Traditional Publishing

Grammar and punctuation – the "rules" are meant to be broken

By Zetta Brown
Editor-in-Chief, LL-Publications – Saturday May 30, 2009

Language is not static. 

Language evolves over time. Words come en vogue (or are invented) and some words become passé or even archaic. As language changes, so do the "rules" of its use.

For example: someone says to you that "every sentence ends with a period and that rule will never change." 

Oh, really? That’s news to me!

Here are examples where a period does not end a sentence:

  • it ends with a question mark;
  • it ends with an exclamation point;
  • it ends with a colon.

"Never start a sentence with a conjunction."

But why not? This can be a personal preference or a “house rule” for a publisher or publication, but it is not a law and if you break it you don't go to jail. My husband, who also edits, follows this "rule" but I don’t. We still manage to have a happy, loving marriage despite this difference in our editing preference.

"Sentence fragments are wrong."

Baloney. What kind of writing are you doing? I would say this is true for academic and professional writing, but in fiction writing, sentence fragments are allowed and even encouraged.

"I write like this because this is my style."

Well, if your "style" is rubbish  – mission accomplished! Don’t be dragged into this prima donna-esque attitude when trying to define your "style" to your confused, long-suffering editor. Your editor may know more about grammar and punctuation than you do, but that doesn’t absolve you, as the author, from your responsibility in taking the time to learn the elements of fiction writing as well as the "rules" of grammar and punctuation. 

"Okay, Miss Know-It-All-Editor. One minute you say it’s fine to break the rules and the next minute you say I have to follow them. Just what are you trying to tell me?"

My point is simple. Before you break the "rules", you must know the "rules".

Relying on the spelling/grammar check on your computer does not count. A word processing program will record what you want it to record. It cannot tell the difference between your writing "style" and the grammar and punctuation "rules" coded in its program. 

When it comes to writing fiction, a lot of the "rules" we learned (or should have learned) in school can be bent, stretched, and even broken  – when the author knows when and how to do it and does it to create a certain effect or mood.

If you want to be a successful (i.e. published) author, and have editors love you, take time to learn the grammar and punctuation "rules" of your language. Or, instead of calling them "rules", call them nuances because by applying certain "rules" of grammar or the use of one form of punctuation over another, your writing will have more depth and more meaning. Your writing will have a certain nuance. Unless you know these "rules", you won’t know the ones you can use and the ones you can do without.

One thing I learned in my years of education is that many of the "rules" of grammar and punctuation have exceptions. You won’t know this if you only deal in absolutes or you haven’t taken the time to educate yourself of this fact. You must discover what works best for you when it comes to conveying your message in your writing and, hence, develop your style.

If your publisher or editor follows the "rules" of a certain style book, you will be good to follow the same if you wish to work with them in the future.

If your editor wants you to change something that you are not comfortable with, you should be able to explain the reason why you want to keep that item as written. Chances are, the editor misunderstood what you are trying to say and will make suggestions to make it clear. Then again, you could be wrong in your reasoning (shocking, I know) and your editor will explain the reason why. It’s a give and take process.

However, despite all of this, I think there is one rule we can all agree upon that can give us hope when it comes to the sins and transgressions made in the editing and writing process.

Pobody’s nerfect.

About the Author

Zetta Brown is editor-in-chief for LL-Publications ( and author of Messalina – Devourer of Men (