Reasons Behind the Rules

What, if anything, is wrong with this sentence: The pediatrician wanted to prescribe medication for the boy, his parents objected to using drugs to treat anxiety. A compound sentence that states clear subjects (pediatrician and parents) with simple verbs (wanted and objected) in two clauses of identical length—so what’s the problem?

Some would say nothing at all. If the sole criterion for good writing is getting ideas across, then this sentence certainly meets that standard, for who could complain they don’t understand what the sentence means? But writing is more than telegraphy. We write down ideas from wherever it is our minds reside, and from that airy world they must take on a certain shape and arrangement that suit the time and place of our readers. Choices must be made—about the words we use, the layouts we design, and certainly the punctuation we employ to organize the thoughts we’re expressing. And right there, at how this sentence is punctuated, is where some might rightly object.

Very few traditional grammarians would stay in their seats long after seeing merely a comma after the noun boy. The rule of long-standing custom is that an omitted conjunction is to be replaced by a semicolon, not a comma, and so our example is a classic illustration of what is called a run-on sentence. Conjunctions join together the basic sentence elements of words, phrases, and clauses. We often and rightly mean them without writing them, sure that the reader will understand their absence, and, in fact, we would look in vain to find a conjunction in the sentence at hand. But surely we know that the conjunction but is intended logically to join the two clauses: the pediatrician wanted to prescribe medication for the boy, but his parents objected. And just because that conjunction has been omitted but understood (a stylistic device called ellipsis), a semicolon, so say the rules, should separate the two clauses.

Rule are made, not so much to be broken but to be understood. A traditional critique of this sentence would maintain that its nicely balanced arrangement, its two clauses of exactly nine words, is only heightened and helped by the semicolon, which in its very composition includes both comma and period. That composite design slows the reader almost, but not quite, to a halt; it tells us to pause to gather the meaning of the thought we just read through, and ready ourselves for another related one. By contrast, the comma alone waves us on through the sentence, keeps us moving, sure and perhaps too sure that we won’t trip over the ideas as we run on and on to the finish line. It is the length and balance and relative complexity of the clauses that necessitate a semicolon. The traditional rule ensures that our manner—the way we say something—comes to the aid of what we’re saying, that form and content work together to produce both meaning and effect.

To understand rules means to see that they are alive. They are meant to serve an end, not be an end in themselves. They are meant to preserve and promote the thoughts we have, to help us divine the implications of what we’re thinking, and to organize our train of thought in a way that suits both purpose and audience. And if that purpose changes, so might our punctuation and style. A different version of our example might very well knowingly overrun the traditional rule about the semicolon, the better to convey a more emotional scene: The pediatrician wanted medication, the parents objected. The evenness and order produced by the semicolon would here (arguably, not conclusively) mitigate the emotion of the parents’ terse reaction, and so to slavishly follow the traditional rule would produce the opposite of the effect intended.

It is timeworn to say that we can break the rules when we know them, and simply knowing them is the lesser of our difficulties. Knowing their intent—the reasons behind the rules—is where the magic lies, and that requires a discernment that is more than mechanical application. It requires the habit of close reading.


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1 Comment

  1. An excellent post. The quality of discernment in writing (and also in medicine) is coupled with the quality of improvisation, with knowing which rule to break and exactly how far to break it.

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