There’s an old saying, which varies in the exact wording: “You have to know the rules of grammar down cold to break them to good effect.”
In these days of the Internet and digital publishing, we’ve all seen an abundance of examples of people getting basic grammatical rules wrong and many of us have wondered about the quality of basic education in schools. The use of “your” where “you’re” is appropriate is a wide-spread error that grammar nazis like myself would like to see eradicated. Incorrect usage of there/their/they’re is another popular blunder along with to/too.
But what if a writer’s grammar is normally perfect and variations are instituted for the purpose of style?
First of all, let me state categorically that ‘style’ is NOT an excuse for poor grammar. The writer who chooses to use a variance for effect will only be effective if they are very much aware of the proper rules that an English teacher would insist on if the piece of writing were handed in as an assignment. To be properly effective, a variation has to be couched within otherwise pristine prose to differentiate ‘style’ from sloppy grammar.
Charles Dickens comes to mind as someone who used punctuation in particular in a unique way to define his own style. If one reads a variety of works from the renowned author, there can be no doubt as to his knowledge of proper use of all the elements of good English. However, there are times when he will go off on a tangent of ‘style’, which is done so well that it comes across as his unique ‘voice’.
I read The Cricket on the Hearth last Christmas and was particularly struck by the punctuation anomalies that would never have passed unmarked under the red pen of the average English teacher. In some of his books, Mr. Dickens uses an excess of commas, particularly in dialogue, to get across the feel of a character’s speech pattern. The Pickwick Papers is one good example, but there are others. Often a specific character will bring out this sort of run-on speech to the exclusion of other characters in a story. It’s effective, and it’s done well.
Occasionally a grammatical rule can become inconvenient to a writer’s narrative. Again, this is most often in dialogue. Occasionally amateur reviewers on the Internet will take it upon themselves to try to ‘correct’ a writer’s grammatical ‘mistakes’ in their reviews of a published work, thereby clearly demonstrating why their own work always sounds like the high school essay that will get the teacher’s full approval, but no sales. It is most often in dialogue that these young would-be editors miss the point. Characters do not always speak in perfect grammar. The Star Wars character, Yoda, for example, would not be properly alien if he spoke in perfect English. His creator gave him a specific style of speaking that has become well-known as a defining aspect of that character.
To take an example of variation for the sake of style from m y own writing, one rule I’ve broken quite intentionally within my Goblin series books is a simple, but inconvenient punctuation standard. When writing dialogue that contains a proper name, a comma is normally placed before the name: “But what shall we do, Haghuf?” Technically, the comma in this instance is not supposed to indicate a pause in speech. Technically it is just a basic rule of punctuation in the English language. In practice, the mind instigates a pause where a comma is seen. With the comma placed properly, it sounds like the conversation is taking place in a very civilised fashion over a cup of tea. In actuality, the line occurs in a situation of immediate crisis and the urgency is expressed by the failure of the speaker to allow even that miniscule pause as his words spill forth: “But what shall we do Haghuf? I came to seek your wisdom.”
As this line is delivered, the humans are attacking and defences are being put into place to protect the goblins from vehement genocide. Walls of the caverns are being moved; the ‘diggers’ (mole-like goblins with massive claws) are filling in passageways and digging new ones. There is no cup of tea, no calm conversation. There is a hurried plea for advice.
When writing about aliens or fantasy creatures, some anomalies are required to set them apart from ordinary people. Otherwise a story comes out sounding like a story about people you’ll meet at the supermarket rather than something that is different from familiar everyday society. The key word there is ‘different’. Yoda is ‘different’ from the humans in the Star Wars universe who speak in perfect grammatical sentences. Han Solo, also from Star Wars, could easily have got away with more slang and imperfect speech actually, as his role was one of a smuggler and ne’er-do-well.
This brings me to the subject of writing in dialect. Dialect will not have perfect rules of grammar and spelling. However, the writer must be careful to make the intended words understandable. Less is more when writing dialect. Again, a good example comes from Charles Dickens in his novel, Oliver Twist. When we meet the denizens of the underworld that include Jack Dawkins, better known as the Artful Dodger, and Fagin, who runs a gang of child pick-pockets, we cannot expect their speech to be perfect. Again, Dickens does it well. Fagin is obviously more educated than many of the boys who serve his needs and this is reflected in varying speech patterns.
I was pleased to see an effective use of these variations depicted in one of the modern sequels that have been written about the character, the Artful Dodger. Charlton Daines, in his novel Jack Dawkins, demonstrates extremely well how the differences in speech that mark a citizen of London in one class or another are immediately apparent to the listener. He also exhibits the opportunities that can be generated through learning to vary one’s speech patterns when dealing with one group or another within the world of Dickensian London. The patois or ‘cant’ used to fit in with the lower classes is a far cry from the perfect sentence structure and pronunciation that allows the character to move amongst the richer classes without suspicion of the thief’s true nature.
One more example I will cite is a simple variation in spelling of some words from one country to another. The reader may have noted that I use English spelling rather than American, as I live in England. It has been said on forums that this slight variation often results in the text on screen being read with an accent, as many American users of the Internet have learned to recognise the indicators of English-English as opposed to American-English, although Canadians and Australians tend to lean towards English spelling as well.
The rejected stacks from the slush piles of major publishers are filled with, let’s be honest, about ninety-five percent manuscripts from people who could benefit from memorising The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. The other five percent are manuscripts where the author has mastered all the grammatical rules contained within that well-respected tome of good English. The prose is perfect, but the story lacks something. Often this is the real element of style; the ability to step outside of the rules on occasion to break the rules to good effect.
While not every prominent author from the Classics shelf could be accused of shattering the conventions of exacting punctuation for the sake of style, when someone mentions great literature, the first name to come to mind is most often Dickens. His characters are bigger than life and leave a lasting impression. His narrative reflects their unique grammar in many of his stories and novels, giving Dickens a distinctive ‘voice’ that has gained him an exceptional place in the history of great literature.
If a writer chooses to break some of the rules, first they must know those rules well. A good writer breaks them selectively, perhaps consistently and most importantly, only to achieve a desired effect. This is, perhaps, the most important rule of style.
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11 thoughts on “Style and the Rules of Grammar by Jaq D Hawkins”
Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind also provides excellent examples of subtle changes in usage that define dialogue and develop characters. The way she writes Rhett Butler’s speech, the reader can tell that he’s among the best-educated characters, and is the most cultured of them all, because he communicates that culture effortlessly without using dialect. Uncle Henry Hamilton, a lawyer, runs a close second to Rhett. Ashley Wilkes also has a university education, but his speech is always stuffy, even when impassioned, and Dr. Mead, although presumably highly educated, is consistently pompous, even when speaking privately to his wife. Gerald and Ellen O’Hara, their mature adult neighbors in the Fontaine and Tarleton families, Aunt Pittypat Hamilton, Scarlett, Stuart and Brent Tarleton, Will Benteen, the house servants, and the field workers all express themselves in individually unique styles of speech that build on their Irish, Creole French, Southern Artistocracy, poorly-educated or uneducated backgrounds (as evidenced by their dialects). Melanie Hamilton is well-educated, and her speech always shows it, but on a couple of occasions Mitchell seems to have had a little technical trouble with maintaining continuity in the way Melanie thinks and expresses herself.
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Dialect isn’t the only place where less is more. =) Wonderful post, thoughtful details. The requisite mastery of rules before license to break them applies in all the arts – in music composition, notably.
Sin and Syntax, a must-read:
“To break the rules consciously or go around them on purpose is a pleasure multiplied: willful violation, defiance, or deviation with a wicked glint in the eye. The sound, the taste, the thrill of language, its rhythms and edges and riffs…”
This is from the Grammar Mafia:
Well said! I think the late Brian Jacques did a great job of voice and style. The characters of Redwall have a variety of dialects. The bad guys are usually stupid, except for the leader, so they speak 75% like vermin, and the leader is smarter, yet doesn’t have perfect English, because, he is, after all, vermin. 🙂 The inhabitants of Redwall Abbey speak with no dialect, but the otters have a slight dialect, because they are rough an’ tough an’ big an’ they are the protectors of the Abby, led by the Skipper o’ Otters.
So, what a good, well-written post ya have there, my friend. 🙂
“If a writer chooses to break some of the rules, first they must know those rules well. A good writer breaks them selectively, perhaps consistently and most importantly, only to achieve a desired effect. This is, perhaps, the most important rule of style.”
Excellent! And good post, too. 🙂
Reblogged this on Lifein64SquareFeet.com – A Writer's Survival Blog and commented:
Loved this blog.
I agree with most everything said here. I am Ye Olde Grammarian, after all, although I haven’t done a blog post in that series for quite a while! The one thing I don’t agree with is the “But what shall we do, Haghuf?” comma bit. I always use the comma; in fact it’s one of my pet peeves when people don’t use it. And I’ve noticed that hardly anybody does use it these days. To me, when I read that sentence without the comma, it doesn’t improve the flow – it simply makes me stop and think, “Aw, the idiot doesn’t know enough to put a comma there!” But that’s just my own quirk, I guess.
Also, I was always taught to put a comma in salutations like “Hi, John.” I notice everybody these days writes “Hi John.” Same in dialogue: “He came through the door and said, ‘Hi, John.'”
Not that I don’t respect opinions, and earlier learning. I would like to ask “why” is that comma in those two places such a peeve?
As is said the in the body, that comma automatically inserts a pause, regardless of the situation alluded to in surrounding text. On a personal note, I would prefer people to miss things like commas if they are trying to get things like a serious situation, or fasted paced event, thantotypelikethisasitleavesyounotimetoreallythinkaboutwhatishappening.
Well, I hope nobody would consider typing like that last line! LOL
Just lay the comma use to a personal preference if you like. Until this last couple of years of my life, I can’t recall ever seeing “Hi, John” punctuated any other way.
I agree with you about the Haghuf sentence. In hurried speech, a comma may not indicate much of a pause, but it does indicate a change of pitch in the voice of the speaker. Leaving out the comma would necessitate italicizing or capitalizing “do” to communicate that emphasis, but using the comma is better.
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