Thursday, September 13, 2018

Worst Writing Advice: Contractions Aren't Allowed

When I started writing about bad writing advice, I knew there was a lot floating around out there. I'd see it from time to time on forums through Goodreads, Facebook, and other places where writers gather to share encouragement and ideas. And yet, when I'd sit down to write my posts, all the oooh, this bugs me! moments would abandon me, making me wonder why I thought it was a good idea to do this series in the first place.

Not so this week. This post is all about contractions.

They seem to come up a lot when talking with fiction writers. For some reason I've never been able to track, many writers are under the impression that one should never use contractions when penning fiction.

I can't think of much that makes dialogue sound more stilted than someone who doesn't use contractions, unless it's Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which case it sounds perfectly normal. Granted, there might be a good reason for it (like Data's programming limitations). A book I edited years ago featured a mage who never used contractions, and that trait set off his dialogue nicely, making his voice easy to identify. Or perhaps a character who doesn't use contractions is someone who is royalty, or more formal in their speech because of a class distinction. That's fine. Perfectly fine. More than fine.

What isn't fine is when someone tries to tell you that NO ONE can use contractions when writing. Scientific writing has a tradition of not using contractions, but this blog post by Stephen Heard discusses why even that is an irritation for him personally. He states that the use of contractions in scientific text is seen as "unprofessional or unscientific" but then points out that the reader's perception of that is circular in its logic: "we avoid contractions in scientific writing because they sound informal, but they sound informal to us only because we're used to avoiding them in scientific writing!"

Somehow, newer writers have taken the traditions of scientific writing and morphed them into some sort of unbreakable curse rule for all writing, fiction included. But let's face it, not only is this not a rule, it's ridiculous to attempt.

First of all, most people use contractions when they speak. (See my Editor's Notes post about dialogue sounding real.) And if a good work of fiction is supposed to reach people by feeling "real," what better way to give authenticity than by mimicking real-life speech patterns?

On The Write Practice, Joe Bunting discusses the fact that English teachers tell their students that contractions should never be used in writing, but he personally suggests it "only so you don't ruin your grade." His practical advice: ". . . if you're writing anything remotely creative, and especially if you're writing dialogue, you need to be using contractions. Real people use them and so should you."

Heck, even The Chicago Manual of Style says, "Most types of writing benefit from the use of contractions. If used thoughtfully, contractions in prose sound natural and relaxed and make reading more enjoyable." (5.105) If CMOS says it, you know I'm all in.

Contractions are not a modern gimmick. They've been around for centuries. Even Beowulf had contractions in it.

The important thing to remember is that the "no contractions" thing is NOT a rule. Fight anyone who tries to tell you it is. Sound natural. Sound relaxed. Make the reading more enjoyable, and live to write creatively!

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Worst Writing Advice: Never, Ever End a Sentence With a Preposition

Have you ever worked somewhere that people are unwilling to change procedures because "that's the way we've always done it"? The way things have "always" been done may have worked well for a long time, but cultural or environmental factors changed and suddenly the "always" way is no longer the best or most effective way.

Language is no different. It's forever changing, and for every person who embraces the latest version of cray, gucci, fam, or finna, there are three or more who insist that groovy and hep cat will never go out of style. But let's face it: daddy-O from the 1950s does NOT mean the same thing as Daddy in 2018. Confusing the two just might get you a lot of strange looks.

One of the non-rules that is vehemently pushed by some is "never end your sentence with a preposition." This has led to writers making themselves insane, trying to restructure sentences to avoid the things, often causing more confusion by making the sentence "proper." Where on earth did this crazy idea come from, anyway?

You can blame 17th-centry poet John Dryden, England's first official poet laureate. His personal preference of believing sentence-ending prepositions to be "not elegant"—most likely based on his love of classics and all things Latin—somehow became an Unbreakable Rule for grammar teachers everywhere. (To learn more about this literary genius who was not a very well-liked individual, this article from Atlas Obscura is an enjoyable diversion.)

Or you can blame Joshua Poole, who, according to Merriam-Webster, was an "obscure grammarian" who was "concerned with prepositions being placed 'in their naturall [sic] order,'" though he doesn't specifically mention the end of a sentence as bad placement. Poole was spouting his nonsense decades before Dryden, but Dryden had the celebrity to popularize it. Webster's short article about terminal prepositions is actually kind of snarky and fun. I like it. You can read it here if you'd like.

Here's the most important part of this whole deal, and it's truly what causes the most mystery: for about a century now—100 years!—grammar and usage guides have been telling writers that IT IS OKAY to end sentences with prepositions, and writers are still telling other writers that it's not okay. And people are believing the wrong thing.

I have found that some of the most persistent rule-pushers are those who have never actually looked up the putative rules to see whether they're valid or not, why they are or aren't, and whether the language has changed (and therefore changed their valid-or-not status). They believe and enforce things they've heard but never checked into.

I'll be honest: before I became a copyeditor, I was unaware of a good number of rules that needed to be in place, even though my grasp of grammar, spelling, and general usage was excellent. After copyediting dozens of novels over the past five-plus years and getting to know groups of editors from every walk of life, I've come to realize a few things:

  1. I must always keep learning so I can deliver my best work to those who trust me with theirs.
  2. The language is constantly changing, and it pays to keep up with the times.
  3. When in doubt, "best practices" is a good default—some rules are more liquid than others because clarity and comprehension are the ultimate goal.
  4. It's not about what we know, or think we know. It's about knowing how to use what we know. The difference between knowledge and wisdom, you might say.
I hope you're enjoying this series and perhaps learning something new. Maybe I'm simply confirming things you've already known, and it makes you feel better to have something to point to when you say I told you so!

Let me know if you have any bad writing advice peeves, or have been the recipient of some of these. I'd love to hear your stories!