grammar, sh-mammar part 2

Flash FictionLast week, I got all kinds of preachy about the importance of good grammar. Today, I’m going to give you the flip-side of the coin.

Grammar is important. Life-or-death important, as far as the mortality of your writing is concerned. Bad grammar will kill your stories as fast as you can write them.

But…

Grammar isn’t always king. There are times when grammatical rules can and should be broken. I’ll give you a prime example: dialogue.

Let’s say you have two characters standing in a room with a box of donuts. Not knowing if it’s okay to dig in, one character turns to the other and asks, “For whom are those fried pastries intended?”

Wait–no she doesn’t. She definitely does not say that. Know how I know? No one says that. While grammatically correct, that sentence sounds so awkward and pretentious it would unravel the scene before it even gets going.

Instead, she says, “Who are those donuts for?” Ah, but there’s the problem, isn’t it? You’re not supposed to end sentences with prepositions. That’s why the first example of dialogue is grammatically correct, but the second isn’t. However, the second is how people actually talk. It’s the one you should use.

When writing dialogue, grammar is more a matter of authenticity than necessity. People speak using bad grammar all the time, and you can (and should) use that to enhance your stories. You can say a lot about a character by tailoring their speaking patterns to fall inside or outside the casual norms. Does that mean you’ll sometimes intentionally break grammatical rules? You bet it does, and that’s totally okay.

Stylistically, there are other times when it’s okay to bend and break the rules. I like fragment sentences, myself. A lot. They’re punchy in a way full sentences can’t be, and they force the reader to take special notice of something. If I overuse them or use them without realizing that’s what I’m doing, it will seriously cripple my writing, but the occasional fragment isn’t going to rouse the grammar police.

Of course, stylistic grammatical liberties are only possible if I know good grammar to begin with. You can’t claim artistic immunity every time you break with traditional grammar. You have to know the rules, first. Then, selectively, you can bend and break some of them. Sometimes. With caution and care.

Ultimately, this reality reinforces what I said last week: if you’re a writer, you have to know good grammar. There’s no getting around that. However, that doesn’t mean you have to always play by the rules. There are times when it’s okay to be a bit rebellious, provided it enhances your story in some way and makes the text more (not less) readable.

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About Ash Martin
Ash Martin writes dark fantasy and horror, has a thing for classic monster legends, Nordic mythology, coffee, and sarcasm, and is currently working on multiple books.

3 Responses to grammar, sh-mammar part 2

  1. tristdagon says:

    I agree with you on this. Sometimes you have to break/bend the rules.

    Like

  2. “You’re not reproducing actual speech–you’re translating the sound and rhythm of what a character says into words. You’re putting down on paper your sense of how the characters speak.”

    Sounds like Anne’s agreeing with you. 😉

    Like

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