“Rule Breaker or Rank Amateur?”

  • March 18, 2022

Check out this Washington Writers Conference panel!

“Rule Breaker or Rank Amateur?”

Knowing the rules of grammar — and when to break them — can separate the good writers from the great. Elevate your work by attending the “Rule Breaker or Rank Amateur?” panel at the 2022 Washington Writers Conference on May 13-14 in Rockville, MD! It’s being led by Johns Hopkins instructor and grammar guru Ed Perlman, who offers a few insights here.

When is it okay to break the grammar rules? 

When you know why you’re breaking the rule. Is this rule-break consistent with the tone of the work? How does this shape the voice and the reader’s thoughts about the voice? If you’ve asked yourself these questions and you think, yes, this works, break the rule. Otherwise, don’t.

Do your students ever think proper grammar isn’t important? 

My students feel empowered knowing how the building blocks of syntax mirror the building blocks of thinking. Looking at how Alice McDermott or Jesmyn Ward crafts sentences — just as art students study and copy the masters — requires knowing the names of the tools in the writer’s toolbox and how they work. Look at the syntax to discern a writer’s voice and artistry.

How is grammar affected by technology?

Technology accelerates that already whiplash speed of evolution whether we like it or not. Will we see these technological effects infiltrate mainstream fiction and nonfiction? Perhaps. But technology will never find a substitute for a writer’s voice, a writer’s control of tone, a writer’s vision. 

How have you seen grammar change in the 20-plus years you’ve taught at Hopkins?

Grammar, syntax, and usage evolve along with everything else in English at breakneck speed. Italians can read Dante; few Americans can read Chaucer. You can track this at a microscopic level — transitive “to lay” is taking over intransitive “to lie” — or you can look for larger shifts that need time, a good backward look, to reveal themselves. Those of us who get off on grammar and syntax always have our pet peeves. I’m a fan of Mary Norris’ Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen.

Whatever your thoughts on grammar, don’t miss your chance to learn from the pros at the Washington Writers Conference! REGISTER NOW! (Note: Proof of vaccination against covid-19 is required to attend.)

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