Here’s a fun sentence that is missing proper punctuation: Woman without her man is nothing. (You’ll find this example in several places on-line, so I didn’t create it.) It illustrates the importance of grammar (and knowledge of proper punctuation). The key here is proper. The idea is not to ensure that you follow the rules in order to satisfy some grammar governing board. No, the idea is that you are using the proper punctuation to make YOUR MEANING clear.
So in the above example, how would you properly punctuate the sentence? Of course, first you would understand the point you are trying to convey. Apparently this sentence was given to a room full of people to see how the different genders punctuated it. I don’t care if this is some urban legend people use to show that men and women think differently. I care about what their supposed answers illustrate. The people in the room yielded (apparently) two versions:
- Woman, without her man, is nothing.
- Woman: without her, man is nothing.
See a difference?
Perhaps a number of people despised studying grammar so much they’ve decided to teach it a lesson by ignoring it. You can’t. Well, I take it back. You can. But you might be misunderstood, and if this happens, what’s the point of writing a story if someone misunderstands something because of a comma? They matter.
Some rules can be flouted. In general, as long as the reader can follow your ideas, you’re fine. When they follow them the way you intend, even better. The key is knowing what you are doing while you are doing it.
Basically, you have to know the rules before you can break them.
I came across this oft-repeated phrase while reading a story on Bob Dylan in Rolling Stone when I was in college—at least I’m pretty sure it was Bob Dylan. The interviewer was gauging Dylan’s thoughts on the fresh crop of musicians (Grunge artists) and Dylan suggested that some of the new bands would benefit from a music class or two (something along these lines). He saw some of these bands—he didn’t call any out by name—as being sloppy with their technique.
His reasoning for this applies to all art: You have to have a reason to ignore the rules and this reason should either 1) be clear to your audience and/or 2) not create a distraction for them.
In writing, anything that takes the audience out of the story is a problem. Never give your reader—who probably has several other things to do or stories to read—a reason to put your work down, literally (and perhaps figuratively).
Yes, you can have one word sentences. Yes you can have sentences longer than 30 words (regardless of what Microsoft word tells you), provided they can be understood. But is there a point to having that sentence be that long? And yes, you can have run-ons. Just know when you are breaking the rules. If it’s clear to you, it will be clear to the reader.
There are several resources out there for you to brush up (or learn) on your grammar. My fellow 5Writer Darlene Cah mentions several useful websites in her post: http://5writers.com/2013/03/05/please-refer-to-the-diagram/
You might also benefit from a style guide or two. I recommend Joseph Williams’ Style: Toward Clarity and Grace and Donna Gorrell’s Style & Difference. These books are long enough to make their points and short enough not to bore you.
In addition, just read and pay attention to the language you take in. The more you read, the more you’ll see how often rules are ignored. And when you encounter such examples, ask yourself: how is the author pulling this off? And why?
Oh, and don’t use exclamation points. They annoy people. Okay, maybe just me.