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Creative Misuses of Grammar

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

In the attempt to try to keep actively posting, here’s an essay I wrote in the upper-level grammar class I took five years ago as an undergrad.

As people – adults, students, children – begin to write fiction, one of the most common mistakes that keeps our characters unbelievable is a strict adherence to the rules of grammar in dialogue writing. Throughout our years of school, we have been taught what is “correct” and what is “incorrect” and when we sit down to write our stories, we feel that if we don’t write everything in “correct” grammar, we will be perceived as uneducated and our work not worth reading. The truth that amateur writers must come to understand is that we must write the way people actually speak. Very rarely do people speak in precise, grammatically correct, perfectly punctuated sentences. Human speech is made up of fragments and run-ons and is replete with syntactical structures that defy every written grammar rule. Creative writers need to learn how to effectively misuse verb forms and subject-verb agreement to build believable, identifiable characters.

In The Bedford Handbook (fifth edition), author Diana Hacker puts forth the following rules regarding verbs:
13b: Maintain consistent verb tenses (225-226)
13c: Make verbs consistent in mood and voice (226-227)
21c: Treat most subjects joined with and as plural (312-313)
21d: With subjects joined with or or nor… make the verb agree with the part of the subject nearer the verb (313-314)
21g: Make the verb agree with its subject even when the subject follows the verb (317)
27a: Use the correct forms of irregular verbs (360-364)
27b: Distinguish among the forms of lie and lay (364-366)

These are rules which are vital to keep in mind for narrative writing. The narrator of the story must “speak” with proper grammar, although the level of adherence to the rules changes with point of view. For example, a first person point of view allows for more leeway in syntax than third-person, omniscient.

When it comes to dialogue, though, the writer must learn how to write the way people speak. Penelope J. Stokes gives excellent guidance on structuring believable dialogue in her book The Complete Guide to Writing and Selling the Christian Novel. She writes, “…none of us speaks standard English. Every area of the country, every particular location – we might even say every individual – has distinctive pronunciations and phrasing along with grammatical eccentricities” (139). Knowing intimately our characters’ backgrounds, upbringings, and education levels will help in creating believable dialogue.

Something else to keep in mind when opening our characters’ mouths is their ages. In his article “Horton heared a who!”, psychologist Steven Pinker writes: “Children are…constantly creating sentences and words, never more clearly or charmingly than when they encounter the second flavor of the verb, the quirky irregulars… English has 180 irregulars, a ragtag list that kids simply must memorize.” If we as writers will stop and think about how much trouble we had learning the proper verb forms, we will realize creative misuse of them can help us portray our characters through dialogue rather than exposition.

Irregular verbs get misused not only by children, but regularly by well-educated adults as well. A Harvard graduate might be just as likely to say, “I am going to go lay down,” as a sixth-grade student is to say, “I am going to go lie down.” Herein lies the fact that the author must know his or her character well enough to know whether or not the character knows the difference between the verbs lie and lay so that the reader (who does know the difference) doesn’t think the author is ignorant. If the Harvard graduate makes other simple, but socially acceptable, grammatical mistakes regularly, the reader will accept the misuse of the verb lay as part of the character’s idiosyncrasies.

In addition to the problems speakers have with irregular verbs, a common grammar misuse in spoken language is subject-verb agreement. When people speak, rarely do we have our entire thoughts constructed in our heads in perfect sentences. When we speak, it is impromptu and can change mid-thought. Someone may start out a sentence with a singular verb with the thought of a singular subject in mind, but then, after the verb has been spoken, realize the subject is actually plural. Most speakers also do not keep in mind the grammar rules that state: Treat most indefinite pronouns as singular (Bedford, 314) , Treat collective nouns as singular unless the meaning is clearly plural (315), and Make the verb agree with its subject, not with a subject complement (317). Sentence structure in real-life dialogue is very often complex and twisted as the act of speaking creates something very much alive and constantly evolving.

As writers keep in mind these ideas for characters who are “native speakers” of the English language, we must realize that these misuses cannot always be applied to characters who are not “native speakers.” Because most other languages have a much more structured grammar than English, people who learn English as a second language often have problems with English which many times are principles that seem to be innately known to native speakers. Section 31 of The Bedford Handbook (413-424) expounds on several problem areas English as a Second Language (ESL) students have when learning English. From this, a fiction writer developing an ESL character can structure dialogue to develop an understanding for the reader of the character’s foreignness – even without the benefit of hearing an accent.

The ultimate goal of fiction writing is to entertain. If a reader cannot buy-in to a piece of fiction due to unbelievably stilted dialogue from otherwise well-rounded characters, the piece has failed to accomplish its goal. Instead of writing dialogue the way things should be said, the writer must write dialogue the way things are said. This is the only way to develop dialogue that not only breaks up the narrative of the piece, but serves to develop characterization and build the story.

Works Cited
Hacker, Diana. The Bedford Handbook. 5th ed. Boston: Bedford Books, 1998.

Pinker, Steven. “Horton Heared a Who!” Time 1 November 1999: 86

Stokes, Penelope J. The Complete Guide to Writing & Selling the Christian Novel. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 1998.

  1. Erica Vetsch permalink
    Wednesday, December 20, 2006 4:03 pm

    In my dialog, I’m having trouble with dialect. I have two different people groups who don’t speak English as their native language and I’m running into trouble keeping them from sounding 1) too stilted and 2) too much the same as each other. Any ideas?


  2. GeorgianaD permalink
    Wednesday, December 20, 2006 9:53 pm

    I never–EVER–remember the difference between lay and lie. I have a lot to learn about dialogue, so I guess I can keep putting my craft books to good use, and reading your blog 🙂


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