Tom Swifties and Rule-Bending Prose

A couple of weeks ago, I gave my undergraduate students a strict talking-to about comma splices and run-on sentences. Anyone who knows me will tell you I’m a grammar grandma. It’s true; I can’t help it. I was born with the grammar gene. But my conversation with my students made me second-guess myself. I’d caused an avalanche of determined questions: “What if your character talks in run-on sentences?” “I think comma splices are beautiful.” “What if it’s your style to write in run-ons?” Of course, I gave the old stodgy answer, “You have to know the rules in order to break them.” But somehow that didn’t resolve the problem. I have colleagues who use comma splices constantly–and yes, beautifully–to channel fascinating, obsessive voices. Cormac McCarthy’s run-on sentences have become so iconic they’re almost a meme. And what about Hemingway?

Rooting around on the Internet after AWP, inspired by all the great writers I’d heard and met, I came across a link on Christine Sneed’s Web site that led to her collection of Tom Swifties, phrases in which quoted sentences are linked by a pun to their attributions. (They were originally called ‘Tom Swiftlies,’ from the following example: “‘We must hurry,’ said Tom Swiftly.”) Tom Swifties are yet another example of a grammatical no-no that nonetheless can be used for good, with humor and fun.

Do you have a favorite rule-bending writer? A pet grammar error? A groan-worthy  Tom Swifty? Share it here!

3 Responses to “Tom Swifties and Rule-Bending Prose”

  1. Tony Ellis

    “Please come with me, sir,” the female police officer said to him arrestingly.

    “Don’t take my Bordeaux!” she whined.

    “Why don’t you come down to the tombs with me,” he said cryptically.

  2. Lisa

    Tom Swift is also the name of a famous series book character! 🙂

  3. Benjamin Vogt

    From Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America:

    I have to go to the hardware store, he said wrenchingly.

    This hot dog’s awful, he said frankly.

    I like a good sled dog, she said huskily.

    There’s never been an accident, she said recklessly.

    You’re only average, he said meanly.

    Take a bow, he said sternly.