Too Many Rules

We’ve already discussed the need for rules when it comes to writing.  And we’ve contemplated this framework reflects how writing mirrors life.  But what happens when rules proliferate for their own sake and become arbitrary?

Let’s go in that other direction and overburden ourselves with rules.  For instance, every sentence must be minimally subject and predicate (Floppy ran.).  Every sentence can only follow the subject-predicate-object format (Floppy ran home.).  No sentence can be longer than fifteen words.

Let’s check in with Floppy:

Floppy the hen led her chicks into the yard to eat bugs.  She spied a recognizable shadow slide along the ground.  She realized a hawk was flying overhead.  Floppy exclaimed “I say yikes!”  She spread out her wings and dashed to the coop as fast as she could.  The chicks ran under her wings.

The potential for page-turning drama (if you’re a chicken) falls as flat as the exposition.  There are even some fairly active verbs (spied, slide, dashed) used in an attempt to compensate, but the story doesn’t flourish.

Without any rules for writing, reading would be an experience of mass confusion.  But unnecessary rules in writing choke the vitality from the reading experience.  Just as we need laws (don’t murder and steal) to have a free society, oppressive laws (shut up) suck vitality from the culture.

It’s no shock writers tend to be proponents of free speech (spoken and written).  It’s no surprise people disagree on some matters (notice the range of reviews on any one book).  It’s true certain subjects should stay in their place (you don’t read War and Peace to kindergarteners), but some themes are universal (anybody can read Horton Hears a Who).

Let’s revisit Floppy now that she’s free of arbitrary rules:

Floppy the hen led her chicks into the yard on a sunny day when the sky was clear.  While they scratched around for bugs, she spied a sinister shadow ripple across the grass.  “Yikes!” she squawked.  Floppy whipped out the sawed-off shotgun strapped beneath her wings, and blasted off the hawk’s tail feathers.  Her chicks cheeped with delight as he bolted into the next county.

The hawk landed on a dead tree branch and rubbed his blistered rump.  “What the %*#& just happened?”

Yes, I know hawks are federally protected … but chickens don’t have inalienable human rights, so they live by their own set of rules….

 

Did You See That?

While scanning the article, the dangling modifier caught her eye.

You saw that, right?  The way the words are arranged in the preceding sentence, it sounds like an alien creature tried to pluck someone’s peepers while scanning an article.  And although the dangling modifier, also known as a dangling participle, can inject alien influence into a sentence, it’s also an easy fix.

In general the inappropriate word or phrase doesn’t actually refer the word it’s intended to modify.  Sometimes the word it meant to refer to doesn’t even appear in the sentence, which is an easy slip because the writer has the subject firmly in mind, but the words don’t come out the way they’re supposed to.  For instance:

With a glance at the gamboling goats, the gate closed.

Obviously gates don’t glance at goats and close themselves.  The farmer who actually carried out these activities fell out of the sentence.  And writers usually fall into that error because they’re trying to mix up sentence structure beyond the subject-predicate-object arrangement.

As stated, it’s easy enough to fix.  The first sentence can be:  While scanning the article, she noticed the dangling modifier.

And the capricious caretaker can receive his credit:  With a glance at the gamboling goats, the farmer closed the gate.

Making modifications to the wrong subject can cause hilarity as well as confusion.  When you look over the following examples, notice the twisted image they present, and then determine how to right their wrongs:

Hungry after the long hike, the sandwich was eaten with relish.

Having finished the romantic meal, the radio was turned on.

Drinking a glass of wine, the chicken tasted even better.

Disappointed, the woolly sheep could not be shorn.

Bedraggled but expensive, she decided not to buy the rooster.

Keeping those modifiers from dangling isn’t hard, although they can slip in when you least expect it.  Pay attention to those words and how they influence each other.  It just goes to show that by reviewing the writing, the error becomes clear.

You saw that, right…?