Are the Rules of Written English Really That Important?

Updated: Jun 19, 2021

It’s half ten on a Sunday night and you’ve decided to go to bed early to get an extra hours’ kip in before another manic Monday. Instead of sleeping, you’ve found yourself trawling social media because you can never sleep this early, and there’s something oddly addictive about the mundane lives of others. As you wade through the random thoughts of family members and cryptic posts between friends, you suddenly find yourself wrestling with the strong temptation to tell them they’ve used the wrong "your", plurals don’t need an apostrophe, and, for goodness sake, Auntie Ethel, you only need to use ONE exclamation mark!

You know you can’t really call them out on these little foibles because it’s condescending and there’s no way you can come out of the situation as anything other than the villain of the piece. But that doesn’t stop you chuntering away from the safety of your duvet. Sound familiar?

Why is it that such small spelling and grammar mistakes boil bibliophiles one misuse of too at a time? I, too, am guilty of this silent judgement, when I see typo riddled posts with tense shifts, run-on sentences, and questions without question marks. Which begs the question: why doesn’t it bother me in fiction?

Now some readers may recoil in horror at the thought of reading books where the strict commandments of the English language are either slightly ignored for stylistic purposes or heinously rallied against to make a point, but some of my genuine favourite books flaunt the rules as regularly as rows on Facebook are started by someone correcting spelling.

Let’s start with a look at the Professor Moriarty of making up your own language register; the legendary David Foster Wallace. Foster Wallace wrote debut novel The Broom of the System when he was merely 22-years-old, but even back then he was questioning the rules by having whole chapters made up of two people speaking with little to no punctuation, just a new line each time the speaker changes. Fast forward to Hipster classic Infinite Jest and we find Dave making up, repurposing, or digging up obsolete archaic words such as "matriculate" (the formal process of entering a university) and "sotto voce" (intentionally lowering the volume of one’s voice for effect) in an orgy of stylish pretension and language love. It’s an interesting side note that Jest reportedly has over 20,000 unique words between its covers.

But maybe this is the wrong place to start. Before Foster Wallace had even picked up his first crayon, the beat movement had empowered a generation to embrace their inner rebel and churn out classic novel after classic novel which would leave language professors scratching their bald spots for decades to come. Hubert Selby Jr showcased in both of his brilliant novels Last Exit to Brooklyn and Requiem for a Dream that he either didn’t understand or didn’t agree with the widely accepted rules of grammar. Inside his dark and graphic nightmare-inducing tales from the streets, he uses commas and full stops wrongly, never uses speech marks, changes paragraph haphazardly, and goes his own way with the deployment of capital letters.

These prominent misuses are also prevalent in Selby Jr’s contemporary Charles Bukowski’s masterful debut Post Office. It’s worth noting here that both these giants of 20th-century literature famously had substance abuses issues that could have affected their writing. With that being said, whether intentional or not, this refusal to stick to the laws of linguistics definitely enhanced these stories from the gutter and brought a vivid realism to the reader’s peek into America’s seedy underbelly.

The fantastic Toni Morrison was also releasing some of her most notable works around this time with stylistic flourishes that proved it wasn’t just the chaps playing with established literary form. In her award-winning novel Sula, Morrison treated the audience to glimpses into black life in America in the wake of World War One. Not content to just tell the reader of the struggles of being black in a fundamentally racist society, she also wrote all her dialogue as the poorly educated and heavily accented people would have literally spoken and changed the words, making it often necessary for the reader to stop and work out what is being said. This contrasting knowledge of the spoken word by her various characters is particularly poignant as it allows Morrison to show you how the titular Sula has changed from when she leaves town as a girl, goes to university, and returns as a studious adult. There are wonderful scenes where she gets exasperated listening to other characters waffling on in their own version of English, or even finds herself struggling to understand what they are saying.

Keeping the spotlight eyeing historical fiction in the middle of last century, across the pond from the sixties onwards, delighted school children and young (and, let’s face it - male) adults were being treated to George MacDonald Fraser’s swashbuckling quasi-historical Flashman series, which saw title character Harry Flashman narrating his life as a soldier in some of Britain’s most famous military conquests from his near-death bed at 93-years-old in 1915, all written passionately in a fantastically researched and believable upper class Victorian English dialect. The entire 12 book series reads as though a crazy old man in the pub is rambling into your ear, which helps hugely in the reader suspending their disbelief and being pulled into this warts and all tale of scandal, dishonour, and cowardliness as Flashman fights and fornicates his way around the globe. Often referring to himself in the third person, interrupting other characters’ dialogue with scathing critiques of their words or general personality flaws, and ending his thoughts with expressions like “says I,” or “Poor Flashy”, the books certainly possess a unique charm and quirkiness with regards to how language and the written vernacular are used in literature.

If you’d asked me the question of how important it is to adhere to the rules of English when writing before I’d sat down and started thinking about the content of this blog, I’d have vehemently argued that not knowing the basic and simple conventions of English were grounds to have your work ignored until you could be bothered to learn a bit. But the more I’ve thought about it since I think I could make a case that breaking the rules with stylistic or artful merit should be commended where successful because it serves to preserve parts of our history and societal mindsets that otherwise may be lost in the depths of time.

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