A couple of weeks ago, I helped a young man enroll in his benefit plan. He had just graduated, and was excited to be starting his first year as a teacher. Since his degree was in English, we talked about books and writing as we went through the process of getting his insurance set up. He appreciated the help, I think, but I was still just an old guy trying to get him to buy something, and he had that glazed look people get pretty early on in any conversation about insurance. That changed, though, when I asked him if he was an Oxford comma man.
His eyes blazed, and he scowled as he sat up straight and said, “Of course I am!” When he found out I was an ally, and just as passionate as he was about a stupid comma, the conversation took a different turn. Later, as I was packing up at the end of the day, I had to wonder what kind of people bond over punctuation. And how the heck did I get to that point, when I used to fall asleep in my Language Arts classes? And even worse, when did I get so concerned about the rules?
I guessed from his dress, his mannerisms, and his conversation that this young man is a rebel and laughs at those people foolish enough to follow the rules and maintain the status quo. Talk about grammar rules, though, and you suddenly have a tiger by the tail. I don’t always do well with rules, either, but for a long time, I firmly believed that when it comes to punctuation and proper nouns, the rules are the rules. They must be followed. Forget genius; just follow the rules.
This strict adherence served me well in a business setting when it applied to letters, memos, and fliers, but fell short when I started writing fiction. Sometimes, I needed to say something a certain way, and the rules held me back. I struggled, and even stopped writing for a while, until I realized the rules exist for a reason – to help me, as a writer, communicate with you, a reader. That’s it. Grammar rules aren’t a foreign language, or some evil spell concocted to torture school children. They’re there to help us communicate, and the better we know them, the more accessible we can make our stories.
Another epiphany came later on, and it was even more liberating. As I mentioned before, I’m a little bit claustrophobic when it comes to rules. I know we need them, but I don’t have to like them. Pretty early on, I figured out that the best way to break the rules is to know them. Inside out. Better than anybody else. Every jot and tittle. That’s how you use them to your advantage and find the most effective way to get around them.
The same thing applies to grammar. How many literary classics are grammatically correct? Not many. Can anybody imagine what Ulysses would have been if James Joyce confined himself to the rules? That would be a horror even Stephen King couldn’t imagine. Music works the same way. Some of the greatest rock stars were accomplished classical musicians first. They learned the scales and perfected their technique, and then they were free to go where their passion and creativity led them. When a writer knows grammar intimately, it becomes a tool she can use to paint a picture, build a civilization, create fear and grief, or bring joy to countless people. Sometimes rules are best followed when they’re bent almost to the point of breaking.
So the young guy, out to conquer the world with a fresh shave, a short haircut, and a stiff, new shirt, found common ground with the older guy in a tie and shiny shoes who, at this point in life, is just out to conquer himself and his arthritis. And it was all because of a comma.