The Importance of Breaking Rules of Style

The Importance of Breaking Rules of Style

When I was in the Air Force, I submitted a performance report on someone I supervised. The lieutenant who was the next person to endorse the report returned it to me, informing me that I shouldn’t use the passive voice so much. Problem was, I hadn’t used a single passive clause in the report. What the lieutenant didn’t like was my use of the perfect tense. He wanted to get rid of “has” and “have” because he’d heard they shouldn’t be there. And the fact is that my report did overdo the use of the perfect tense so I fixed it.

What I’ve found as an editor, besides my inability to properly edit my own work, is that the writing style people use is often the result of a number of rules of thumb they learned in High School English class. They don’t understand the rules, but they cling to them, because that’s what they know. They’re afraid of being wrong and looking uneducated. I often suggest to authors to make their written style closer to their spoken style. It’s natural to get a bit more formal when writing, but don’t overdo it.

My intention in writing this, however, is not to give advice about writing, but rather about reading and understanding.The value of a passive verb is in emphasizing something in a more subtle way than with bold print, an exclamation mark, or other more blatant approaches. It’s important to understand the way things are usually done so you can feel it when they’re done differently. In your native tongue this is automatic for most of us, though some people are more aware than others of the subtleties possible with language.

This is very important for those who study the Bible in the original languages. We still have a tendency to make exegesis a series of word studies, but the way the words are put together is extremely important. That’s why I emphasize reading quantities of a foreign language. There are many theories about the way to learn a language. I’m not going to jump on any one bandwagon except to say that one needs to have exposure to a large body of text in the language written by those who are proficient.

Modern tools provide many excellent opportunities to do this. Take as many of those opportunities as you can!

(For an example, see Dave Black’s notes on 3 John from 12/27/2016.)

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