"It is I"

Monday, September 8, 2014

Everything I know about grammar I learned from my father. He was the original grammar nerd.
If I knocked on Daddy’s study door and he asked, “Who is it?” I knew better than to say, “It’s me.” But if I slipped up, he was sure to raise his voice and respond, “It is I.” It wasn’t the contraction he objected to—it was the pronoun. 
I also learned not to start a request with the words, “Can I . . . .” His response was always, “You can, but may you?”
My mother believed in using correct grammar, too, although she didn’t highlight our errors the way Daddy did. I do, however, remember her displeasure with billboards that proclaimed, “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.” She didn’t approve of smoking, but the use of “like” instead of “as” seemed to bother her even more.
I must have picked up some knowledge in school, too, so the statement at the top of this post isn’t technically accurate. I should probably say, “Most of what I know about grammar I learned from my parents.”
But I stand by the way I said it.
When I was a child, Daddy and Mama frowned on starting sentences with “but,” too. But language is not static, and beginning a sentence with a conjunction is no longer a major sin.
At least not with most audiences. There are still some contexts—mainly academic—where formality is expected. A good writer knows his or her audience and writes for it.
Even in less formal contexts, writers should understand the rules. Many break them, as I did by starting the last paragraph with a sentence fragment. But there are two ways to break the rules. Unfortunately—or perhaps fortunately—only one of them works.
Some writers break the rules because they don’t know what they are. Since rules exist for a purpose, these writers often come across as uneducated. Even worse, the primary reason for grammar rules is to create clarity, so people who ignore them may lose their readers in the morass.
Others know the rules but break them intentionally in order to achieve a certain effect. That sentence fragment is punchier and more in-your-face than if I had said, “Most audiences no longer consider it a major sin to begin a sentence with a conjunction.” And for fiction writers, sentence fragments can speed up the action, especially in a thriller.
So what’s my point? It’s okay to break the grammar rules to achieve a certain effect. But you need to know them before you break them. Otherwise, your reader may not make it through the story or the essay or even the blog post.
Or you may find my father’s ghost standing before you and declaring, “It is I.”

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