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Opinion: With Bloomsday upon us, let's be inspired to pay attention to the details

Joyce took extreme liberty with language and we celebrate his genius – but when are rules NOT meant to be broken?

John Shevlin dressed as James Joyce in O'Loughney's bar in Dun Laoghaire Co Dublin.
John Shevlin dressed as James Joyce in O'Loughney's bar in Dun Laoghaire Co Dublin.
Image: Julien Behal/PA Archive/Press Association Images

THE IRISH CENTRAL Statistics Office reports that nearly 53% of the Irish workforce is called upon to write in a professional context at least once a week. The most frequent users of writing skills are employed in science, technology, finance, insurance, real estate, information and communication, education, public administration, and defence.

These sectors, one might reasonably conjecture, represent positions of responsibility and of profitable and rewarding career paths. They require lucidity in written and oral communication, suggesting that entry into them will be easiest for those who can write well and speak well.

The Irish, of course, are famous for their conversational acumen, their verbal wit and charm. They are also well known for literary greatness.

So, as a lecturer of English, I have found myself perplexed that the proven wordliness of the Irish seems, sometimes, to undermine coherent written expression. Perhaps the preternatural gift of the gab produces such a rush of ideas, especially in the mind of a young college student, that orderly prose finds itself just a little out of reach.

Higher education is under pressure like never before to ‘produce’ graduates for employability. Unfortunately, that is a circumstance that works against the pursuit of pure knowledge, of learning for its own sake. This is a pity in a land that has historically revelled in the beauty of its languages. James Joyce’s stream of consciousness technique in Ulysses, for instance, helped establish a new literary mode that subsequent generations of writers would emulate. Joyce took extreme liberty with language, and we celebrate his genius.

But I sometimes wonder if my students are under the impression that liberty with the written word is theirs for the taking too. In my teaching of writing skills here in Ireland, I have discerned incredulity on the part of some students that the rules are not meant to be broken. Certainly they can be broken, with flair and intention, as Joyce did, but they are not self-evidently expendable. Readers need them. Readers expect conventionally structured sentences when reading in professional contexts.

Conventionally structured sentences are not difficult to compose. Like most jobs well done, they require know-how and commitment.

The know-how of English grammar can come from a book and some lessons. But the commitment requires a degree of submission. Students of the written word should probably do what one especially good communicator, Guinness, advises: they should believe. They should believe in how helpful good grammar can be.

One of the better ways to forge belief in careful grammar is to examine it in action. Consider this sentence about Paradise Lost:

Cast into a fiery pit, Milton tells the story about the fallen archangel.

Surely Milton had not been cast into a fiery pit, Satan had. The sentence should read:

Milton tells the story about the fallen archangel cast into a fiery pit.

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Just one misplaced modifier can cause a lot of confusion. In the words of Stephen Dedalus, a guy who knew his Dante and his Milton too, “A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.”

As our nation regains its reputation for innovation and ingenuity, we would be wise, I think, to pay attention to the details. The devil may be in them, but so too are credibility, pride, and even grandeur. These we deserve to regain.

Sue Norton is a lecturer of English in The Dublin Institute of Technology and a freelance essayist. See her academic profile here

Read: 13 of the English language’s most delightful collective nouns

Read: 7 words we should definitely have in English…


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