Do rules stifle creativity?

Proofreading_and_editing_blog_79Here is another post in the series prompted by media comment about Grammar Nazis.

Some people argue that English was not always as structured as it is now, therefore the structure cannot be necessary. In Elizabethan times literature flourished. Shakespeare & Co. managed without grammar books – the first grammar textbook, William Bullokar’s Pamphlet for Grammar was published in 1586, after Shakespeare had finished his education.

It has been said that to apply the rules of logic to English is like trying to apply the laws of physics to dreams. Grammar is about rules. Imagination has nothing to do with rules, and therefore rules must put people off.

Wordsworth said that the formal structure of poetry removed “the weight of too much liberty”. I’m not a huge poetry enthusiast, but even I can see that Wordsworth knew more than most of us about his craft.

Structures are often seen as the engines of creativity. Graff and Birkenstein wrote that their templates have a generative quality, prompting students to make moves in their writing they might not otherwise make. These are thoughts that might not come without wrestling with the structure.

My maths teacher used to drive us mad by saying regularly “Tidy work leads to a tidy mind”. I think there is something in that, but it is expressed rather simplistically. I think it is nearer the point to say that setting work out in a systematic way leads to more refined thought processes. Or to put it more elegantly, a discipline in form is a discipline in thought.

Working against expectations is something skilled writers & inventors often do, but if we fix the structure of language too tightly and restrain ourselves unnecessarily. Our language living, therefore it is as imperfect, contradictory, varied & multi-cultural as we are. Sign posts and guides help, but judging people who don’t always apply them would be silly. Anyway, history abounds with great writers who relied on an editor to tidy their work up for them.

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About The Proof Angel

I am a freelance editor and proofreader, working with a wide range of clients from large companies to individuals. I can help you to communicate clearly by carrying out a final check, or by suggesting ideas get your message over. I also have a sideline in textiles, as The Rainbow Angel.
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