The importance of rules

“Rules were made to be broken.” Some people agree with this idea, and others don’t; but in language learning, sometimes you can have it both ways.

It is very important for both native speakers and language students to understand the rules of spelling and mechanics in written expression, and grammar in all expression. Consistency in these areas allows the speaker or writer to be understood by his audience immediately, instead of leaving the listener or reader to decipher the sentence before being able to respond to it.

In music, the Baroque period was all about creating and following the rules of how music must be composed, in terms of form, texture, rhythm, balance, pattern, etc. The rules were developed because music coming out of the Middle Ages had started to become difficult for the listeners to understand and follow. These Baroque rules changed all that, and listeners became much more engaged by music. The Classical period, which followed, was all about breaking those rules and trying new, creative ideas. But in order for the Classical composers to achieve the desired effect, which was usually to surprise (and hopefully delight) the audience, they had to understand the rules before they could choose exactly how to break them.

Most modern languages developed in the same way. From chaos came order, and creativity followed. This happens in English constantly these days. Writers of all kind, including poets, songwriters, and comedy writers, all participate in manipulating the language to elicit a wide range of reactions from their audiences. An educated audience will recognize when the language is being manipulated and when it is or isn’t appropriate to repeat those manipulations.  For example, you probably shouldn’t tell your client he’s just been “lawyered” or explain at a conference that potential consumers “don’t want none o’ dat”.

I’ll be back soon with more about learning and breaking rules. Get all the posts by scrolling down to “Follow AD” at the bottom of this page. And for now, trust your teacher and your textbook (even if one of them tells you the other one has made a mistake), and before long you’ll be able to bend or break the rules in your own way.

Jeremy Coffman, English teacher & diction coach, Paris

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