Six impossible things

Formal and informal

First off, it has been brought to my attention (thanks, John!) that I need to tell my regular readers that The Far West is now out and available in hardcover. The e-book will be out in October, they tell me. On to the post.

Back in the day, one of my earliest beta-readers took me to task, at some length, for using the sentence “It was going to take her twice as long as usual” on the first page of Daughter of Witches. (“What was?” said the beta reader. “This pronoun has no antecedent!”) As you may guess from the fact that, thirty years later, I still remember this so clearly, I was not amused (and that person didn’t remain a beta reader for long).

At the time, I was quite clear that the comment was wrong-headed, but I couldn’t explain why, or figure out why the beta-reader got something so obvious so very wrong. Now, I can. That particular beta-reader had taken a basic college-level composition course, designed to pound the fundamental rules of formal standard English into the heads of freshmen, and internalized all of them without really understanding them. She’d also never heard of the expletive pronoun usage “when a clause or sentence lacks a plausible subject.” (Thank you, Karen Elizabeth Gordon.)

Basically, that particular beta-reader was applying rules and advice for formal writing to what was, at most, semi-formal. It was a bit like making a big fuss about using the proper fork at a barbecue.

Formal English is the standard we learn in school – all the rules of usage and syntax and grammar, and some of the less hard-and-fast rules for good style. The grammar-and-syntax rules are things like “The subject of the sentence must agree with the verb” (“He am” is incorrect, as is “I is”) and verb conjugations (“had went” is wrong, no matter how many words intervene between the two parts of the verb form). The stylistic rules are things like “Do not use contractions in writing” and “Sentences always have to be complete.”

These are the rules of basic English; these are the rules for writing an A-grade essay or college paper; these are the rules that most people in the adult world, from business to science to politics, are expected to have at least some grasp of (though judging from some of the business memos I’ve seen, there are an awful lot of people who don’t have a clue about apostrophes, much less proper sentence construction).

These are also the rules that people mean when they say “You have to know the rules before you can break them.” (And all that training in importance of those basic rules of English, I think, is what gives so many of us such enormous respect for and fear of Da Rulez of Writting, as promulgated by so many workshops, web sites, and wannabes. But that’s another rant for another day.)

The thing about all these rules is, there is a continuum for applying them. Different kinds of writing require different spots on the continuum from formal to informal. If you are writing a legal document, a science article, or a paper for your English class, the Chicago Manual of Style, current edition, is your best friend. If you are texting your sister about that movie you both want to see tonight, you can let proper sentence structure, punctuation, and even spelling go hang, as long as you’re sure your sister will understand the message.

I bet a lot of you are waiting for me to say that fiction falls more toward the informal end of the continuum, and therefore fiction writers can get away with not paying attention to a lot of those rules. Not quite.

Fiction does not fall on a point on the continuum at all. Fiction makes use of the whole range, depending on exactly what it is the writer is doing.

An analogy: English and all the various rules for using it, from “Keep it simple” to “Never open a book with the weather,” are tools in the writer’s toolbox. If you wish to build a wooden deck, you use a saw and a hammer and nails; if you wish to build a concrete block wall, you use a trowel and a mason’s hammer and chisel; if you wish to make a ladder-back chair, you need a lathe and a wood chisel and some sandpaper. The trowel won’t help you build the deck or the chair; the saw and the sandpaper won’t be much good for building the concrete block wall.

Most fiction is, indeed, somewhere in the middle of the formal-to-informal range. Dialog is usually less formal than narration (unless the book is in first person or the character who’s speaking is intended to be a prolix stuffed shirt). But every novelist gets to decide, at the start of every book, exactly where on the continuum that story needs to be…and the decision will be different from writer to writer and book to book.

This is where knowing the rules comes in. If you don’t know the rules for formal English, your writing is perforce limited to the more informal end of the range. It’s not so much a matter of “when to break the rules” as it is knowing what tools you want to apply – knowing whether you need a hammer and saw or a trowel and chisel.

13 Comments
  1. In high school, I wrote a play for my youth group to perform. Not having a computer (and my typewriter being broken), I handed the hand-written copy over to my sister’s boyfriend, who proudly returned to me the printed copy with “all the grammar fixed.” He had removed all the contractions, every time someone opened a sentence with “and” or “but,” any incomplete sentences, and a host of other things I can’t even remember right now. IN DIALOGUE.

    It was only for my sister’s sake that I didn’t slay him on the spot. Took me forever to go back through and remove all his “fixes.” I have had a deep-rooted loathing of attempting to apply formal writing rules to informal writing without first taking the context into account.

  2. 😀 As a linguist, whenever someone gives me a rule I blink a couple of times and ask “Why?” If you can’t explain why something is a rule, you’ll never know where you need to apply it and where it can go hang.

    And now I’m going to be officious, and I’m very sorry about it.
    Actually, in your example, I don’t think you have an expletive it there. That one is referential to an event rather than to a entity. “It was going to take her twice as long as usual” “What was?” “Making this week’s offering.”
    This is a totally valid and common use of pronouns, particularly it, and if your beta reader could not figure that one out, it’s dropkick time.

    Earlier on in the page you have “It was just like him to send her on a long errand just before her half holiday.” Now that’s an expletive it, used in one of its usual places for one of its usual functions, which is to push new information to the end of the sentence. The sentence could be rephrased as “Sending her on a long errand just before her half holiday was just like him,” but that is awkward and difficult to parse. Using the it cleft allows the reader to prepare for a long clause and slot it immediately into its place, which is ‘something typical of Lykken.’

    For me, I don’t want to know rules, I want to know facts. Rules are only the facts someone else thinks you need to know without context and without complexity. People think style handbooks should apply to all forms of written communication, but that’s like assuming the principles of Latin grammar should apply to English syntax – when they are different languages. Oh wait, they did that too. *sigh*

  3. At one of my previous jobs, I was the one who proofread all the blog posts that people would write for the company blog. The first few times, I wanted to prove that I was good at my job, and I went a little (okay a lot) overboard with the red pen. I eliminated all the contractions and a host of other things. People were always confused why I was being so formal for such an informal avenue (like a blog). I’ve learned to loosen up on the rules a little since then, and I’d like to believe my writing has gotten a lot better as a result.

  4. As a copy editor I always wince when fellow editors apply CMoS to fiction. (Even in academic writing I have one client that applies CMoS strictly, everybody else says ‘if it’s consistent, it’s fine.’)

    Editing fiction is a balancing act. Good editing always takes the reader into account, so you’re trying to balance making the text accessible (the more readers go ‘huh’ the less invested they will be invested in the story) and preserving the author’s voice (because readers, particularly on the literary end, don’t want straightforward, easy-to-parse sentence, they’re _happy_ with complexities and using rare words where a more common would have done, and stacked adjectives in the right place.

    So you’re balancing. (Word Perfect once said to me ‘you have begun nine out of the last ten sentences with ‘but’: you bet I rephrased!) Overuse of any word, phrase, or item in the language arsenal will throw readers out of the story, and it’s a judgement call whether something is a problem or not. And different people make different judgement calls. (Editors _argue_ about grammar. All the time. When do you relax a rule? When an authority agrees that the usage is alright?

    A copy editor might well call you out on ‘It was going to take her’ if there’s no context within the paragraph. (I would.) However, while a beta reader might flag up persistent habits (several sentence fragments on every page), that’s not the time to _be_ picky about grammar. However, just to play devil’s advocate, if that sentence sets up a puzzle (however tiny) which you then fail to resolve, there’s a problem. And sometimes grammar problems point to larger problems with the text – a writer who isn’t in full command of the craft – so this might be a problem with not being able to articulate what the problem is.

  5. “Fiction makes use of the whole range.”

    Love that!

    I usually write in tight third person and chose to have the narrative bits reflect the POV of my protag. And some of his or her dialect.

    One of my beta readers takes predictable notice of my larger deviations from proper!

  6. Thank you for the ebook update – I’ve been bugging Scholastic, Amazon, B&N, etc., for information.

    Maybe I’ll just buy both.

  7. I bet a lot of you are waiting for me to say that fiction falls more toward the informal end of the continuum, and therefore fiction writers can get away with not paying attention to a lot of those rules. Not quite.

    Fiction does not fall on a point on the continuum at all. Fiction makes use of the whole range, depending on exactly what it is the writer is doing.

    That is… an awesome statement of a truth I had not thought to verbalize. Thank you!

  8. Speaking as a professional copy editor, I consistently found that the hardest part of training new copy editors was getting them to look at the context before applying a rule. Far too often they would make changes because there was some rule that said so, without thinking about whether the change made nonsense of the sentence they were changing.

  9. For a flavour of pedantically correct English in fiction, read Damon Runyon (Guys and Dolls). His narrators and characters use no contractions and full and proper agreement of all verbs.

  10. Hi Ms. Wrede

    Thanks for the update on the ebook version. I was wondering when it would appear as I am in China and there is no way of really getting a hard copy of your book. Thanks for the update.

  11. Thank you for the notice that the Far West had been published. It was a lovely book and I am deeply enjoying this series.

  12. I had a great time editing a fellow student’s paper. Part of his assignment was to have another student edit it.

    Having learned very well the lesson that most of my fellow students did not want any criticism — just approval — regardless of how bad their work was, I asked him about this. He said to rip away.

    So I did.

    He used one word seven times in the paper. I told him that once or twice was fine, maybe three, but seven? I left it to him which ones to keep and which to dike out. He was one of those few who appreciated my editing and said it made the paper much better.

    On the reverse side, when I wanted someone else to look at something of mine, I quit giving them a clean copy. If I gave a clean copy, they would be scared to say anything. If I had a correction on it, they got much braver.

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