Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Grammar School Re-visited

Here's the deal with grammar: we all hate it, but we all need to use it properly! Why do we hate it? I could use all the lame answers we gave in high school, but the truth is, we hate it because it is hard! It is hard, because there are so many rules and the rules change all the time! Not all of the rules, mind you. Just enough to leave us slightly dazed and confused.  Grammar rules are bad enough when writing a technical paper, but when you have to implement them in a novel, it becomes a nightmare.

As a creative art form, stories are not required to follow the rules of grammar to the letter. Grammar, in a novel, is a tool to get the meaning of your story across. Which leaves the writer having to decide which rules can be broken and which cannot.

For example, it has become common practice in novels to start sentences with a conjunction. But the unspoken rule to this egregious grammatical error is that you are using it to draw attention to the point you are making in that sentence. (See how I did that?)

The problem with that philosophy is that my generation saw it in print and learned that it was okay to do so, without knowing the unspoken rule. This is probably one of the grammatical errors I catch most in my work. I overuse it entirely too much!

Stories are typically told in the vernacular, and grammar and vernacular are hardly bed-buddies. Really, they have a hard time even sharing a house together! Especially when you write a story where the main characters speak in a regional accent. Just throw grammar out the window!

Except that grammar is a tool that we use to help make our sentences clear to our readers. You cannot throw grammar out the window. Not even when you are writing a story in first person using a strong vernacular that deplores proper grammar usage. (For example, if your main character were Cajun?)

The big question is "how do we, as writers, use grammar to our best ability in our stories?" That goes back to research. I have no less than five grammar books on my bookshelves, all from different eras. I also have the benefit of the internet to aid me in researching grammar usage. And I have test readers to ensure that my story makes sense!

At the end of the day, most people will not pick up on grammar errors, as long as they understand what they are reading. That is what is most important, understanding the story. Don't believe me? Go back and read Raold Dahl. His grammar is attrocious! Yet, his stories are famous.

Mark Twain wrote in a Southern regional dialect for most of his stories. The grammar rules were horrendously abused! Yet we are required to read him in school; because the stories he tells are beautiful and life-changing, despite horrible grammar usage.

We will review grammar rules, but as we do so keep in mind that rules were made to be broken. Just mind how you break them. It doesn't matter if you follow the grammar rules to a T, if no one can understand your story. It doesn't matter if you break all the rules in the grammar book, as long as your readers can understand the story!

Keep that in mind as we review the grammar rules. I will not be looking at grammar from the typical primer attitude, I will be looking at it from the perspective of improving your writing and making the story clear to your audiences!! (Grammar Nazis, stay at home!!)

Let us know your thoughts on grammar, in fiction writing, in the comments below!

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