There is no such thing as bad writing.
There is no such thing as bad writing.
I’ve decided this is my mantra for the New Year. And I hope you will join in with me.
I can hear what you’re thinking…what about that paragraph I wrote with all those horrible mistakes? Or the slogan I read the other day with the misplaced apostrophe? Or that sentence that violates everything my elementary school English teacher held dear? I want to pull out my hair, it’s so terrible!
It’s time to channel Obi-Wan Kenobi. Look at yourself in the mirror, wave your hand in the air, and tell your inner critic:
There is no such thing as bad writing. This just isn’t the writing you’re looking for.
Encountering the Empire
I went through school at a time when learning grammar was not fashionable. I was lucky to have grasped the general concept of a noun or a verb. I learned most of my grammar through reading—what I think of as “practical” grammar. And I guess I mastered it sufficiently, because I went on to pursue a degree in English.
I remember a day when one of my professors returned an essay to me. There was a note scrawled in pencil beside one of my carefully crafted sentences: “split infinitive.”
Split what now?
It sounded vaguely Einsteinian, like the theory of relativity. This was supposed to be an English class!
So I dutifully looked it up. And discovered that one of my favourite phrases from Star Trek, “To boldly go where no one has gone before,” was grammatically incorrect.
This was shocking to me. How could something so poetic be wrong?
According to certain English language authorities, the infinitive form of a verb (“to go”) can’t be divided up by another word, such as an adverb (“boldly”). This no-no is called a split infinitive.
Apparently those Star Trek writers should have said, “To go boldly where no one has gone before.”
Over time, I encountered more of these kinds of rules. “Never end a sentence with a preposition.” “Never start a sentence with a conjunction.” It was enough to make my head spin. I wondered if I knew how to write after all.
My confidence slid further when discussing the act of writing with other English students. I encountered people who were downright nasty about writing that did not follow “the rules.” After all, if Strunk & White said we should do it a certain way, then that’s the way it was. And if you didn’t know this, then you were horribly ignorant and should be stopped.
Since I am a fan of all things science fiction, this attitude inevitably reminded me of the evil Empire from Star Wars. The leaders of the Empire believed all planets should be ruled according to their dictates. Anyone who objected had to be punished.
I was left with no choice but to join the Rebel Alliance.
Frozen in Carbonite
To obtain some ammunition in the war on confusing grammar rules, I researched the split infinitive. How had this rule come about? Had it been around since the beginning of modern English—a long time ago (in a galaxy not so far away)?
Writers have been splitting infinitives for a long time. There’s evidence that this has been going on as a normal practice since at least the thirteenth century. 
The attack on split infinitives began in the 1800s, when scholars attempted to standardize grammar. Up until that point, English speakers were wandering around linguistically like a bunch of rogue Han Solos. They developed the language based on the needs of the day. Then along came a select few intellectuals who attempted to freeze our language in carbonite. They thought English should be more dignified and structured, like Latin. Never mind that Latin was a dead language.
The first grammar book to state a rule against split infinitives was A Plea for the Queen’s English, published in 1863 by Dean Henry Alford. Alford objected to split infinitives as follows:
“A correspondent states as his own usage, and defends, the insertion of an adverb between the sign of the infinitive mood and the verb. But surely this is a practice entirely unknown to English speakers and writers […] there seems to be no good reason for flying in the face of common usage.” 
If it was “entirely unknown” to use split infinitives, when why would the correspondent be writing about it? In reality, people used split infinitives all the time. So what was going on here?
Some historians believe that the standardization of grammar was an attempt to maintain distinctions between social classes. The elite established rules based on their ideas of what “good English” should be—ideas that often ignored common usage.
A concern with status and language is reflected in the other main source for the split infinitive rule. “P” sent this anonymous letter to the editor of the New England Magazine in 1834:
“The practice of separating the prefix of the infinitive mood from the verb, by the intervention of an adverb, is not unfrequent among uneducated persons […] This fault is not often found in print, except in newspapers where the editors have not had the advantage of a good education.” 
Ouch! This doesn’t sound like someone I would like to have dinner with.
What did I learn from my investigation? That English teachers believe split infinitives are incorrect because a handful of people in the 1800s didn’t like them. People like “P” felt that split infinitives were not “good English.”
Luckily, we’re more enlightened these days. We don’t make fun of people for failing to understand an arbitrary set of writing rules. We don’t call them uneducated or ignorant. Right?
Time to boldly rescue Han from Jabba’s Palace and get him back into action. He needs to help those “primitive” Ewoks fight off the Imperial stormtroopers.
Even Darth Vader Wasn’t All Bad
It’s not only the split infinitive “rule” that is questionable. A lot of writing concerns commonly presented as rules are more like myths. Just ask Grammar Girl. This can make the writing process confusing. How do you know if something you’ve written is good or bad? Where should you turn?
If you are a staunch prescriptivist, then you turn to resources that describe “normal” usage and follow whatever is considered to be “proper” or “correct.” You attempt to follow a single standard.
If you are a die-hard descriptivist, then you look at how people use language in the real world over time and follow whatever they are doing. You accept that different communities have different approaches to language and that there is no single standard for “good English.”
Most of us are somewhere in the middle. I may like split infinitives, but I cringe whenever I read a billboard with a misplaced apostrophe. I sometimes start a sentence with “and” or “but,” but I have difficulty with the word “ain’t,” even though I know it is acceptable in many contexts.
I remember feeling uncertain when others pointed out my ignorance of writing standards. I have looked at my writing and seen nothing but flaws. It’s a terrible feeling. And yet I have complained about the “bad writing” I’ve encountered in newspapers and mail flyers. Shame on me.
So here is my New Year’s resolution:
I need to remember that writing is an act of courage that should always be celebrated. All writing is on its way to becoming. The path is messy and hard. Writers feel like they’re confronting Darth Vader in a desperate attempt to win the day. We should always support their fight.
The act of criticism is like using the Force – it is neither good nor bad. We can be like the Sith, and act out of anger, fear, and hate. Or we can be Jedi, and remember compassion.
Life isn’t black and white. Luke insisted that there was good in Darth Vader—that the fearsome dark warrior could not be entirely bad. And in the end, Luke was right.
As you struggle through your writing, or read someone else’s difficult attempt to communicate with the world, please remember:
There is no such thing as bad writing.
Let us be kind to one another. And may the Force be with us.
Do you feel like you are more of a prescriptivist or a descriptivist? How do you keep things positive when dealing with difficulties in writing? How do you handle negative criticism of your work?
 R.W. Burchfield, The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Revised Third Edition (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1998), 736-737.
 Wallace Rice, “The Split Infinitive,” The English Journal 26.3 (March 1937): 238-240.
 Moisés D. Perales-Escudero, “To Split or Not to Split: The Split Infinitive Past and Present,” Journal of English Linguistics 39.4 (2011): 318.
First image from Star Wars; other images from Return of the Jedi