A Struggle Against Rules

by Arnold De Villa
March 20, 2011
When I was a kid, I considered rules a necessary evil. We had to accept them without question. My parents insisted that they cannot be altered, modified or changed. When we were yet toddlers, while our rational faculties were just beginning, the first monosyllabic policy imposed upon our instinctive will was not pleasant. That primal “no” made us squirm, whimper and whine. Yet, youth was our leverage.

Innocence provided us with some latitude to defy a command. And while our tender legs allowed us to sprint and stumble, we were also permitted to waddle in our own tongue. We were provided with a transitory space to discover how to adjust into a system that externally imposed itself into our rebellious existence.

Gradually, this transitory condition evolved into a permanent norm. “No” became the beginning. As kids, although we were not always penalized to conform, it was our initiation to the rigors of communication. For me, these rules have always been a struggle. While William Shakespeare disseminated the perennial question of “to be or not to be”, I have been suspended like a pendulum between “grammar and creativity”. I was pushed by the rules taught by a majority of language teachers, and pulled by the seductive flow of expressive freedom embedded in speech. On one hand, I was no longer a kid and did not need to conform. On the other, growth invited a dynamic existence. The need for creative freedom overwhelms the rigidity of order. Deep within, the former and the latter are like forces that brew an internal strife.

I grew up with English as my first language, the dominant language of the academe, the government, and the urban middle class. Since I was born in a country with more than seven thousand islands and whose people speak at least ten different and unique languages, English was not the only language I grew up with. In fact, English was not even the popular language.

Even though my family never moved from the island I was born, my father came from the south and my mother from the north. Their lives collided as university students and English became a part of their love affair. But when their respective families entered the scene, which gave my entrance to this world, I was raised with an exposure to a multi-lingual environment, four different languages meshed up in my callow brain. I had the misconception that all I needed to learn in a language was to break its code, mimic its sound, unravel its pattern, and then express myself.

When my time for Kindergarten arrived, English was the only language presented with a structured recipe. We were given textbooks flooded with restricted patterns and constrictive guidelines. The other languages I knew were not taught in school. They were passed and transmitted through word of mouth, buried in the fibers of regional traditions and borne through generations of cultural practices. We lived with them and that was it. My early apathy against grammar was because I was having so much fun being able to speak four of them. That was more than enough. Why waste time in just one? I was conditioned to believe that if we can convey what we wanted to say, then why bother with rules.

While I considered grammar as oppressive, I upheld the freedom to speak as fun. It is common knowledge that language started as an audible signal with a sensible message. It did not originate as a written code. When writing started, grammar was born. But before language was written, it was only spoken. While it was spoken, punctuation marks did not exist. The semi-colon was not a problem. The period was insignificant. Words were not labeled as subject or predicate. We did not care about which tense agreed with which. And the parts of speech were yet to be formulated. The joyful sounds of language that helped mold the wealth of global cultures sufficed. We spoke and it was done.

Ironically, good and simple things are not perennial. Our capacity to understand expands with the parallel developments in human technology and communicative art. The monopoly of the spoken word ceased as a dominant form in transmitting messages. From the pony express to the postal service, we have outgrown the telegram, blossomed into the e-mail, and now thrive with the likes of wireless text and instant messaging. Despite all these, the rules of grammar are still battered as if the whole world contrived into a rebellion against convention. We still focus on the essence of the message and tend to shatter the civility of linguistic rules. The ‘freedom of speech’ is slowly being replaced by the chaotic structure of condensed messages. Grammar is being chopped into pieces, slaughtered in vanishing morsels, murdered in icons, emoticons and symbols.

I disliked grammar when I was younger not because it was bad, but because the way it was presented was not palatable. It felt as if I was forced to swallow the bitterness of cod liver oil. Rules were rules and they should be remembered. That was all that I recall. Speaking without writing was much preferred. I did not have to pass through a spell checker, subject my work to an editor, or rewrite a broken down structure. I thought, I spoke and it was over.

And then I grew. Beyond age, errors and omissions, I learned to appreciate new perspectives from things which seemed concealed. Although rules and linguistic creativity appear as opposite poles, they are actually forces that can mix and mingle. When they do, the clarity of thought reflects its fullness in the beauty of an organized written masterpiece. The logic of grammar is vindicated. The order of a structure is deemed essential. The freedom and creativity of the spoken word can now better be served as a written memory that can transform, inspire and instruct. That which used to pass only through sound can be transmitted through sight. Because of grammar, language is more effective, more efficient and more empowered. And because of grammar, the divisive problems from the “Tower of Babel” are now resolved through the structures of translation wherein rules play a vital part.

Nonetheless, despite this contrast and comparison, despite the efforts to speak properly and write effectively, I still cannot explain the ubiquity of errors prevalent in many best-selling novels and pocket books on the genres of romance, crime and mystery. Their appeal to the public seems to defend my original position about thoughts being more important than grammar. They seem to posit the fact that a story is superior to the way it is told. Assuming its partial truth without conceding to its fact, it still does not obliterate the need for order. With order comes grammar. And with grammar we all learn a better way to speak. In the end, they meet.

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