Thursday, April 21, 2016

Everything you need to know about grammar you can learn from Stringer Bell

A recent question on the blog wondered how much latitude there was for grammatical errors.  I pretty much stomped up and down, waving my fins, shouting "None!"

 After reading the comments some elaboration may be in order.

The more comprehensive answer is that you have to use grammar deftly. That means when you get it "wrong" you know it's wrong.

And let's also remember that how people actually talk is almost never in complete, correct sentences.

One of my favorite scenes from The Wire opens with  Cedric Daniels speaking what we would call "proper" English, then when he's engaged in conversation by Damian Price, he slips into Baltimore street English so as to establish rapport.

It's brilliant writing, and if you handed it in for a grammar class assignment, it would come back with a lot of red marks.

Here's another example:
Stringer: Nigga, is you taking notes on a criminal fucking conspiracy?
"Correct": Shamrock, are you taking notes on our criminal conspiracy?

Freamon:  I don't wanna go to no dance unless I can rub some tit.
"Correct": I don't want to go to a dance unless I'm actually going to dance.

Egad! Talk about stripping the lines of energy and vitality!


Bottom line here: I'm not going to reject your work for an errant whom, or a mistaken lie/lay/lay.  But not knowing that affect and effect mean different things? That's a problem. Not knowing that reign in Spain doesn't involve water, that's a problem.  There's absolutely no stylistic reason to get it's and its wrong. Or hair and heir. Let alone there and they're. When I see those, I know there their they're errors.

You get those right so I know that "Nigga, is you taking notes on a criminal fucking conspiracy?" is exactly what you meant to say.




71 comments:

Colin Smith said...

True--the non-dialog parts of the novel should display one's grammatical acumen, not to mention one's spelling skillz. :)

BUT... what if the novel is a first-person narrative? There I think it's possible for the whole novel to be littered with grammatical "mistakes" and what-have-you. In that case, I presume the agent would look to the query letter (which should normally be written in the third person) as a sample of the writer's "normal" writing. Or perhaps the agent will be so engaged with the pages, she's hearing the voice and not even noticing the grammar.

That's my take, anyway. Morning/afternoon/evening everyone! :D

Jason Magnason said...


This post is why I am going back to school. I work in an environment where I have to know a lot at any given moment, and be able to convey it well. I didn't forget the grammatical rules, (the mind never truly forgets, it just often fails to recall), I just fail to recall them often.

However I do know the difference between there and they're. :-)

Robert Ceres said...

Homophones! I guess they can effect, affect weather, wether, whether you, yew accept a manuscript.

nightsmusic said...

Colin, that's why I rarely read anything done in first person. It takes someone who knows, understands and uses the rules proficiently to write in a first person voice that might not be using the rules but comes across effectively. (Does that make sense?) Too many first person stories, for me anyway, are a jumbled mess because the way it reads to me, the author is trying too hard to infuse the first person voice to convince the reader about the character. Add to that the fact that it's not just the grammar the first person narrator uses but the overall picture of that character, their reactions, thoughts, ideas, attitudes...too many use the character's words and forget the character's soul.

But that's just me.

Robert Ceres said...

Even better: Homophones! I, eye guess they're, their, there going to, too effect, affect weather, wether, whether you, yew accept or, oar reject a manuscript.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

So, us worried wee woodland critters got all caught up in the minutiae of a particular piece of bark on a tree and forgot about the tree itself? Hm. Food for thought.

Energy and vitality. In other words, voice?

Adib Khorram said...

Regardless of whether it's in first-person, third-person, or even second-person, there's a distinction between a stylistic choice (for example, a character using "nothing" instead of "anything" to convey a Boston dialect) versus a flat-out error (saying "I didn't know weather to laugh or cry.") If you make a lot of the (ladder) latter, people aren't going to believe that you did the former on (porpoise) purpose.

Robert: I was waiting for you to go with accept/except!

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

Oh, The Wire, how I love thee! My cousin is running for city council president in Baltimore and, embarassingly enough for him, The Wire is most peoples' insight into that political process. I've at least been to Baltimore (when I was like, 8, and to go to the Aquarium okay), though I guess thinking on it, most of our family has. We're just like that.

I think some of my favorite Stringer Bell dialogue was during a meeting, when he's using his marketing/business class knowledge on his corner folks, making them think of branding and such. It was awesome. Stringer is definitely my favorite character in The Wire, with McNulty a close second.

A problem I have sometimes (other than lay-lie) is with British spellings vs. American ones (meagre-meager was one in a story somebody just read for me). Due to role playing and video games, "affect" and "effect" are all right....see, a Fireball is an "AOE" (area of effect) spell. Dominate is a mind affecting spell. (We also sometimes refer to Dominate as "kill your friends", as that's more or less it's primary combat usage).

E.M. Goldsmith said...

It's the look alikes that trip me up. My mind freezes up between bear and beer because I have, in fact, been attacked by a giant beer. However, that was not the story I was trying to tell.

Fresh eyes are needed for proofing. It is too easy to miss a brain fart where you meant to type mere and instead typed mire. Then you find yourself before a weary agent or editor who believes you don't know the difference between fart and tart. And perhaps, at 3Am when you wrote the words, you didn't. So fresh, awake eyes to fix the unintentional rule breaking. See what I did there? Now coffee.

Donnaeve said...

Exactly Adib, I was too!

QOTKU, I'm so glad you've clarified this! Like I mentioned the other day, I am usually okay with most potential pitfalls of grammar, (i.e. the samples you cite that we really should know), and the only time I would get tripped is making a mistake and I don't KNOW I'm making the mistake.

I have to ask if this happens to anyone else. Lately, I've found I *almost* fall into using the grammar/lingo in my latest WIP when replying to something in email, or on FB, etc.


:)

Lennon Faris said...

My all time favorite line from any of the flash fiction here was "YOUR NOT SAM". A 'typo' that shows the situation - that character wasn't editing bc he saw something (we don't know what) that scared the sh** out of him. I still think about that line and it creeps me out. I truly wish I could remember who and when wrote that, so if anyone does...

Donna - that cracks me up. I find I sometimes think in my characters' voices.

Joseph Snoe said...

I'm 'afeared' to look at my manuscript today to see how many lines I have stripped of their energy and vitality.

Maybe I'll change the characters to Ivy League English professors who speak properly (except for the pompous one from Boston).

DLM said...

The recurring theme I've seen is that deviations from Standard English grammar should clearly be intentional. That's not an error, that's a controlled decision.

I need to spend more time in my writing; my characters don't invade my mindspace the way y'all are describing. Now I'm wondering whether they all sound too much like *me*. Because woodland creature.

(Who can spot the intentional deviations from Standard English?) ;)

Colin Smith said...

Joseph: Can one truly speak "properly" with an American accent? There are those in my former home country that would deny this possibility. I, of course, hold no such prejudice. My own hybrid accent would undermine me. ;)

Kitty said...

When comforting a grammar Nazi…

DeadSpiderEye said...

I don't suppose anyone here has heard of Adge Cutler and the Worzels but it quite interesting to note, that the song they sung as, "Drink up thee zider" was rendered as, Drink up thy zider on the record label. So, that means grammar is important to some but they're still able to let quaintaries like, zider through their grasp.

DLM said...

Kitty, hee.

Colin, you may have spotted - I had a UK reader basically tell me American English is nonstandard and incorrect just recently. Sigh.

Knowledge of the rules of grammar, ESPECIALLY in the event of discarding them, is very, very, very impotent.

;)

Stephen G Parks said...

Aye, Robert! Aye!

Colin Smith said...

Diane: And the standard is... Old English? Perhaps Welsh, since it's roots are in the language of the ancient Britons, pre-Anglo Saxon? :)

Robert Ceres said...

Nightmusic makes a good point (about “too much jumbled mess.”) Reading a colloquial expression or regional pronunciation greatly amplifies how it sounds compared to how we would hear the same phrase in actual conversation. For a Texan woman, for example, you could write:
“Y’all, make sure to put some Ahoil in the car,” she said.
If she actually said this it would sound just right. When reading it's hard to understand.
I’m thinking less is better. The same Texas voice could be established in a readers imagination without using too much colloquial speech:
It’d been a long drive from Galveston. “Y’all make sure to put some oil in the pickup,” she said. The ranch-hands…’
After establishing that sweet southern drawl in a readers head only an occasional reminders using typical/regional words and/or speech patterns will keep it going. Using phonetic spelling every tenth word and real bad grammar will likely to toss the reader right out of the story. Leastwise it often does for me.

Stephen, ACK! Can't believe I forgot about aye.

Peggy Larkin said...

Colin, do you mean like in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?

Robert & Kitty-- LOL!

Donnaeve: It happens to me all the time as a reader, when the work I'm reading has got a strong voice. A good sign, I think!

I had (have, if I would manage to ever get anything written) a CP who does a great job with reactions and plot stuff, but always, ALWAYS "corrects" my grammar incorrectly, and/or insists I should have the teenager say "May I help you?" instead of a snotty "Can I help you?" I suppose that might just be wishful thinking, since she's raised a teenager. I would think she'd know better, though!

As a high school English teacher, I'm able to confidently ignore both types of suggestions, since I know teens never use "may" correctly. I get a lot of mileage out of this bad joke:

Kid: Can I go to the bathroom?
Me: Uh, I have no idea.
Kid: ...?
Me: (concerned look) I mean, you may try, if you want?
Other kids, who have had this happen to them before: You have to say MAY!
Kid: Oh, uh, May I?
Me: Sure. Good luck!

Joseph Snoe said...

Colin (and Robert)

I had two visiting students from England in class last fall. I adapted to their strong accents, and often translated for the rest of the class. What threw me more was one of the two wrote with an accent. I can't remember everything but words containing the letter 't' was virtually unreadable.

I did my best to improve their English, but they couldn't for the life of them master "y'all."

After college I spent a summer touring Europe. My first encounter with someone whose English I couldn't understand was a native New Yorker at one of the NYC airports. England was a little tough too. I was so glad to get to the Netherlands where they spoke real English. I also liked Paris where they didn't even try to speak English but we figured out ways to communicate.

Properly yours, Joe Snoe

nightsmusic said...

Peggy, I believe the correct teenage term is not: can I help you. It's either waddayawant or m'elpya. ;)

I worked at that with my girls. Whenever I heard "Can I..." I responded with: I don't know, can you?

They're better. Not perfect, but I'll take every inch I can get :)

Angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

An Italian friend came to visit me in Maryland one August. When he was at the train station in NYC he went to purchase a train ticket.

"I want to take the next train to Baltimore." Says Gianni in heavy Sardinian accent, enunciating each syllable.

"Wha?" Asks the teller. Thinks, what the fuck. Checks calendar. All the freaks come on Mondays. Counts down to day off.

"I want to go to Baltimore." Stupid lady.

"Go where?" What the hell country is that.

"Baltimore, BAL-TI-MORE." He shoves the address towards her, wishes he'd stayed at the beach with the aquamarine breeze.

"Ah, BAWMOR." Teller grins and shakes her head. "Where you from?"

Lucie Witt said...

This is sort of on topic. Topic adjacent!

Janet and many of the Reiders have long advocated for reading your work out loud to catch mistakes. My desk drawer books have either been shelved before I'm at that point or I just didn't think reading it out loud was necessary.

I'm now a convert.

I'm reading my R&R out loud before resubmitting it and I cannot believe how many typos I'm catching. I'm also finding the grammar mistakes I frequently make (comma splices, I hate you) jump out when I'm reading out loud.

Best of all is how it makes you hear your characters' voices. I'm fixing sentences that were fine as they were but sing with a small tweak. Sometimes that means purposefully disregarding the rules of grammar, like the Stringer Bell quotes here.

Anyways, if grammar and voice worry you, read your WIP out loud. I'm mad I waited so long to take that advice.

Joseph Snoe said...

oops
In my previous post I wrote "but words containing the letter 't' was virtually unreadable." I of course meant "but words containing the letter 't' were virtually unreadable." It's that damn English accent that confused me.

Peggy Larkin said...

Nightsmusic, keep fighting the good fight... :) Depending on the kid and the scenario, silence is the best you can expect. A lot of mine are more likely to give a stranger a "What the f*** you lookin' at?" or maybe just post a sneak video of the creeper to their Snapchat story. Then again, I work in a district where Stringer Bell would not feel completely out of place, so...

On the plus side, they do eventually start to think my playing dumb about whether or not they're potty-trained is kind of funny. And it only takes until about 3/4 of the way through the year for them to say good morning back to me in the halls! XD

Cheryl said...

A link for those who have trouble with homophones, malapropisms, and mondegreens:

The Eggcorn Database

I once had a beta reader suck all the life out of my first person story by "correcting" everything (straight out of Strunk and White, no less). She turned my modern comic noir fantasy into a bad pastiche of a Victorian parlour novel.

She also felt the need to change the narrator's dialect (which is my own dialect) to hers.

Thank god for the "reject all changes" button.

Mister Furkles said...

I just love these little screw-ups. You should never use them in your serious writing—exception: dialogue, as heard (herd?) in The Bowery Boys. Homophones, bad puns, alliteration, and wrong metaphors are all so much fun. My favorites are mixed metaphors and confused metaphors.

Occasionally, you may hear someone say “A tough road to hoe.” And I always picture officials rushing to the highway where people are attempting to till the asphalt.

Some are due to foreign terms introduced into English. Often people use boar or bore where they mean boor. The term 'boor' derives from the Dutch word for farmer: 'boer'.

We are so blessed because there are thousands of these little treasures in our language.

Craig said...

It's actually simple. Learn the rules so you can break them properly.

Jenny C said...

I have their/there/they're under control, it's those darn commas that drive me crazy!!! One beta reader asked if I was allergic to them since I never seemed to use them!! I understand the difference between Let's eat, Grandma and Let's eat Grandma but after that I'm pretty clueless.

Also, Word doesn't catch mistakes like typing OUR when I meant to type OUT. Why is it that I can read my MS 1000 times and never catch this type of mistake either??

Luckily I am married to a man who is so good at grammar that he has been known to email publishers with mistakes that he's caught in their published books. Without him I would probably have to give up writing altogether and become a professional dog-walker because dogs don't care about commas.

Panda in Chief said...

Can I just say, "Eats,Shoots, and Leaves"?
Pandas and punctuation.
They matter.

Stephanie said...

Dialogue is the only place a writer can take grammatical liberties because it's staying true to the character. Teen speak, child language, ethnic backgrounds, regional slang- all passable. But as a writer, if you don't know the difference between piqued and peeked, you shouldn't be writing. Or rather, make the effort to learn proper grammar as a standard and be sure to reflect that in your social media. I feel as though letting poor grammar and spelling slide is the equivalent to working at Mc Donald's with a $15 an hour salary. If everyone and anyone without effort or lack of education/ experience could get a publishing contract, then we'd all be reading cheeseburgers.

Lucie Witt said...

If any newbies are reading this and freaking out because your grammar needs work, I'm going to humbly disagree with Stephanie. You should be writing. You should be writing as much as you can and striving to learn and improve. You might not be ready to **publish** - that's a different story.

Lucie Witt said...

(And Stephanie and I probably don't really disagree, but I wanted to clarify between writing and seeking publication for something you wrote)

Julie Weathers said...

I've never watched The Wire. Now I'm glad I haven't.

BUT... what if the novel is a first-person narrative?

Colin, my MCs in Far Rider and The Rain Crow are in first person. The other POV characters are in third. I don't change narrative grammar for them, but their dialogue voices change. I may be missing the point of what you were saying. I'm just starting on the coffee.

Now, having said that. The writing voice in the two books are different and I can't explain what it is.

Jason: This post is why I am going back to school.

I've often thought about that. I went to high school, but was raising three siblings at the time, so it was more important to focus on them than me. I can't remember any rules from English class most of the time. However, I read a lot and I invested in some good grammar books. A person can learn a lot simply by reading and studying good writers.

My former editor at the magazine used to detest it when the owners would hire a new writer, fresh out of college with their shiny new diploma. One girl sent back a story D. wrote with corrections and told her, "I'm sure you didn't know, but styles have changed and this is incorrect. I thought I'd help."

That went over very well as D is a multiple award-winning journalist, author, and editor. A professor used her editorial columns to teach style.

D. responded something to the effect that if she ever corrected her work again she would stick her shiny new diploma somewhere and send her packing. Now, if she would shut her mouth and pay attention, she'd try to teach her how to put some style in her antiseptically correct, but boring stories.

D. bought the AP style book each year, so she knew the rules, but also knew when to break them and why she was breaking them.

LynnRodz said...

You mean, the reign in Spain doesn't stays mainly in the plane? Who would've thunk it?

Lucie, after you finish reading your WIP out loud, I would suggest using something like Natural Reader. If you think that makes a difference (and believe me it does) you'll be amazed at the things you'll catch when you hear someone else reading your words. NR reads what it sees, while the brain corrects the mistakes we make for us.

Bethany Elizabeth said...

Maybe it's less about being an expert grammarian and more about knowing your weakness. There are a million reasons why someone may not be good with grammar. If they grew up in a home that spoke non-standard American English for example, or if English is their second language, or if they have some sort of learning disorder like dyslexia. I don't think it's necessary for the writers to kill themselves learning perfect grammar and lose the love of language in the process.

It is important to know if you're bad with grammar, though. Which is why editors can be so wonderful. You don't have to memorize Elements of Style before you can write a good story, but have friends who will help you find grammatical errors. Then, when you've gotten as many out of your MS as you can, get an editor. Or, like in my case, a mother who loves to read slowly and spots every error. When I was a kid, it was a pain. Now, it's a huge blessing. God bless mothers!

Julie Weathers said...

Colin,

I think I've linked this before, but it bears reading again for those who haven't seen it. This is the letter from the French soldier who served with Easy Company in Afghanistan.

If you don't want to read the whole thing, here's the pertinent part to this discussion about American accents.

"They have a terribly strong American accent - from our point of view the language they speak is not even English. How many times did I have to write down what I wanted to say rather than waste precious minutes trying various pronunciations of a seemingly common word? Whatever State they are from, no two accents are alike and they even admit that in some crisis situations they have difficulties understanding each other."

I laughed.

Lucie, yep. Reading your work out loud is remarkable. I still love listening to my work. I wish I could find a text to talk with a southern accent, but Ivona will have to do when the time comes.

Jenny, lucky you. In my next life, I'm falling in love with a man with good grammar skills. Forget the bullrider butt.

DeadSpiderEye said...

Thank you Julie Weathers, your efforts have enhance my mood no end this day.

"...are taken to their paroxysm, often amplified by promiscuity..."

That had me crippled with laughter.

Bethany Elizabeth said...

Lynn - it's Reign in Spain, named by a mother who wished to reinstate the monarchy, and she prefers to travel by train. :)

Jason - it's great that you're going back to school for this (talk about dedication!), but keep in mind that Academia has a very different writing style than fiction. Although it's a great place to learn all the rules, so you can break them on purpose (when you want to).

Just avoid being the the guy in your MFA. That's an absolutely hilarious twitter feed, by the way - we've all been that guy once or twice! My favorite is: "My depression exists mainly over the fact that my novels even exist in the same aesthetic universe as reality tv shows."

Steve Stubbs said...

I have to add one comment. Street slang has its own grammar. “Why are you...?” in correct street language becomes “Why you be....?” It changes over time, too. Nobody ever calls anybody a Stone Fox anymore.

Furthermore, it is regional. Nobody around here ever says “sod off,” “I’m chuffed,” “poor sod” or “bugger off,”

So if you don’t know why you be sayin’ sump’n then use boring Standard English.

Unless your name s Mark Twain, that is, and the book is HUCKLEBERRY FINN.

Colin Smith said...

Julie: I think the point of the First Person POV is that the writer is adopting a character whose voice is not their own. That character may or may not be a part of the story s/he is relating, but usually s/he is--that's usually why you use a 1st Person POV. My observation is that when reading a 1PPOV (1st Person POV), I assume the writer doesn't speak this way, and I'm reading the story as related to me by a character. This is the character's voice and speech patterns (bad grammar included), so I am not going to ascribe the mixed metaphors and subject-verb disagreements to the author, and such things aren't likely to bother me too much. With 3PPOV, however, I assume I'm reading the author's voice and style. Bad grammar and incoherent sentences are more likely to throw me out of the story because I'm reading the writer, not one of his or her characters, so I expect more of the author. Good grammar doesn't have to flatten voice; to me, a compelling 3PPOV will have oodles of well-written voice.

Donnaeve said...

Stephanie said, "Dialogue is the only place a writer can take grammatical liberties because it's staying true to the character."

Which has me pondering on first person narrative. Would my MC, who is telling us her story speak differently to us in the narrative, than she does in dialogue? I don't think so, but I'm curious as to what ya'll think?

I've been studying the regional dialect of the NC Appalachian region for a while - not only when I go there, but reading Robert Morgan, and some online sites. In some areas, for instance, you might hear a sentence with knowed. "I knowed it when I seen it." Or, growed. "He's done growed up."

So, IMO, it wouldn't seem natural for a character to suddenly drop into a non-regional narrative. It would read inconsistent - at least to me.

Donnaeve said...

Well thanks Colin with your crystal ball! It took me so long to formulate my comment you posted EXACTLY what I was getting at.

Adib Khorram said...

Panda: EATS, SHOOTS & LEAVES is my favorite nonfiction. I adore Lynne Truss!

I'm pretty good at spotting grammar and usage mistakes, but I never correct in-line when I'm critiquing a manuscript—I comment it instead. Maybe the writer did exactly what they wanted to do and I just missed something. One of my CPs is from Australia and we have VERY different constructions at times.

I too disagree that dialogue is the only place grammar can be tweaked for effect. Any voice-driven narration—especially first-person, but not exclusively—can (and should!) use the words it needs to get the point across. They can be contextually correct without being stylistically correct.

(I hope that made sense.)

Dena Pawling said...


I have a close 3rd WIP. All of it sounds like you're in the head of the MC. Dialogue, narrative, internal thought, everything. I don't think that's wrong in close 3rd. However, the MC obviously doesn't narrate their instead of there. Some grammar is style/voice. Some obviously is not.

Robert Ceres said...

Stephanie said, "Dialogue is the only place a writer can take grammatical liberties because it's staying true to the character."

I disagree. Every story has a narrator regardless of POV. Every narrator has a voice. Part of that voice is the grammar, and that grammar can be changed to make the voice right, even if that makes the grammar wrong. So, if for example, your narrator is God, and if in that story, God is a lesbian African American Jewish woman from downtown Baltimore, then, God’s grammar should have the characteristic grammatical liberties that reflect that fact (whatever those might be.)

Cheryl said...

I agree with Dena -- close third should sound like the character whose head you're inside. No, there shouldn't be spelling mistakes, but it should allow for dialect, age, and educational variation.

I try to make my narrative voices clear enough that you can tell whose POV it is within the first two sentences without needing a name. It doesn't always work, but I try. At best, they shouldn't all sound like me.

Julie Weathers said...

Colin,

I'm probably misunderstanding what you're saying. There isn't a lot of difference between my close third and first, but there are subtle differences. I go deeper into the head of my first person.

In Far Rider, I have five POV characters, one of whom is first person and the remainder third person. If the narrative voice changed each time a POV character changed, it would be chaotic. I think that must remain constant throughout whatever it is you establish.

Rain Crow is set in the early Civil War Virginia, Baltimore, and Washington mostly to begin with. I am not sprinkling the dialogue with a derogatory term as historically accurate as the language was. I am not, "Now, dahlin' ah want y'all ta go ahn down to thet pond an' get me a big ol' catfish an' we'll fix us a bait o' frad fish fo suppa."

I have faith I can let people know my girls are from the south without y'alling them to death.

Colin Smith said...

Julie: What you're saying sounds to me like what I said here: "...to me, a compelling 3PPOV will have oodles of well-written voice." I was speaking primarily in terms of good grammar and coherent sentences, not colloquialisms. I think it's harder to get away with "He taked to his girl like oil to fishes in a barrel" in a 3PPOV, than a 1PPOV. However, if it's bad grammar, but obviously a colloquialism, you could probably get away with it in 3PPOV--but I'm stretching my memory to think of someone who has done that well. And I know y'all are going to throw examples at me so, have at it! :)

Colin Smith said...

As a quick addendum, I'm not saying such things CAN'T be done. With any artistic endeavor, whether writing, music, painting, drawing, there is no CAN'T. But I do think there's "hard to do" and "difficult to get away with." And things in those latter categories should never be undertaken just to be different. Especially if you don't know what you're doing.

Julie Weathers said...

Colin,

As I said, I am probably misunderstanding you. To be honest, when some of the writers at B&W get into craft discussions, I sit by and nod my head wisely as I'm completely lost. I wear out grammar books and still don't understand some things. I certainly don't consciously write a certain way. I'm lucky to vomit words onto the page in a pleasing pattern.

Craig said...

In my opinion the narrator(s) is/are the voice of the story. If done right that voice should shine above the ground rules of grammar.

One of the most important things to make a voice shine is consistency. The easiest way to make writing consistent is with a firm grounding of grammar. It will keep everything flowing along lines that can be understood.

Even if you are working in a strong dialect you still have to use the rules of that dialect. Sometimes that base is from a different place than the common Old English. There are still rules built in. Trying to pick it apart much more than that is futile because there are exceptions to every rule of writing.

Colin Smith said...

Julie: Which just means you're a natural talent. And I don't mean that any other way than sincerely. Some people just do the right things by instinct. Others need the rules to keep them straight. Some have it both ways. I liken it to playing the piano. Some need sheet music to play, some make beautiful music by ear without being able to read a note, and some can do both.

Colin Smith said...

Caveat! What I said above is not to advocate laziness. Don't presume you're just naturally gifted so you don't need to study grammar, etc. Julie said herself that she reads craft books. Even if you are a naturally gifted writer, studying the craft will only sharpen your tools and make you better able to use them.

In 1971, Paul McCartney call on Beatle producer George Martin to help him with the orchestral score for his song "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey." After working together on the arrangement, Martin said to Paul, "Why don't you take some orchestration classes?" Paul is such a talented and creative writer, Martin was convinced with the right training, he could do orchestration without any help. "Why should I?" Paul responded. "After all, I have you!"

Donnaeve said...

Rob Ceres - kind of funny. See my comment at 11:33. :)

OFF TOPIC: What's NOT funny is what is on the news. It appears that Prince has passed away - age 57. At his home in Paisley Park. Learning details, but seems he had the flu recently, flight diverted after a concert he performed Thursday night. Hospital visit, then released. And today, we're learning he's gone.

VERY SAD.

Julie Weathers said...

Colin: Caveat! What I said above is not to advocate laziness.

Agreed. I work very hard at writing. I've read a lot of craft and grammar books. I study a lot of good writers to see how they do what they do. When I stop growing and learning, it's time to stop writing. Even so, when the conversation gets into sentence structure and organizing words a certain way so this clause does this, I am lost. Maybe someday I'll even figure that out. It's on my bucket list, but I only have so many years left.

John mentioned alliteration yesterday and I thought, "All right. Should I let him think I planned that? Should I look up alliteration before I respond?"

And the verification was to pick out limousines. I guess that shiny pickup was wrong.

Ardenwolfe said...

The Wire is the greatest television series ever written.

stacy said...

Agreed, Ardenwolfe.

BJ Muntain said...

OF COURSE we get to talk about grammar and style the one morning this week that I don't have time to comment. But I've got a couple hours now, so you're still stuck with me.

Most of the good stuff has been covered, so I'll just note a couple things.

First, I agree that anything goes in dialogue - but when critiquing, I'll still mention grammatical things in dialogue if it's not clear the author did it intentionally. If it's intentional, cool enough. If not, the author should know it's wrong, and then they can decide to leave it because that's the way the character speaks, or to change it, because the grammar isn't right for the character. I always make sure to mention, though, that since it's dialogue, it's not necessary to change it. But sometimes typos or editing scars happen when working on dialogue, too, so I feel the writer needs to know if something isn't quite right.

And narrative voice is similar to dialogue, in that there is more flexibility. But again, the author needs to know what rules they're breaking to do it right. And while narrative voice has more flexibility than plain prose, it doesn't have as much flexibility as dialogue. The reader has to be able to understand what is going on.

And be conservative when it comes to writing dialect. Too much dialect, and the writing becomes unreadable. This is true in dialogue, but it's even worse in narrative. As Julie says, you can trust your reader to know how your character is speaking without writing it full of dialect.

And most importantly: BE CONSISTENT. If you're going to break a rule, break it consistently - don't have the character break a rule in one chapter, then not break it in another, unless there is a specific reason for it. In Janet's example, the character normally speaks 'proper' English, but switches to dialect in certain situations. THAT is consistency, and an interesting consistency at that.

CynthiaMc said...

Peggy - my teenagers glare, roll their eyes and say "What?" In a very annoyed tone.

abnormalalien (Jamie A. Elias) said...

Lol, in the right situations I do too. I read somewhere a cute little quip about how you're not really crazy until you start replying to the voices in your head. Whowever decided that either doesn't have enough experience with writers or perhaps too much experience with writers.

Steve Stubbs said...

Happy Birthday.

46 is a good year.

John Frain said...

Julie said:
John mentioned alliteration yesterday and I thought, "All right. Should I let him think I planned that? Should I look up alliteration before I respond?"

Yes, let him think you planned that. Always. Sometimes you have an ear for something, sometimes you have an eye for it. So I'm still gonna think it, just so ya know.

SiSi said...

Lots of interesting thoughts on grammar and how it plays into fiction and narrators.

In general, I try to distinguish between "bad grammar" and "grammatical mistakes." Bad grammar is perfectly fine if it fits the character, drives the story, or even just makes a point. For the most part this doesn't bother me at all. (Sometimes this stylistic choice can be overdone, but that's a bigger writing mistake, not a grammatical error.)

Grammatical mistakes that pop up in otherwise standard grammar and word usage, that are clearly not intended by the writer, drive me crazy. I don't correct them in printed material, but I certainly notice them. When I used to work at a bookstore and got uncorrected proofs, I always had to take a deep calming breath before sitting down to read them!

CynthiaMc said...

Julie - Despite living all over the world I am still Southern. I think I still sound like coastal Alabama but people from all over ask me where I'm from as nobody is ever sure. I tell them I was born in Alabama but I grew up everywhere.

CynthiaMc said...

If I ever end up on the news for murder it will be because of "low and behold" - Dear God - it doesn't even make sense.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Well, um, with my grammatical short comings I'm kind of glad I had to skip the party today. Don't wanna look stupider than I really am. Although l'm wondering, could that really happen.

Elena said...

I'm loving all The Wire references! Oh my gosh, today's photo brings up SO MANY FEELINGS. Omar Little is my favorite, favorite character on that show--which is saying something, because all the characters are so memorable.

(And yes, Janet makes an excellent point in the post body too :)

A man got to have a code. Indeed, Omar. Indeed.
*explosion of emotions*

Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

Bad grammar vs voice'n'style. Consistency is the key. If one is breaking the rules for stylistic purposes, that rule needs to be broken consistently. Also, it needs to be obvious (even if only subtly) why you're breaking that rule. Yes, readers can tell the difference between style and sloppiness in the craft.

That said, whatever your voice, there is a certain level of SPAG proficiency required, a minimum pass level.


Cheezburgers? I can has cheezburgers?

FYI, McDonalds employees get a minimum $15/hr in Australia, because we're civilised.