Thursday, September 27, 2012

When to choose good writing over good grammar

In 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing (a slim but valuable book which I purchased for a mere Rs.263 on Flipkart this week), Gary Provost makes a convincing case for choosing good writing over good grammar:

"It is my objective to utilize my management expertise more fully, than has heretofore been the case" is acceptable grammar but poor writing because it is poor communication. The sentence should read, "I'm looking for a better job."

On the other hand, "I ain't got no money" is terrible grammar but could be good writing in some context by communicating exactly what the writer wants to communicate.

There are many writing situations, Provost asserts, in which inferior grammar makes for superior writing, and he provides an appropriate example from a comic novel.

You could also use poor grammar, Provost tells us, in an essay or opinion piece to establish a certain tone:

"Marvin Hagler and Ray Leonard go at each other tonight in the Centrum, and it ain't going to be pretty."

So, yes, it may be okay to use poor grammar deliberately, but, Provost warns, whenever you knowingly use poor grammar, you should ask yourself two questions.

The first: Is my meaning clear? If the answer is no, rewrite.

The second question: What am I getting in return for the poor grammar? If you can't answer that, don't use poor grammar.

That is great advice. I also love what Provost has to say towards the end of this passage (which is part of Rule No. 10: Prefer Good Writing to Good Grammar in the chapter titled "Ten Ways to Avoid Grammatical Errors"):

Never violate a rule of grammar unless you have a good reason, one that improves the writing.

But never choose good grammar over good writing.

I have read many, many books on writing and grammar but this is the first time I have come across such wise words with respect to both writing and grammar.

100 Ways to Improve Your Writing, in addition to the excerpts presented above, has much to recommend it. And I endorse it wholeheartedly.

UPDATE (June 7, 2014)

"This is a must-read for all freshers"

By Ankita Pareek, Class of 2016

A big thank you for suggesting this book to me.

I never knew a book could answer all my queries related to writing (even the ones I thought were stupid and cannot be asked). From explaining what to write and when, and also where and how, the book covers it all.

I am glad I read this book. I now have the confidence to write and have also started realising my mistakes and rectifying them. This should be a must-read for all the freshers like me who aim to be writers but are unaware of the basics of writing.

There is one section in the book which I thought was brilliant, "Eleven ways to make people like what you read". I have written a lot of poems but I've never had the courage to make people read them as I always hated the thought of getting a "critical view". But now it's not the same; I finally showed my work to a few people and they didn't really criticise what I had written but, to the contrary, they made me aware of my mistakes. I have already started writing more poems now.

I guess I now understand what you actually mean when you say "You have to be a good reader to be a good writer". Thank you once again!