Posts Tagged: Tom Swifty

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!