Breaking the Rules

Have you ever encountered a work rule so ridiculous, arbitrary, and inflexible that you want to shoot yourself or someone else into the sun at the earliest opportunity? Me too. But before you start crafting your solar cannons, put down your spanners and reassess: what’s the genesis of the offending rule? In some circumstances, hard and fast rules are created to prevent mortal peril. (So please, put your helmet back on). Other rules prescribe against economic peril, wherein an old, faulty process may have cost your company clients or cash. Still others guarantee a specific sort of orthodoxy; they may not make sense in every situation, but they’ve had the effect of keeping things moving forward in a uniform fashion.

As a writer and editor, my work is guided by a myriad of grammar, style, and usage rules, some of which have been dictated by my place of employment (rather than a dusty book or database). One particular supervisor decreed that no sentence should have more than twenty-six words. On the face of it, this rule makes sense: concision aids in client understanding. However, this particular individual would review every document for conformity, counting words and slashing sentences that violated the standard—even if the sentence made perfect sense. (You may imagine how challenging this was when working with legal documents. Lawyers have a unique talent for stretching sentences into paragraphs.)

That particular bugaboo caused far more consternation than it warranted, but was still useful. It’s a reminder to tighten up, to ask:

  • “Could I write this sentence more efficiently or effectively?”
  • “Is this sentence lengthy because it contributes to a particular mood or theme, or because I lost my mind and crammed in too much information?”
  • “Am I Proust?”
  • “Am I varying length in a way that engages the reader?”
  • “Is my sentence swollen with unnecessary adverbs?”
  • “Does the length of my sentence contribute to a series of dangling participles?”

You get the idea. Sentences with more than twenty-six words can and should occur. Style and grammar rules will occasionally be subverted for the betterment of a narrative. That’s okay. Our rules exist as beacons to light our path and illuminate the monsters; we’re still free to trail our pens through the gloaming.

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