The English Playground

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Last month, poet John Davis Jr. — a fellow student at the University of Tampa — passed along this article entitled “7 bogus grammar ‘errors’ you don’t need to worry about.” The article has tumbled around my thoughts during the intermediary weeks and led me to an important affirmation: We need to know grammar rules, and we need to break grammar rules.

The article addresses a series of classical grammatical rules and employs historical research and practical logic to debunk the necessity of certain rules, such as the split infinitive rule:

1. Don’t split infinitives
The rule against splitting infinitives — that is, putting an adverb between the word to and a verb — was pretty much made up out of whole cloth by early 19-century grammarians, apparently because they felt the proper model for English was Latin, and in Latin, infinitive-splitting is impossible. However, English is not Latin, and infinitives have been profitably split by many great writers, from Hemingway (“But I would come back to where it pleases me to live; to really live”) to Gene Rodenberry (“to boldly go where no man has gone before”). It’s okay to boldly do it.

I have been accused — by friends, enemies, and a wife of mine — for being a certain breed grammar fascist. But the article is compelling. It softens even my own clutching grip on grammatical strictures.

At the heart of language is the desire for accurate communication. We often prefer language to gestures and smoke signals because language has a greater precision and efficiency to it. But the preceding seven archaic and obsolete grammar rules possess either some fixation with Latin or an arbitrary effort for legislated order.

The English language, perhaps more than most languages, is a fluid, livid language, an uncontainable language. It absorbs new terms and grammatical ephemera like an egg whisks into cake batter. And likewise, the writer’s liberties with the language extend to even greater lengths.

Language needs to be a playground for the wordsmith. Writers need to break rules — write incomplete sentences, twist grammar and split infinitives, invent new and clumsy words. But the unfortunate first step in turning the confines of language into a playground: Know the rules.

Salvadore Dali did not start with a painting of a soggy clock; he started by mastering all the preceding forms of paint, then proceeded to invent his own. Writing is the same way. We must learn the rules, then discard the ones we have no use for.

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