Saturday, 16 May 2009

What Is Grammar For?

Horrible grammar is fine in dialogue if it suits the character who is speaking: but iffy grammar anywhere else is a sure way to get rejected.

Grammar isn't elitist; it isn't a set of rules designed to exclude certain people: it's part of a code (the other parts including punctuation, spelling, logic and rhetoric) which has evolved in order to ensure clear and effective communication. You can object to it all you want, but if you get it wrong your meaning won't be clear. And as writers, isn't communication our aim? Communication of ideas, stories, themes: if we don't communicate effectively, we're stuffed. So, if we don't bother with grammar (or logic, punctuation, spelling and the rest), then we're failing before we begin.


Rod Duncan said...

I remember when my first novel came back from the copy editor, he had corrected grammar in the dialogue.



Nik Perring said...

Couldn't agree more. In fact I think I'd go further and say that as writers it's our job to get the writing bits right; you wouldn't trust a builder who didn't know what his tools were for...


Nik Perring said...

Well, you might trust said builder, but might not trust him to build you a house!

Paul Lamb said...

You taunt me. I understand what you say about bad grammar being a red flag for an editor or agent, but just about any novel I read, whether commercial or literary, is packed with bad grammar. Iris Murdoch never saw a comma splice she didn't like. Philip Roth has no hesitation with sentence fragments. Faulkner? Saramago? In U.S. history, one of the most eloquent speeches ever given was made by the Indian Chief Joseph, and his grasp of grammar was quite shaky. (Some scholarship suggests he never wrote, much less delivered his famous speech, that it was the work of a clever newspaperman.) As Emma Darwin has pointed out several times, there is a difference between a rule and a tool. Departing from grammar can create powerful writing. I've insisted that as creative writers we have the opportunity to evolve the language.

Yes, a tyro who shows a poor grasp of grammar can shoot himself in the foot, but I can't imagine that a good editor will dismiss a work with intentional grammar creativeness.

Or I could be wrong.

Maggie Dana said...

As writers, we must first prove we understand the rules before we break them. In fiction, the odd sentence fragment can be powerful. Overused, it's a major distraction. As for punctuation, it needs to be correct. A missing or misplaced comma can all too easily change the meaning of a sentence, as Lynne Truss so ably showed in Eats Shoots and Leaves.

Sally Zigmond said...

I count myself very lucky in that grammar was an integral part, not only of my English lessons, but other subjects as well. (The science teachers were as hot on the misuse of commas as the English teachers.)

Of course we found it dull and boring, but like the daily chanting of times tables at primary school level, served us well so that before long we could write clear, coherent and non wince-inducing prose without having to think about it.

Alas, we were the last pupils for which grammar was on the curriculum. Or Latin, for that matter. Another boring but useful discipline.

Then came the seventies free-for-all where expression became more important than 'rules.' And of course, this led to a generation of teachers who hadn't a clue who therefore confused and mistaught later generations. And so on and so forth.

Paul. I agree that many writers break the rules but, as Mags said, they break them knowing why they're breaking them and it in no way affects the readability of their fiction. It often enhances it.

Just try reading some of the stuff that's posted on the Internet. Most of it is unreadable simply because the writer either doesn't know the rules or doesn't care. And if something is worth doing, it's worth doing as well as possible. We all make mistakes. I'm sure Jen could point out where I've used the wrong punctuation mark. But there's a difference between the occasional error and not even making an effort. Agents and editors can tell the difference.

I know several writers whose education was poor through no fault of their own but they show they want to improve and are receptive to being corrected. They don't say that because they missed out, that such things are irrelevant. Every writer should care deeply about his or her craft.

I use Picasso as an analogy. His paintings became more and more strange to the average viewer as he experimented with the rules of painting. However, if you study his early work you will see what a superb draughtsman he was. He could paint the socks off any other artist that came before him but used his skill and knowledge to stretch his art. But he never said that the rules didn't matter or could be disregarded at will.

I'm sorry, Jane,. for yet another lengthy comment but if you will keep writing such pertinent posts what do you expect?

Sarah J. MacManus said...

Oh - AMEN!
Yes, they're tools for communicating, they are not an elitist set of rules for sifting the chaff from artistic expression. It does us good to remember, however, that the reason the English language is such a brilliant one is because of its adaptability. It grows and changes and evolves constantly. That's no excuse for bad grammar, but as the language changes, it's okay to be at the forefront of that evolution. And finding that spot with intuition is the difference between being an artist and being a pretentious hack. It's one of those "I'll know it when I see it" things.

Nik Morton said...

I couldn't agree more. Writers should always strive for clarity of understanding and grammar is the tool to help - as is punctuation. Out here in Spain there are a number of free newspapers and their non-use of the apostrophe is really irksome. I haven't the time to do a Lynne Truss, however!
Nik Morton

Jane Smith said...

Paul, I must confess: I have read, and loved, all of Iris Murdoch's books, and didn't even notice her habit of comma-splicing. And I think you're right about Chief Joseph (was that his name?): if he's the bloke who made the speech about us dying from a great loneliness of spirit if the whales become extinct (or something like that: I am far too relaxed right now to go and look it up) then yes, I'm sure he wasn't a real person, let alone a maker of wonderful speeches.

The point is, I think, that when good writers break the rules of grammar they tend to do so consistently, and so build up a coherent and new grammar that is personal to their book, and perfectly comprehensible within the context of their books. Which is a lot different to the work of a writer who doesn't understand the rules of grammar in the first place!

Tania Hershman said...

Jane, you make, as ever, a very interesting point. I was quite shocked when the first comment left when my short story, The White Road, was published on accused me of appalling grammatical skills... when it wasn't me but my character who has a quirky use of language! I am the biggest stickler for punctuation, I go wild with my students over missing commas etc.., because anything that stops the reader short and potentially throws them out of the story must be avoided at all costs. But I am always amazed at writer friends, very intelligent and educated people, who have no clue where to put a comma, an apostrophe. Is it that hard??

PS I love sentence fragments. If done intentionally, they alter the rhythm and the pace so beautifully.

Jane Smith said...

Tania, there are mistakes and there are creative ways with words. I can't imagine anyone criticising your grammar: you have such a way with the rhythm of language. If it happens again, just smile sweetly and refer them to me.

Ah, sentence fragments. I love them. See?

Nicola Slade said...

Sentence fragments... I love 'em but I prefer them with dots...

Having been taught 'proper' grammar at a grammar school, I wince at split infinitives, howl at ignoramuses who don't know how to spell 'all right' and feel pale if some one begins a sentence with 'Due'. (Mind you, I couldn't give a stuff about commas because I know the little buggers sneak up on me and sabotage my work.)

JP_Fife said...

"What Is Grammar For?" Something to do with sucking eggs isn't it?

At school we were continuously told never to begin a sentence with ‘because.’ When asked why the teacher would invariably reply ‘Because you’re not supposed to.’

If you think grammar now is bad wait until those who have grown up with texting get older and start using it more and more in communication.

catdownunder said...

Grammar? My last English teacher had the sad task of trying to teach English grammar to students of journalism as well as secondary school students. You can still tell the difference between the journalists taught by her and those who have done 'journalism' at university.
I know I still split infinitives (and commit all other manner of sins). I do try not to do these things but human grammar is an unfathomable mystery at times!

wealhtheow said...

Hear, hear!

I make my living as a copy editor -- but not of fiction, thank goodness, which absolves me of the need to decide when poor/incorrect/nonstandard grammar is OK: the answer for a scholarly journal is, never. (Unless author is quoting from a work of fiction, poetry or drama that uses such grammar, of course!)

I'm not bothered by the deliberate and thoughtful deployment of nonstandard grammar. If it works, it works. I do it myself when it seems called for. But you do have to know what you're doing; messing around with it is quite different to messing it up.

I worked some time ago with a woman who had just been through a uni Creative Writing degree course and believed very firmly that writers ought not to worry their creative little heads about spelling, punctuation, or grammar: after all, that's what copy editors are for. She enjoyed copy-editing less than she had expected to do: turns out, it's quite difficult to copy-edit the work of people who don't bother about, or genuinely don't know*, the rules of English grammar, punctuation, et al.

*Where I work, a substantial proportion of the texts we copy-edit are written by speakers of English as a second, third, or fourth language. Some have a better grasp of it than others.

Emma Darwin said...

Dialogue is dialogue, but even narrative in creative writing has a voice, and that voice may use non-standard grammar. It drives me nuts when my US copy-editor's otherwise admirable thoroughness leads her to correct things which might not please the loathly Strunk & White, but say what I want to say how I want it said.

The point surely is that when good writers (and I hope I am one) go non-standard they do it in ways which don't compromise the communication, or only in fruitful ways. To do that needs an ear and eye for how other readers will read it, and developing that ear and eye is one of the chief aspects of learning to write.

But I do think we should save our ire and reforming zeal for things which do actually obscure or change meaning, and not waste energy on things which may not be elegant, but are perfectly comprehensible. Besides, as David Crystal (and Winston Churchill) say, there are times when a split infinitive, or a preposition at the end of a sentence, make a better, clearer sentence than studiously avoiding those crimes. Personally, I'd rather fight battles over disinterested/uninterested, alternative/alternate, and may/might, where actual meaning is at stake.

And, dare I say it, you can start a sentence with 'Due', if not 'Due to':

"Due attention was paid to their material needs"

Paul Lamb said...

"loathly Strung & White" = pure gold!

Nicola Slade said...

Good god, a pickier pedant than I am! I did, of course, mean 'Due to...' Emma, you're quite right! Another absolute no-no was the word 'got' which has left me uneasy with 'gotten' which is fine in US English.

I once made the mistake of getting my husband to read something I'd written. He too corrected the grammar (tsk tsk, no verbs in some of the dialogue?) and turned it into a technical report! But he's an engineer and can't help it.

Maggie Dana said...

I'm English but have lived in the State for many years and am still reluctant to use the word 'gotten' in my writing. Of course, 'got' doesn't sound much better, either.

What other Americanisms jar English ears? Since my ears are now multi-lingual and therefore unreliable, I'd be interested to know what Yank terms don't sit well with Brit readers.

Nicola Slade said...

Train station: nope, that's Railway Station. And horseback riding, duh - what other bit of a horse would you ride?

And others that impinge on the grammar rules ie 'different than...' which seems to be OK in the US.
(Damn, I can feel my BP rising so I shall desist forthwith!)

Emma Darwin said...

alternate has won in the US over alternative, which really annoys me because it's a very useful distinction.

There are lots of things which are just two nations divided by a common language, and that I don't mind, though I'm astonished by how many: dual carriageway, dollshouse with no s, no 's' on towards, forwards, backwards, etc. My US copyeditor, quite reasonably, points out that my English narrator may know what's meant by 'a pair of trainers sitting on a window-sill', but my US readers will get quite a different picture! On the other hand, I refuse to swap in 'sneakers', since my narrator wouldn't say it. We settled on gym shoes, which isn't American, but wouldn't be mistaken...

One odd thing is the way that auxiliaries appear and disappear: 'meet' has acquired 'with', but 'sort it' has lost 'out', and so on. But I don't much mind - language changes, sometimes for the worse, sometimes for the better - except that it'll mean my own writing seeming out of date that bit sooner.

Nicola Morgan said...

Sally, you took the words out of my mouth, but then many others did too. There's a huge difference between creatively twisting the rules of grammar for effect (the equivalent of Picasso, whose understanding of eg perspective was superb) and getting stuff wrong accidentally and in a way that creates something ugly, unclear or misleading.

But I had noticed Iris M's comma splicing, too, Paul, and didn't like it one bit.

Grammar is about creating a strong structure for the sentence, in order to make our point/ paint our picture more effectively. Pedantry or sticking doggedly to the past have no part in that. I'm a huge critic of sloppiness or inaccuracy (especially when I find it in my own work) but I try to be effective and stylish rather than pedantic.

After all, if we were going to be pedantic, wouldn't we change Jane's title to "For what is grammar?" Or would you be really pedantic and say that hanging prepositions are style errors, not grammar ones??

Rod H said...

I was taught grammar twice. At school I was taught a number of rules, handed down from on high.
We spent quite a time parsing, an activity I did not find useful.

At university I was taught that grammar is a description of how a language actually works, not a set of rules we are supposed or expected to follow.

It seems to me we understand each other by virtue of shared conventions and departing from those is seldom a good move. How many of us have finished Finnegan's Wake?

JP_Fife said...

Mags, I read the novel 'up a tree in the park at night with a hedgehog,' set in London, some months back and it really jarred with me so much that the author used the word kindergarten instead of nursery that I couldn't finish the book.

Maggie Dana said...

A nursery in the U.S. is a garden center that sells plants and shrubbery. An American nursery school is for children of pre-kindergarten age, i.e, up to the age of 5.

During the copy editing phase of my novel, I had a quite the go-around with my publisher's English copy editor over toilet versus lavatory. I'm a Brit, but live in the US and my book is being published by Macmillan in London (next month, in fact).

Americans use the word 'toilet' to mean a room with a shower, tub, sink, and a loo. It's also referred to as a bathroom, but never a 'lavatory.' My copy editor, however, changed all instances of toilet to lavatory, no matter if the character was English or American.

So I changed them back; she changed them again, and we went round in circles till I rang my editor to insist they remain as toilet, because no American would be using the word lavatory. The only ones I didn't change were those attributed to my English characters, and those were few because mostly they called it the loo.

I've been here for many years, but still stumble over Brit-Yank spellings, pronunciation (I still favoUr English-English), sentence structure, grammar, and punctuation. Well, most of the time.

We are, indeed, two countries divided by a common language.

none said...

Eh, I believe that the "no split infinitives" rule has been abolished; it being in any case a faux rule in English, as it was imported from Latin, where, of course, infinitives cannot be split; I still recall someone trying on me that old "there's no such word as 'can't' shtitch; I just looked them in the eye and said, "Can not, then"; I have no patience with fools.

Daniel Blythe said...

The Americanisms I loathe the most are "gotten" - especially as younger British people seem to be using it with no sense of irony - and "24/7", which is just HIDEOUS. I remember cringing the first time I heard it, and my skin crawls to this day at the expression.

Split infinitives - I have learned to gradually become relaxed about them. :) Sometimes people put their sentences through all kinds of torture to avoid them and they can just sound worse than if they had done a nice, clean split.

Paul Lamb said...

"to boldly go where no man has gone before!" is perhaps the most famous split infinitive on the planet.

In parts of Africa, the loo is called the choo (rhymes with show). I used that word in a short story without explaining exactly what it was (though the reader could figure it out). That story was recently published.

I guess my "objections" to grammar are two-fold:

As creative writers have have the privilege to break the rules if it suits our purposes. Any "automatic" insistence on adherence to the grammar rules seems to me to be coming from a timid writer.
The other objection I have is that so many people insist on good grammar (or Strunk & White, or the use or non-use of the serial comma, or only using Courier typeface, and so on) yet cannot say exactly why. They just seem to be parroting a rule simply because they were told it was a hidebound rule.

Anonymous said...

Wy is gramer such a big deel? I thinck its overradet, personily.

Dan Holloway said...

I'm a grammar-holic but I wonder sometimes where grammar ends and pedantry begins (I remember going NUTS when a new version of Foweler claimed "different to" was acceptable - NO IT's NOT).

I work as an administrator, and get deeply upset by my so-called elders and betters. I remember writing a letter for my senior boss to sign once about a student who'd been made several college offers. The letter came back, signed (i.e. too late to change) with MY contact details at the bottom (i.e. everyone assumes the eroors are down to "the dumb secretary", namely, me), the only amendment being to chaneg the correct "A number of colleges has made this student an offer" to the frankly illiterate "a number of colleges have".

The thing is, I can sort of see their point (not in the context of an official letter, but in the context of a novel). "Have" is wrong but "sounds" right, and I think that's the question I want to ask people: we all accept (I assume we do, anyway) that in poetry we can do what we want, provided the sound gets across (or IS) the intention. But some "voices" of novelists also feed on this lyrical, lilting (yes, that's a deliberate reference to Nabokov) style where teh flow of the sentence means more than correctness. So, when the all-important "voice" is at stake, where does grammar end and pedantry begin? Or do we really fall back on that rather sad rule that (NOT which) seems to predominate in art - those who've already made automatically get the benefit of the doubt, whilst those who haven't get the assumption of dimwittery? Or is the answer that if the voice is THAT good, it doesn't matter (much more egalitarian).

Or, am I missing the point? Are we talking about much more basicer errers like wot if I woz to use bad commers?

Richie D said...

Dan: I realise this is possible fighting talk but I can't accept that "A number of colleges has accepted" is correct English.

Surely the phrase "A number of. . ." functions as a determiner in the same way as "Many" -- so the sentence would be correct as "A number of colleges have. . . "

(My word verification text is "Somme" so this could be an omen!)

none said...

The clue is in the "A". If the noun is singular then the verb must be singular; subject and verb must agree in number.

Emma Darwin said...

Fowler says, "a number of + plural noun" normally governs a plural verb in both BrE and AmE... By contrast, "the number of + plural noun" normally governs a singular verb...'

I must say, I'd agree. 'A number of' is surely a way of saying it might be fifteen, or it might be five thousand, but it certainly doesn't include the possibility that it was one.

Though if you don't like Fowler... I agree that 'different than' and 'different to' are both etymologically incorrect - different is from de+ferro - to carry away. But it's not ambiguous, and it has, like it or not, happened. Language changes...

Dan Holloway said...

Richie, I don't think I ever disagree with you on matters literary, so I almost certainly bow to your superior doodahs on this. My approach has always been based on what my Latin teacher used to say on the subject of agreement (nouns and adjectives, not debating, although she was pretty hot on Cicero), whcih is that it's all about the answer to the question "how many"? If the answer to "how many colleges?" (reminds me of the wonderful Armstrong and Miller "how many hats?" sketch is "several" then the adjective is plural (but the qualifier should have been several - the word, after all, does exist, and would not do so were "a number" able always to be substituted), but in this case the answer is "a number". So in this case I think the question isn't that my "has" should have been replaced with "have" but that my "a number" could have been placed with "several", although that would have lost the rhetorical effect.

That said, the main point I wanted to make was about whether this kind of grammatical exchange has any place in fiction. As Emma says, we move on. What I really wanted was to ask the question about grammar and voice. I assume no one would say Kelman, for example, should have jolly well checked his script for typos better, or that DBC Pierre should have been introduced to Fowler at an early age. So at what point does it become OK for someone to disobey the rules of grammar for the sake of the feel, or voice, of their work? And is there an inherent discrimination against new writers in the way I tend to feel there was against non CSM/Goldsmith's (sorry, Emma) artists in the 90s?

Richie D said...

Buffysquirrel: So if I said, "A great many colleges" I should use "has"? That can't be right.

Dan: I can't believe you still haven't won the "Nicest person on t'internet" award!

Anyway, I'm quite prepared to be wrong on matters of grammar and in no way think I'm an expert.

However, I do think it's important for writers to try and get it right as much as possible!

I admit there comes a point when it gets pedantic, but I'm sure artists probably spend hours debating the merits of similar shades of blue. For the lay person it may not make much sense, but for the professional these details matter.

Dan Holloway said...

"I admit there comes a point when it gets pedantic, but I'm sure artists probably spend hours debating the merits of similar shades of blue"

Whereas, as a former philosopher I spend much of my time discussing missing shades of blue...

Haven't seen you around much at t'other places recently - how's it all going?

Richie D said...

Dan: I'm currently working on my second novel--for which you were kind enough to provide extremely helpful research tips.

I still drop in at Lobotomy but I don't have as much time available. My presence is sorely lacked on the message boards, I'm sure!

none said...

"Number" is a noun. It is the subject of the sentence. As "A number" is singular, so is the verb.

In "A great many colleges", "colleges" is a noun, whereas "great" is an adjective and "many" is an adjectival noun (singular, hence the A) modifying the noun.

As "colleges" is a plural noun, the verb is also plural.

Or something like that. Usually I just go by instinct.

Richie D said...

Buffy: But "number" is not the subject of "A number of colleges has made this student an offer"!!!

And "many" is not an adjectival noun in this context!!!!

"A number of" is a quantifier!

"A great many" is a quantifier too, damn it!!!

The noun is "colleges". The subject of the sentence is the quantifier and the noun!!!! A NOUN PHRASE!!!!!

We use a plural verb when we modify a countable noun with a quantifier indicating more than one!!!!!!!!


Anyway, It's not that I'm bothered about this sort of thing. I just usually wing it. I'm usually out doing stuff like, having fun and partying.

David Dittell said...


I think you get most to the point when you talk about being clear and effective -- grammar exists to remove confusions of meaning and to better express your point. This doesn't mean use the simplest wording possible; complex sentences inherently carry new levels of meaning before you even consider the content.

You can break the rules of grammar for meaningful purposes (such as your dialogue example), or if the rule gets in the way of actually conveying your point or draws unwanted attention to itself.

The most important part isn't having "good" grammar, but considering grammar as a key element in your writing and actually caring.