Six impossible things

Grammar, Syntax, and other Actual Rules

Spelling, grammar, punctuation, syntax. For a lot of would-be writers, they seem to be love ‘em or leave ‘em – which is to say, many of the folks I talk to have either an absolute slavish devotion to formal grammar, punctuation, or else a firm conviction that such things exist only to give copyeditors something to do (and writers something to fight with them over). As usual, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

The most important thing for writers about the standard rules of English is that if you don’t know what they are and how to apply them, you are the equivalent of a surgeon attempting to operate on someone’s brain with a rusty Bowie knife and a longsword. If you don’t have the right tools for the job, the job is going to be a whole lot harder to do. And if you don’t know that the right tools even exist, you are unlikely to go looking for them.

The folks who think grammar and syntax are the copyeditor’s job are missing two important points: first, if you don’t know what standard English is and how it works, you won’t know when you are breaking those rules by mistake and, equally, you won’t be able to break them on purpose to achieve a specific effect. (And there are a lot of useful specific effects you can get from “breaking” certain specific rules of grammar.) Second, a writer who “leaves all that to the copyeditor” is giving the copyeditor the power to determine those effects, which can significantly change the meaning that the writer intended. The classic example is the unpunctuated sentence “Woman without her man is nothing” which can come out either “Woman, without her man, is nothing” or “Woman! Without her, man is nothing.” Punctuation is power…

The folks who insist on applying every rule of standard English grammar and syntax, regardless of any other consideration – indeed, some of them insist that there are no other considerations. They are the equivalent of a carpenter who insists on using his hammer for everything, including trying to saw a board in half. English is an enormously flexible language, and that flexibility can be enormously useful to writers if they understand it and use it correctly.

At this point, some earnest person nearly always asks me when and how they should abandon their formal grammar and syntax – essentially, asking for rules about breaking the rules.

What I always want to say is, “Sir or madam, there aren’t any.” Because the middle of the spectrum that starts with the rules-bound on one end and ends with the rules-averse on the other is a wide, fuzzy gray area scribbled with arrows and circles labeled “style” and “conversation” and “viewpoint” and “context” and innumerable other things. But saying “there aren’t any rules” isn’t going to help any, so instead I talk about context and feel and style and give some examples of places where a strict reliance on the rules for formal and/or standard English is likely to be detrimental to a piece of fiction.

First among these is dialog. I put it first because dialog occurs in almost every piece of fiction, and because it is one of the most common places for people to get hung up on whether or not to apply the rules of grammar and syntax. It’s also a place where it is pretty easy to illustrate why one can’t come up with a set of rules for when to apply those other rules. The first thing is, people don’t speak in the sort of formal essay-writing English to which most of the standard rules of English apply. Any writer who wants to write dialog that actually sounds like someone would say that is not going to be able to stick strictly to standard grammar, punctuation, and syntax at all times.

The second thing is, individual people don’t speak exactly like each other. There are differences in speech patterns that depend on each individual’s background and personality. Since most stories are not about identical twins or clones, this means that most characters will have different speech patterns from one another, and those patterns will be more marked the greater the differences in the characters’ backgrounds is. And if you get right down into it, a lot of the differences in speech patterns comes from different ways of “breaking the rules” of standard English, or rather, from using a slightly different, non-standard set of rules of grammar and syntax, along with a sprinkling of local idioms and turns of phrase.

First-person viewpoint is only second on my list of examples because not all stories are written in first-person. It is, however, a more comprehensive example, in that in a first-person narrative, all the sentences (not just the dialog) have to sound like something the viewpoint character would say or write. Frequently, this means that neither the narrative nor the dialog will follow standard English particularly strictly; occasionally, it may mean the writer will have to write even more formally than usual (say, if the viewpoint character is an extremely fussy English professor who makes a point of being more correct than anyone else even in his/her private journal). Huck Finn says things like “I ain’t seen nothin’ like it,” and for him to say anything else, in dialog or in narrative, would be to destroy the character’s voice. Archie Goodwin (Nero Wolfe’s sidekick and the narrator of most of those mysteries) would never say “I ain’t seen nothin’ like it” unless he was undercover or being sarcastic, and probably not even then.

In third-person narrative, the use, misuse, and overuse of standard English is much harder to pin down. Ultimately, it comes down to the writer’s preferences in style and voice – some prefer a more formal narrative, others want a conversational voice, or something that’s over-the-top like The Worm Ouroboros. The handling of dialog remains dependent on the voices of the different characters and the conversational tone, which nearly always means that the writer is applying two different criteria for “breaking the rules” (one set in the narrative, and a different set for the dialog).

The best (and possibly only) way I know to get a handle on all this begins with knowing what the rules of grammar, punctuation, spelling, and syntax are; after that, one reads widely, notices what other authors do, and does one’s best to figure out why they did it and why one thinks it does or doesn’t work. And after all, coming up with a set of rules for when you can break the rules is silly.

  1. What do you do when you want to make sure an editor knows that you intend to have your narrator to mis-use English rules?

    • You add a note to the copyeditor. And you provide a stylesheet with _intentional_ usage.
      Your editor might still decide that their house style trumps your intentional usage, but that’s between you and them.

    • Apparently, this can be a real problem sometimes. See this post about a somewhat unrelated topic, but which I found interesting because of the discussion of copy editors.

  2. I love the way you broke this down. It’s so important to have a unique voice while also making sure your reader doesn’t have to put *too* much work into reading your book. Knowing standard grammar rules can also help out your critique partners (I know someone who constantly misuses than and then and past and passed, no matter how many times I explain it!)

  3. …occasionally, it may mean the writer will have to write even more formally than usual (say, if the viewpoint character is an extremely fussy English professor who makes a point of being more correct than anyone else even in his/her private journal).

    LOL! Yes! Thinking of Steven Brust’s Paarfi of Roundwood in the Khaavren romances. Brilliantly fun.

    I’ve loved grammar since I first encountered it in elementary school. Diagramming sentences was enjoyable (for me), and my 7th grade “year of grammar,” one of my best.

    Fortunately, I feel no angst about breaking the rules. When I’m telling a story, I do so all the time.

    The tricky part for me is: “…this means that most characters will have different speech patterns from one another, and those patterns will be more marked the greater the differences in the characters’ backgrounds is.” I know this. It’s obvious as I go through life, hearing the myriad ways people speak. But I have to work really hard at it when I’m writing my stories. It doesn’t come naturally to me.

    I’d love to get more tips on how to make those speech differences present in the words on the page.

  4. I have never understood the people who think that writers don’t need to know proper usage. It’s like delcaring that you’re going to build a house but saying, “Oh, I don’t need to use a hammer or nails or a saw or anything like that!” And then months later, they’re standing in a pile of rubble wondering why nobody wants to move in.

    Mind you, I also think diagramming sentences is fun, so it’s possible I may be a bit biased. 😉

  5. One other thing to note: copyeditors can do only so much work. If yours is wading through mis-spelled words and abused grammar, they have no time for the rhythm and flow of your language, overuse of words, places where you contradict yourself…

  6. Patricia – I get a lot out of these posts. Thank you for blogging.

  7. the point at which it is really crucial to know your grammar is when you are critiquing someone else’s story.

    I wish to observe that if nothing much is happening in a sentence it is, nevertheless, not necessarily in the passive voice, and if the sentence goes on and on and on and on, it is also nevertheless not necessarily a run-on sentence.

  8. To see grammar used punctiliously but oddly, see Damon Runyon.
    For perfect grammar with no content, the Jeeves stories.

    From Malvina Reynolds:
    Some folks think all you have to do is jump around
    To get a new sound.
    Others believe that, if you want to avoid singing sweetly,
    You have to know all the rules in order to violate them completely.

  9. I like to know rules so that I can “ignore” them. By that, I mean that I can do a higher-level activity without getting dragged into the lower-level details.

    It is difficult to multiply 573 and 734 on paper if one does not know one’s times table. If you know it, you can do the multiplication without having to keep thinking about what times what is what.

    It works the same for me with grammar and the bit of writing that I do.

  10. I have just returned from a convention where my husband bought me a T-shirt that reads, “I don’t judge people by their Age, Race, Creed, Color or Religion. I judge them by their Syntax, Spelling, Grammar, and Punctuation.”

    • Dorothy, shame on you! The first sentence does not have an Oxford comma in the list, and the second sentence does. Such horrible inconsistency! How can you wear such a thing?

      Does the T-shirt company have an opening for an editor?

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