Friday, June 8, 2012

"Rules" and making them up

Just heard from a writer who was told by someone she described as "a sage critiquer" that it's a "rule" that you can't use contractions in third-person narration.

Can we have a "huh?"

Of course, there is no such rule. :)  Contractions were used by Shakespeare-- they've been used informally for many centuries. They are used in third-person all the time-- whatever fits the voice.  Writers who say something like that don't actually have a voice, I suspect, or they'd know that they need to sound like their voice or the character voice.  They invoke non-existent rules because they can't really recognize when a
voice is working.

If the voice is formal, then sure, no contractions might work. If it's a historical novel, maybe. If it's narrated by a pompous character, sure.

But writers need to create their voices, and while of course they should default to grammar rules (unless they have reason to break them), contractions are just as legal as the terms they replace.  I'd even say that the rhythm of the sentence would often dictate a contraction as it will have (usually) fewer syllables. But obviously someone like the "sage critiquer" who doesn't recognize voice wouldn't notice the rhythm imparted by more or fewer syllables.

In fact, in the past, they had more contractions, even in names. Thom. Nelson, Jos. Epsen. My dad always signs his name "Rob't Todd." Etc.  "Oughtn't," "Durs'nt," "Tis." "Ain't," in fact, was a perfectly acceptable contraction well into the 19th C.

So... what have you heard about other supposed "rules"?  What are some "rules" that you've been told to follow that aren't rules at all?



Sue Burke said...

Don't start me about the ban on passive voice -- and the editor who told me "he was eating" was passive voice.

Edittorrent said...

If you were writing a dissertation, I would agree that you should avoid contractions. But that's the right tone for that kind of writing. The sage critiquer might not understand that different forms of writing take different tones and styles.

Sue, I wish I had a dollar for every time someone confused progressive tenses with passive voice just because of that wee auxiliary verb.


Carol Frome said...

Sage Critiquer is working from a fifth grade classroom.

Another fifth-grade lie: Never begin a sentence with and, but or because. All perfectly acceptable.

Another, less about grammar than technique: outline first. Good for you if you do. I never do, and many of my students (I used to teach writing in a college classroom) admitted to me that they used to write the paper, then do the outline just to please the teacher. That was back in the days when high school students actually had to write papers.

Shelver 506 said...

People who flip out when I split infinitives and end sentences with a preposition drive me nuts. It's perfectly fine, people!

My proof:

Gripper said...

Most of the so-called 'rules' are written by people who have no idea how to write. I heard this from a friend who hadn't eaten any breakfast, who didn't want to be quoted but who should've known better.
Bollocks to rules.

Monica T. Rodriguez said...

Hi Theresa & Alicia,
I've got a question for you (your site says to post in the comments). Don't know if you ever want to hear again about present participial phrases, but I read your series with interest and even bookmarked it.

I took the advice to heart, but I've notice a side effect -- I find myself a bit paranoid about ever using a PPP. On top of that, in a novel I'm reading by a respected author, I'm finding a greater use of the PPP than I would have expected.

So I thought I'd ask you this: when is it acceptable to use a PPP?

Thanks so much for all your painstaking work!