Conference Lessons Part 1: On Language “Rules”

This is the second of my posts about the SfEP conference (you can read the first one here), and I’ve decided that rather than blather on about who I said hello to and how much hot chocolate I drank (many people and many cups, respectively), I’m going to group the sessions into vague themes and talk about those. So this post is about the talks by Oliver Kamm, Geoffrey Pullum, and Mark Forsyth, who all spoke about language and how we use it.

All three speakers were witty, passionate and engaging. And all three impressed on the audience the importance of not relying on outdated “rules” passed down from on high by self-appointed experts. This is something I’ve touched on before on this blog, because I’ve seen countless posts in writers groups about how you should avoid adverbs, the passive voice, split infinitives and any number of things that are, actually, normal parts of the everyday language we use. To highlight the silliness of much of this kind of advice, Geoffrey Pullum showed us an exercise in which he had removed all of the adverbs and adjectives from a speech by Theresa May. The end result was utter nonsense, even by political standards.

Oliver Kamm noted that the reason a lot of rules are counterproductive is that people generally know how to speak their own language. People make errors, of course they do, but for the most part, people’s innate knowledge of grammar is OK. And when we insist on following rules blindly, we lose sight of that. We end up with prose that feels stilted and unnatural, when what we should be doing, Kamm advised, is simply writing like a human being.

The blame for the sacrosanct status of many of these “rules” can be laid (see my use of passive voice there?) at the feet of many of the “experts” who peddle them. Kamm and Pullum both had, erm, strong opinions about Gwynne’s Grammar, a book my sister gave me a few years ago, which is so pompous and outdated it genuinely took me a long time to realise it wasn’t actually a parody. (Mark Forsyth didn’t mention Gwynne – damn it, why didn’t we think to ask him what he thought, to complete the set of opinions? Missed a trick there.)

What Mark Forsyth did talk about though, was respecting the poetry of an author’s work. Even if it breaks rules. Even if it creates redundancy after redundancy. Not all writing should be “correct”. Brevity is not always desirable. To illustrate this point, he imagined an editor taking a red pen to Hamlet’s soliloquy, chiding Shakespeare for his repetition, his convoluted imagery, and especially his use of hendiadys (in which an adjective is turned into a noun, a device Shakespeare used a lot and one of the many rhetorical tricks featured in Forsyth’s excellent book The Elements of Eloquence). It was very funny, but contained a serious lesson about how easy it is to sap the soul out of a piece of writing through over-zealous editing.

A lot of the points in these sessions felt especially pertinent to fiction editing. If you’re editing, say, instructions on how to wire a house without electrocuting yourself, the last thing you want is the core message being delivered with complex metaphors and extra words. You want plain, clear, do-it-this-way-or-you-will-die language. But in fiction, sometimes the information being given in a sentence matters less than how the sentence makes the reader feel. It matters more that a character sounds real than correct. Good editors need to recognise this, and accept that there may come a time when all the rules they hold dear must be thrown out of the window to help create something that is incorrect, but right.

Another thing a good editor should do, Kamm said when talking about his experiences of being edited, is be invisible. This struck home for me. I once read a review of a book I edited (I know, I know; never read reviews) that criticised the editing for some mistakes, which I can hold my hands up and say I should have caught, but praised the author for nailing the use of two often confused words (note: the author had not always used the right word). This had always, if I’m being honest, rankled a little, but I’ve realised it shouldn’t. My editing was only visible on the rare occasions that it failed. That the author was complimented for getting so much right was testament to the fact that, elsewhere, I did a bloody good job. I helped the author say what they wanted to say, and that is what editors should do.

I came away from these sessions feeling entertained and more determined than ever to fight the good fight against unwarranted pedantry. Mostly. It will be a long time before I stop inwardly grumbling about the improper use of “beg the question”. It’s pretty much the only thing I remember from the year of philosophy I did at university, so if it doesn’t mean what my lecturer told me it means, I went to a nine a.m. lecture five days a week for NOTHING.

5 thoughts on “Conference Lessons Part 1: On Language “Rules””

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s