine sentences, and yet is 1100 words. The breathless run-on sentences intentionally lend to a panicked, anxious reading, a messy and somewhat incoherent babble as neither the narrator nor the Daddy nor the Mommy can slow down and think rationally.

Here are the first three sentences of the story, to give you a flavour of how Wallace breaks traditional grammatical rules to such devastating effect:

“The Daddy was around the side of the house hanging a door for the tenant when he heard the child’s screams and the Mommy’s voice gone high between them. He could move fast, and the back porch gave onto the kitchen, and before the screen door had banged shut behind him the Daddy had taken the scene in whole, the overturned pot on the floortile before the stove and the burner’s blue jet and the floor’s pool of water still steaming as its many arms extended, the toddler in his baggy diaper standing rigid with steam coming off his hair and his chest and shoulders scarlet and his eyes rolled up and mouth open very wide and seeming somehow separate from the sounds that issued, the Mommy down on one knee with the dishrag dabbing pointlessly at him and matching the screams with cries of her own, hysterical so she was almost frozen. Her one knee and the bare little soft feet were still in the steaming pool, and the Daddy’s first act was to take the child under the arms and lift him away from it and take him to the sink, where he threw out plates and struck the tap to let cold wellwater run over the boy’s feet while with his cupped hand he gathered and poured or flung more cold water over his head and shoulders and chest, wanting first to see the steam stop coming off him, the Mommy over his shoulder invoking God until he sent her for towels and gauze if they had it, the Daddy moving quickly and well and his man’s mind empty of everything but purpose, not yet aware of how smoothly he moved or that he’d ceased to hear the high screams because to hear them would freeze him and make impossible what had to be done to help his child, whose screams were regular as breath and went on so long they’d become already a thing in the kitchen, something else to move quickly around.”

Protect your voice

If we were to ‘correct’ the work of Joyce and Wallace (to name just two authors who ignore the run-on sentence rule), we may make them conform more closely with standardised English language; but both works would lose something fundamental in doing so. They would lose their energy; they would lose their voice.

Since a writer’s voice has more to do with what meaning is or isn’t conveyed to the reader than the grammatical rules and syntactical structures we place upon our written language, these stories would have their fundamental essence rearranged and, ultimately diminished.

So, if you find yourself locked in a burst of frenzied writing energy and wake the next morning covered in raw coffee beans and ink (we’ve all been there) to find that your prose is riddled with run-on sentences; don’t worry. Sit back, re-read what you’ve written, and remember the timeless (though slightly paraphrased) words of Doc Brown from Back to the Future: “Rules? Where we’re going, we don’t need rules…”

 

 

 

 

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Lines with dots under them: exclamation points and how writers use them! (or don’t use them!)

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In one of his most memorable pieces of advice for writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald voiced his disdain for exclamation points, writing: “cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.”

This has become a (moderately) consensual belief in the writing, publishing and generally literary spheres. The British journalist and writer Miles Kingston, for instance, opined: “so far as good writing goes, the use of the exclamation mark is a sign of failure. It is the literary equivalent of a man holding up a card reading ‘laughter’ to a studio audience.” Meanwhile, in his book How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them—A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide, Howard Mittelmark writes: “In almost all situations that do not involve immediate physical danger or great surprise, you should think twice before using an exclamation mark. If you have thought twice and the exclamation mark is still there, think about it three times, or however many times it takes until you delete it.”

But, of course, it is easy to advise one thing and practice another. So is it true that using exclamation marks is a sign of poor writing?

Not necessarily. In Ben Blatt’s new book, Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing, we are given fantastic, empirical data that proves you can use exclamation points and still go down in history as one of the greatest writers.

Consider the chart below, for example, which shows how many exclamation marks ten of the most revered literary legends used per 100,000 words of prose writing:

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You will see that James Joyce – that modernist, avant-garde author of Ulysses, and arguably one of the most influential and important writers of the 20th century – tops the list at over 1000 exclamation points per 100,000 words. That’s an exclamation point roughly every 100 words.

Does this mean Joyce was simply laughing at his own jokes? One suspects not. In second place, we have Tom Wolfe – one of the founding fathers of the New Journalism literary movement and winner of the notorious ‘Bad Sex in Fiction’ awards. Writing only slightly fewer exclamation points per 100,000 words than Joyce, one finds that a liberal use of exclamation points is not an anomaly among the literary elite.

Even Elmore Leonard, who, in his book ‘10 Rules of Writing’ stated: “you are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose” ignored his own advice. In his career he wrote 40 novels, totalling 3.4 million words. If he had followed his own advice, he would have used only 102 exclamation points in his writing. As it happens, in the end he used 1651 – sixteen times as many as he recommended.

So, why is it that, despite the perceived literary consensus that exclamation points should be avoided, so many of the ‘greatest’ writers continue to use them so frequently in their prose?

In her now famous book, Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, Lynne Truss, posits her own theory for this:

“As if by common consent, people turned to the ellipsis and the exclamation point. There must have been a reason for this. My theory is that both of these marks are ways of trying to keep the attention of the reader. One of them says, ‘Don’t go away, I haven’t finished, don’t go, don’t go,’ while the other says, ‘Listen! I’m talking to you!’”

Perhaps then, the use of exclamation points by writers – great and small – is a subconscious call for attention; an attempt to hold the attention of readers they fear they might lose without such punctuation use.

This line of logic doesn’t really provide an argument in favour of using the exclamation point. Indeed, it is difficult to find many writers willing to vocally challenge the assumption that it is best to avoid them.

Writer Tom Ewing explains there can be benefits of using what Jerry Seinfield memorably described simply as “a line with a dot under it”; however, he, too, urges caution: “(The) exclamation point becomes a way to disarm the reader and pierce their shell, a kind of textual fluttering of eyelashes,” he writes. “And that’s cool! But once you notice it, you get suspicious.”

It is perhaps worth noting at this point the origins of the exclamation point: being that they were originally called the “note of admiration.” They are still, to this day, used to express excitement. They are also used to express surprise, astonishment, or any other such strong emotion. Any exclamatory sentence can be properly followed by an exclamation mark, to add additional emphasis.

This, perhaps, is the crux of the matter; since it goes to the root of what makes exclamation points such attractive tools for writing, but which also carries their own limitations. They can easily add emphasis to your writing; however, by overusing them, it takes the power out of it. What are your readers supposed to be excited about if it’s everywhere? If everything is exciting then nothing is exciting, because it’s all the same.

Perhaps, then, it is best to aspire to write beautiful prose where enthusiasm is conveyed by word choice and grammar – instead of relying on lines with dots under them.

Some of the finest advice on writing – Kurt Vonnegut on stories, structure and style

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Fourteen novels, three short story collections, five plays and five works of non-fiction stand as a towering testament of Kurt Vonnegut’s ability to show us the fantastic in literature, and the extent to which books and writing can make us feel sublime. He is rightly admired by writers, readers – and most people who have had the fortune of stumbling across some of his work. Countless resources exist within the babbling expanse of the internet, based on his writing, and what he can teach us about writing – from the perspective of the writer, the reader, and the human being.

In this article, we attempt to bring some of these resources together – a mini-compendium featuring some of Vonnegut’s timeless wisdom on writing.

A first rule: no semicolons

By way of introduction, we believe it is of paramount importance to highlight Vonnegut’s self-defined “first rule” of writing. Lovers of the semi-colon should look away now.

In a delightfully dogmatic writing rule of thumb, Vonnegut offers the following advice for aspiring writers: “A First Rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All the do is show you’ve been to college.”

Leave those semicolons by the wayside, then. Now, onwards and upwards!

An old favourite: the shape of stories

A much viewed clip available on YouTube is an old favourite of the team here at Nothing in the Rulebook. In it, Kurt Vonnegut maps out the shapes of stories, with equal parts irreverence and perceptive insight, along the “G-I” axis (Good Fortune and Ill Fortune), and the “B-E axis” (Beginning and Entropy). The footage, an excerpt from a much longer talk, is best accompanied by the transcript of the full talk – in ‘A man without a country’, an almost-memoir Vonnegut published in 2007.

The fundamental thesis behind the delightful graphs Vonnegut uses to depict everything from Cinderella to Kafka to Hamlet, is that, in his own words “stories have shapes which can be drawn on graph paper”.

The shape of Cinderella

The shape of Cinderella

Yet this thesis, which he submitted in pursuit of a master’s degree, was rejected – according to the man himself – because “it was so simple, and looked like too much fun”.

We’ll let you decide for yourself what you make of it:

Interestingly, these plottable graphs have been creatively reimagined by graphic designer Maya Eilam, in new infographic format.

The importance of style

Vonnegut’s 1985 essay, “How to Write with Style”, published in the anthology How to Use the Power of the Printed Word, begins by reprimanding what he perceives as the impersonal sterility of journalistic reporting. This fuelled by Vonnegut’s musings on the single most important element of style, which writers of all creeds must possess – a revelation of self.

“Newspaper reporters and technical writers are trained to reveal almost nothing about themselves in their writing. This makes them freaks in the world of writers, since almost all of the other ink-stained wretches in that world reveal a lot about themselves to readers. We call these revelations, accidental and intentional, elements of style.

These revelations tell us as readers what sort of person it is with whom we are spending time […] Why should you examine your writing style with the idea of improving it? Do so as a mark of respect for your readers, whatever you’re writing. If you scribble your thoughts any which way, your reader will surely feel that you care nothing about them. They will mark you down as an ego maniac or a chowderhead — or, worse, they will stop reading you.”

Choose to ignore such a warning at your peril!

Find your routine

The idea of finding your ‘routine’ as a writer is often bandied about and discussed at great lengths on various writing forums, threads, advice boards, literature festivals, creative writing seminars and classes, and so on. Writing is, after all, a discipline; and is perhaps more about working terribly hard at something and focusing intently on that, rather than simply spending your days living life as a “creative”.

Yet recognising the importance of a writing routine and actually developing one is a trick not learned easily – and made more difficult by our increasingly 24-7 lifestyles (both working and social). For inspiration, Vonnegut serves as an icon to aspire to, with his gruelling daily routine, often noted in a marvellous collection of his letters.

In one letter to his wife, Jane, dated 28 September, 1965, for example, Vonnegut describes how he would work for 90 minutes before a short break for breakfast at 8am, then continue working until 10 am. Here, he then walks into town, runs errands, swims at the local pool, returns to his house for lunch at noon, then spends the afternoon preparing for his classes (he was working at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa), then an evening spent reading and listening to jazz music. Throughout the day he does “pushups and sit-ups” and occasionally visits the cinema, where he has his heart broken.

Perhaps it’s time we all brought a little more discipline and heartbreak to our writing routines!

8 Simple tips for writing a great story

There are plenty of such #WritingTips lists floating about. But Vonnegut’s simple list on how to write a good short story deserves repeating in full:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
Vonnegut's signature self portrait

Vonnegut’s signature self portrait

Make your soul grow

Finally, one last, and perhaps most important piece of advice from Kurt Vonnegut. One year before the author’s death, he wrote a letter in reply to a group of New York City school children who prevailed upon him to come and visit their school. His thoughtful reply provides advice that goes beyond tips for writing or reading; and instead simply teaches how to lead a good life.

A transcript of the letter here follows:

November 5, 2006

Dear Xavier High School, and Ms. Lockwood, and Messrs Perin, McFeely, Batten, Maurer and Congiusta:

I thank you for your friendly letters. You sure know how to cheer up a really old geezer (84) in his sunset years. I don’t make public appearances any more because I now resemble nothing so much as an iguana. 

What I had to say to you, moreover, would not take long, to wit: Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.

Seriously! I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives. Draw a funny or nice picture of Ms. Lockwood, and give it to her. Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you’re Count Dracula.

Here’s an assignment for tonight, and I hope Ms. Lockwood will flunk you if you don’t do it: Write a six line poem, about anything, butrhymed. No fair tennis without a net. Make it as good as you possibly can. But don’t tell anybody what you’re doing. Don’t show it or recite it to anybody, not even your girlfriend or parents or whatever, or Ms. Lockwood. OK?

Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash recepticals. You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.

God bless you all!

Kurt Vonnegut