In On Writing, when talking about grammar, what does King mean by “the delicious pliability of language”? He then says grammar is “the pole you grab to get your thoughts up on their feet and...

In On Writing, when talking about grammar, what does King mean by “the delicious pliability of language”? He then says grammar is “the pole you grab to get your thoughts up on their feet and walking.” Is he contradicting himself? What is he saying about grammar rules?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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  • "the delicious pliability of language"

In his work On Writing, Stephen King writes, "Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s." Language is a tool that should be fashioned according to the genre of a work, the writer's intent, and the audience for whom he writes. For example, in his intent to characterize Jay Gatsby as exemplary of the moral failure typical of those of the Jazz Age, F. Scott Fitzgerald employs certain language to convey that Gatsby's ethereal dream is tainted:

Only gradually did I become aware that the automobiles which turned expectantly into his drive stayed for just a minute and drove sulkily away.  

Here Fitzgerald has plied "automobiles" into symbols for the driving, restless character of people. This kind of language sparks the imagination of the reader in a "delicious" way, an delightful enjoyment of the narrative.

King also mentions that some writers ignore the rules of grammar for effect as sometimes, for instance, a short phrase is effective after several complex ones. While it is elliptical or ungrammatical, its meaning is gleaned easily by the reader from the previous sentences. This is sometimes referred to as "poetic license." Nevertheless, King cautions writers that unless they are certain of succeeding at "defying the rules of rhetoric," they should follow the rules as set down by William Strunk and other grammarians.

  • Grammar is "the pole you grab to get your thoughts up on their feet and walking.” 

Knowing the structure of language is the foundation of good writing; it ensures that the writer's thoughts will be effectively communicated. From this point of communication of one's thoughts--the basis of all writing--the writer can then begin to "run" (to extend King's metaphor) with personal style and techniques that render one's writing unique. But, knowing the basic rules are essential, just as they are in any other skill. Later, a writer can be creative and yet be understood because of this foundation in grammar.

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