Friday, September 18, 2009

Perfect Grammar?

by Jean Henry Mead

While I was writing my first novel, Escape on the Wind, I joined an online critique group on AOL. The book concerns a young girl kidnapped by members of Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch, and one of the comments I received was, “You need to clean up your grammar.”

The critiquer was referring to my outlaw characters, whom I had spent researching for several years. Because I live in former outlaw territory, there are still plenty of people in the area with the same speech patterns--in fact, I interviewed several oldtimers who had actually known some of the aging outlaws. So I felt certain that I was getting their speech patterns right.

Mark Twain’s phonetically spelled dialogue slows down reading but a few choice colloquallisms not only add color and authenticity to a story, a few words of dialogue tell more about the person speaking than paragraphs of description.

“I ain’t got nobody,” tells readers that the speaker is probably unloved, uneducated and lonely, in only four words. Try explaining the same conditions in narrative in the same amount of words.

Gary Provost, the author of Make Every Word Count, said there are two groups of people who get it wrong about grammar, “and generally speaking, neither group produces good writers.” One group completely ignores the rules of grammar while the other group discusses the subject as though grammar were some sort of religion that has to be rigidly followed, sacrificing style as well as originality. “They would rather be right than write well.”

Good narrative grammar is essential to good writing although the rules have relaxed over the years. Carlos Baker wrote that “Ernest Hemingway’s personal trademark was to use nor instead of or after a previous negative. He also retained an e when adding ing or able, as in loveing or comeing or in the phrase immortialized in the tile of A Moveable Feast. He also didn’t care about the distinctions between who and whom, lying and laying.”

“The last thing I remember about English in high school,” Hemingway once wrote, “was a big controversy on whether it was 'already' or 'all ready.' How did it ever come out?”

Andy Rooney wrote in one of his newspaper columns: “I wouldn’t think of using the word data as a plural word, which it is. I often find myself using the word hard when I should be writing difficult. It’s hard to stick to the rules when the rules make you sound more formal than you want to be. I seldom use the subjunctive were for was.”

Rooney also wrote: “I know a lot about using the language. Still, there are times when I’m stumped. I was wondering the other day what part of speech the word please is in the sentence, as in 'Please don’t take me seriously.’”

Seriously is how most of us took the lessons of our English teachers who taught us that each sentence must have a subject and predicate and that the absence of those elements render the sentence unacceptable.

I disagree as did Gary Provost, who said, "Good writing often consists of partial sentences, especially when written in dialogue. Although partial sentences don’t fare well in large numbers, a few well placed partials can invigorate your work. Like a chime. Or the beat of a drum."


Sheila Deeth said...

Good article. Thanks. It seems like lots of times the smoothest reading is from grammar that fits the tale rather than grammar that fits the rules. Though like you've said before, rules are important. They're just not the only thing with any importance.

Mark W. Danielson said...

I always figure if I let the characters write their own story, then the story will be read usinng their own words.

Mark W. Danielson said...

Okay, I can't spell. Let's make that "using", not "usinng". :)

Jean Henry Mead said...

Thank you, Sheila. I agree that grammar should fit the tale. When I read Washington Irving, it gave me a headache. Perfect English (if there is such a thing) doesn't belong in novels.

Jean Henry Mead said...


I agree. My characters certainly write their own stories, thank goodness, or my books would never be read. Don't worry about your spelling. I'm the queen of typos. :)

Helen Ginger said...

If you're a stickler for grammar, try to loosen up when it comes to dialogue. We speak in incomplete sentences or we drop the endings of words, etc. As long as the speech pattern is true to the character, let him talk. But, don't have all the characters sounding the same. And don't overdo slang. If I have to go back and re-read dialogue to try to figure out what he's saying, you've taken me out of the story.

Straight From Hel

Beth Terrell said...

Hear, hear, Jean. Sometimes what's correct isn't what's right for the story.