Pablo Picasso famously said, “Know the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” And he couldn’t have been more right. The late Bo Diddley, blues master, rock innovator, the man they called “The Originator,” broke all kinds of rules like an artist. Among them, the laws of English grammar. (See how I just used a fragment as a sentence? I break rules, too.)

Ever heard the song “Who Do You Love?” If not, you have now. That blast of primordial rock ’n’ roll rates as one of Bo’s finest contributions to the blues-R&B-rock-pop music canon. It was a big hit in 1956 and became a go-to standard for countless young guitar-wielding upstarts to cut their teeth on. (I just broke another rule: ending a sentence with a preposition.) But “Who Do You Love?” also has a flaw: it’s grammatically incorrect. Technically, what B-Diddley should have sung was not “Who Do You Love?”, but “Whom Do You Love?”

Which would have sounded terrible. This was rock ’n’ roll, after all. Bo Diddley was striking an electric guitar; he was strutting to his signature “Bo Diddley Beat”; he wasn’t daintily drawing a bow across the strings of a cello. He was right to break the rule. On the other hand, it’s doubtful Bo even knew he was using “who” incorrectly, doubtful because many of us use “who” incorrectly. (Hopefully, we misuse it a lot less now after the last Grammar Snack, “To Whom or Not to Whom?”)

So if Bo was right to skirt the laws of English grammar, what does that mean for the rest of us? It means that sometimes in our writing, we too can heed Picasso’s advice and disregard a rule—so as long as we do so knowingly, appropriately, and sparingly—if not artfully. Misusing “who” in something as informal as a rock song is one such “sometimes.” Here now are a few rules you’re free to break in the name of art.  

Who made who?

Some years ago, the hard rock band AC/DC knocked out a pretty good song titled “Who Made Who?” Just like predecessor Bo Diddley, the Aussie group didn’t care diddly-squat about running the song’s lyrics through an editor before crystalizing them on tape. Had it, AC/DC would have been instructed to change the song’s chorus and title to “Who Made Whom?” But that would have left the song several cowbells shy of any good. So, depending on the context—in casual conversation, dialogue, or this blog, for instance—you can get away with swapping who for whom.

Examples: Who did you go see last night? Who are you making faces at?

Long may you run (on)

Run-on sentences—the conjoining of two or more independent clauses sans conjunction or proper punctuation—are the Grinch of good grammar, a fundamental flaw in sentence composition that we were instructed to avoid since the time we could scratch a few words onto paper. Over and over, teachers drilled the rule into our heads until it finally pierced our skulls and took up residence within our gelatinous knowledge centers. But at some point, our mastery of the rule packed up and moved to a more temperate part of the brain, that place where memories go to die, because it’s been my experience as an editor that writers still pack their paragraphs with run-on pariahs.

One type of run-on I encounter all the time is the comma splice. This error occurs when the writer engineers a sentence containing two independent clauses linked by a woefully inadequate comma, which not only causes the faulty structure to collapse, but also reduces the writer’s reputation to a heap of rubble. So inspect your sentences, make sure they’re sturdy. Whoops! I just created a comma splice.

Because this post is all about breaking rules, you know by now that I’m about to grant you permission to frolic with the comma splice in your writing. English professors might get their tweed in bunch at the sight of a comma-splice, but I guarantee you’ll find one (or three) in whatever book you’re currently reading. And I guarantee that the author put it (or them) there intentionally to create a dramatic effect, modulate the reader’s pace, emphasize a point, or lend some tone.

For example, author William Trevor offers the following comma splice in his novel, Love and Summer: “People would see them, she didn’t care.”

Trevor could have fashioned the line three different ways to earn a grammatical stamp of approval. He could have replaced the comma with a semicolon: “People would see them; she didn’t care.” He could have inserted a coordinating conjunction after the comma: “People would see them, but she didn’t care.” He could have even split the clauses into two sentences: “People would see them. She didn’t care.” But he chose to break to rule and, in doing so, rendered a line that sounds perfect. And correct. (I just used another fragment. For more on breaking this particular rule, read on.)

Free to fragment

If a run-on is too much for one sentence, then a fragment is not enough. Remember: for a sentence to be complete, it must contain a subject and a verb. (A one-word imperative, such as “Go!”, is a complete sentence, because the subject, “you,” is implied). The only time you can call a sentence a sentence without it having a subject and verb is an interjection (e.g., Yes! Oh my! Yikes! Nope. Rats.). If your phrase is neither the former nor the latter, then you’re messing with an incomplete sentence and you need to fix it. But. (See what I did there? I just wrote a fragment.) If you actually intend to write a fragment, whether to stress a point, create a pause, or add some drama, then go for it. Again, you’re breaking a rule, so make sure that doing so serves your writing. And just like comma splices, be economical in your deployment of the fragment—lest the reader question your grasp of basic sentence structure.

The rules of grammar have their purpose, of course. Without them, our writing would be a chaotic wasteland of dreck and drivel—or resemble about 95 percent of all blogs. So if you’re going get rebellious in your syntax, make sure you know the rules before flouting them, and then use your ear and best judgment to determine if your outlaw grammar suits the nature of your writing.

Joe Ehrbar is a senior editor at SMITH.j

Tags: grammar, Strategy and Intelligence