6 Answers Fiction Writers Have for the Grammar Police

by Kassandra Lamb

made at imgflip.com

One of the frustrations of being a fiction writer is the occasional need to defend ourselves when accosted by the Grammar Police.

Now, that’s not to say that we don’t sometimes become the Grammar Police ourselves. Most of us have had a lot of training in the use of language, including proper grammar. So we grind our teeth when we see flat-out errors (apostrophes in places they don’t belong is one of my pet peeves).

But often our own grammatical “mistakes” really aren’t mistakes at all.

Certainly we writers do sometimes make boo-boos in our writing. Anytime one is feverishly typing — trying to get the words down before the muse snatches them away again — there is bound to be an occasional “your” slipping in where we meant “you’re.” (That’s why it’s so important for writers to get fresh eyes to proofread their final work.)

But many of the things the Grammar Police see as horrific errors are more examples of literary license and/or the evolution of language.

Here are some examples of what I’m talking about:

1.  Sentence fragments are okay in fiction. Honest! They are. For emphasis. They should be used sparingly, but it really is okay to leave out the subject, or even the subject and the verb, or some other component of a grammatically-correct sentence, when writing fiction.

2.  Dialogue is about how people really talk, not what is grammatically correct.

Nothing will bring out the grammar police reaction in me faster than someone using “that” to refer to a person.

made at imgflip.com

made at imgflip.com

~ She’s the one that came to the door.

No, no, no! 

~ She’s the one who came to the door.

However, if you put quotes around that first sentence, indicating that it’s dialogue, it is now okay. Because that’s how people talk today, in America at least.

Likewise, “a couple of days ago” is grammatically correct. But when speaking, someone is more likely to say, “A couple days ago.”

3.  Dropping some “correct” words for the sake of flow.  Flow is important in fiction. The smoother the flow of words, the more the reader forgets that s/he is reading and becomes immersed in the story.

One of the things writers are advised to do is read the story out loud. When you see how easily (or not) the words flow off the tongue, you have a better sense of how easily they will flow through the reader’s mind.

For example, when a dependent clause acts as a modifier of a noun, it technically should begin with “that.” But often times, the “that” can be dropped and the sentence still means the same thing, but it flows a bit smoother.

~  It was the blanket that the toddler always carried around with her.

~  It was the blanket the toddler always carried around with her.

4.  Mixing verb tenses. Fiction is most often written in past tense.

~  She walked to the bench and picked up the book.

We read that as something that is happening in the present in the story. So if a writer needs to talk about something that happened in the character’s past–even a few minutes before–the past perfect tense is required.

~  It was the book she had dropped in a puddle earlier.

This is fine if it’s just a sentence or two, but if we’re writing whole paragraphs in the past perfect tense, all the “hads” start to get awkward. And especially if the verb going with the had is “to have.”

~  She had had enough.

That looks really, really weird. So again, in the interest of flow and helping the reader forget s/he is reading, the “hads” are often dropped in the middle of the paragraph and we revert to simple past tense. Or the “had” may be replaced with a contraction.

What had he been thinking? The case was poison from the get go. His partner warned him. She’d pointed out that they didn’t need the money that badly. But he’d gone ahead and told the client yes. And now they were paying the price.

If you don’t think that’s smoother, here’s the technically correct version:

What had he been thinking? The case had been poison from the get go. His partner had warned him. She had pointed out that they hadn’t needed the money that badly. But he had gone ahead and had told the client yes. And now they were paying the price.

Which brings us to…

5.  Contractions are okay in narration. When I was in school, contractions were only okay in dialogue. In narration, they were a no-no.

But today, writers are trying to pull the reader into the point-of-view character’s perspective as much as possible. So contractions are not only helpful for flow, but they make the reader feel more like s/he is inside the POV character’s head, experiencing what they are thinking, observing, doing, etc. right along with them.

6.  Language evolves.  Like it or not, this is reality.

If you don’t believe me, try asking for directions using Chaucer’s English and see what happens.

Blake's Canterbury Pilgrims

William Blake’s The Canterbury Pilgrims, 1808 (public domain)

Did you notice in the 2nd paragraph in number 5 above, I refer to a single POV character, and then say: experiencing what they are thinking, observing, doing, etc. right along with them?

Maybe you did, but I’m betting you didn’t. Because it is becoming more and more acceptable to use “they” as the pronoun for a singular person whose gender is unknown.

Such changes in language usually start in speech. Then, as the new usage becomes more acceptable, it eventually becomes the norm in written language as well.

What about you? What grammar mistakes make you grind your teeth? How do you feel about language evolving?

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological suspense series, set in her native Maryland, and a new series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida.

We blog here at misterio press once (sometimes twice) a week, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

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29 thoughts on “6 Answers Fiction Writers Have for the Grammar Police

  1. Barbara Taub

    What a fabulous post. It should be required reading for every new writer.

    Of course, you have to know the rules in order to break them “correctly”! As a book reviewer, I’m saddened by the writers who can’t even manage the grammar in their review requests, let alone in their writing. The sad fact is that they DON’T know the rules they are breaking, and instead of gaining power through their knowledge and control of language, they damage the story they’re trying to tell.

    Reply
    1. Kassandra Lamb

      Well put, Barb! The first time I heard that advice — to learn the rules well so I knew when and how to break them — I laughed out loud. But it’s one of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever received.

      I love that line: “…gaining power through their knowledge and control of language…” Language is powerful and it should be used with respect.

      Reply
  2. Terry Tyler

    Agree with all this, and with what Barb said about know what the rules are before you break them. Those who moan about ‘the grammar police’ tend to be those who don’t, I find (generally, I mean, not you!!!) Like you, I make ludicrous mistakes when I’m typing 3000 words a day, plus blog posts and Twitter. Every time anyone eats a pudding in my books, they’re in fact eating a large expanse of sand… (dessert/desert!), and I’ve been known to make the most ludicrous errors, like site and sight!

    One of the most irritating things I’ve seen lately is a proofreader looking for work who writes blog posts telling us all the difference between site and sight, pallet and palate, etc. Patronising and pointless – we don’t make these mistakes because we don’t know the difference….!!!

    Anything goes in dialogue – if it’s how someone speaks, it how they speak. I’ve had to explain bits of southern English dialect to my northern English husband, when he reads my books, many times! Alas, some debut novelists don’t understand this, and think that everything has to be grammatically correct. To be honest, I think if you don’t get all the stuff in this post automatically, you perhaps shouldn’t be writing novels anyway. But that’s just me. 😉

    Reply
    1. Kassandra Lamb Post author

      Laughing over dessert/desert. I’ve been known to feed my characters sand as well. 😀

      I know the use of dialect in fiction writing is something often debated, but I am definitely of the school of thought that says “show” how people really talk. I try to make it a light touch, so the dialect isn’t distracting or hard to read, but I want my dialogue to be realistic.

      My husband is my final proofreader and he is an ESL teacher (that’s English as a second language — God save me!) I laugh sometimes over the stuff he marks as wrong. But bless him, he often puts a question mark next to it. He does sort of get it that fiction and a student’s academic paper are not necessarily the same thing.

      Reply
  3. Vinnie Hansen

    A really good post. I’m still adjusting to the last evolution–“they” to refer to a singular subject–but I know it’s nosing into acceptability.

    If it’s any consolation to readers, I taught English for 27 years and still have to look things up, and yes, make plenty of mistakes. 🙂

    Reply
    1. Kassandra Lamb

      Evolution is definitely hard to adjust to, Vinnie. The one that drives me nuts is “as few commas as possible.” Commas are needed so the reader’s brain knows to pause and process.

      Reply
  4. K.B. Owen

    Great post! I use fragments in my novel-writing all the time, and I’ve long since stopped apologizing for it. There are simply places where it is called for. Sometimes for emphasis. (See what I did there? LOL).

    There are also places where I have a less-educated character who speaks more colloquially, shall we say. I do use it sparingly, so it doesn’t end up sounding like Pig Latin.

    Reply
    1. Kassandra Lamb Post author

      LOL Yes, the sentence fragment thing has become second nature for me.

      And I almost included something about colloquial dialect. I use it sparingly too, but it definitely lends a note of realism.

      Reply
  5. Ann Bridges

    This is especially true when our characters are from another culture. I took an East Indian software engineer and made all his dialog without contractions as a way to emulate a British accent–and it worked (or so my readers tell me)!

    The same might be true for the hated “repetitive” words. As we write more dialog and less narrative, word repetition is part of people’s speech. Having to reach for the thesaurus when the character is less-educated is a crazy concept!

    Reply
    1. Kassandra Lamb Post author

      Yes, accents are definitely hard to “show” in dialogue.

      And a very good point about word repetition, Ann. That is one of my pet peeves, when a word is used repeatedly. But I hardly notice it in dialogue, since there I’m expecting more natural speech patterns.

      And of course we have to be consistent with a speaker’s educational level, among other things.
      In my new series, the protagonist is not of my generation. I’m blessed to have my daughter-in-law as a beta reader. She advises me on whether it’s the way a young person would say something.

      Reply
  6. Linda Lee Williams

    I don’t mind “evolving language,” but it’s no excuse for poor writing. I wince when I read “between you and I” instead of between “you and me.” It grates on me when characters are “laying around” rather than “lying around.” However, lie/lay are so misused that I imagine the distinction will vanish entirely. Hardly anyone uses “whom” anymore, either. The word is considered out of date!

    Writers should have a working knowledge of the English language. We should also be allowed to take creative license when we deem it appropriate. Unless a book is laden with errors, I can overlook a few boo-boos or typos. After all, I’m not perfect. Why should I expect other authors to be?

    Enlightening post, Kassandra. Pinned & shared. 🙂

    Reply
    1. Kassandra Lamb Post author

      Thanks so much for sharing it, Linda!

      It’s hard to know when to accept evolution and when to say, “No, that’s just wrong!” (Like “between you and I”…shudder)

      I do miss “whom.”

      Reply
  7. Mae Clair

    Loved this post! So spot on on so many aspects. Like Vinnie I’m still trying to adjust to the use of “they” for a singular subject and it still throws up a red flag for me, but I see it becoming more common. I’m especially fine with fragments and think they can be used to punch up action and suspense. If anything, I have a pet peeve for dialogue that comes across stilted. That’s usually because a writer has forgotten that contractions are not only okay, but are the norm in speech. 🙂

    Reply
  8. Marcia Meara

    This is a terrific post, Kass, and I agree with every topic you mention. Language does evolve, and today’s readers are not your grandmother’s readers. 🙂 They come at reading from a very different perspective, and while I believe many of them might need a better understanding of basic grammar, they are the ones buying the books. If an author’s book doesn’t sound right to their “ears,” they may not be back to buy more.

    A pet peeve of mine? Writers using one word when they clearly means another. A recent example: inchoately used instead of incoherently. It brought me to a full stop, because it made no sense in the context of the sentence. I love for writers to stretch their vocabularies (and mine), but I think they need to be careful they are doing so correctly.

    Errors like that ought to be picked up in editing. I got caught using diffuse when I really meant defuse. Eeep. Fixed it straight away, and I’ll never make that particular mistake again. (It was especially embarrassing, because I actually do know the difference.)

    Reply
    1. Ann Bridges

      Unfortunately, with the evolution of auto-correct, sometimes the software so helpfully makes the substitution for us, and it slips by us. Email errors are now common–can Word Docs be far behind?

      Reply
    2. Kassandra Lamb

      Glad you liked the post, Marcia. And I have definitely had my embarrassing moments re: using the wrong word. I got an email from a reader pointing out that I had used “peaked” instead of “piqued” in the sentence “This peaked her interest.” Just let me go over here and dig a hole and climb in.

      And this was in a book that had been read by at least ten people (besides myself, multiple times!). Part of the problem with proofreading is that all too often we read what we expect to be there, not what really is there.

      Reply
    1. Marcia Meara

      Oh, I agree. Auto-correct can be a curse instead of a blessing. And don’t even get me started on trying to dictate, especially texts. My iPhone does NOT understand my southern accent! But you’re right that sometimes, when you finally see the mistake, you have to wonder if YOU did it or the Auto-correct was messing with you again.

      Reply
  9. STEVIE TURNER

    No locals in Suffolk, U.K ever say ‘who’ or ‘has’ when referring to a person – it is always ‘that’ and ‘have’! For example – “Go and ask the man over there the time, that have a watch on.” It took me years to get used to it!

    Reply
    1. Kassandra Lamb Post author

      I guess that did take some getting used to! I’ve adjusted to the “that” for people in speech, but it still jumps off the page at me in writing. Don’t know if I could get used to “have” though. But I suppose I would in time. We humans are very adaptable!

      Reply
  10. Tina Frisco

    Woo-hoo! Glad this is in print SOMEwhere! To attract present-day readers, we need to use present-day language. And we need editors who not only understand this, but also allow it. Thank you for this fabulous post, Kassandra. Much appreciated ?

    Reply
    1. Kassandra Lamb Post author

      Glad to be of service, Tina! 🙂 And good point. Most avid readers are quite aware of how the language has changed, and they notice when things sound stilted.

      Reply
  11. Virginia Anderson

    This is a subject near and dear to my heart. On my blog I’ve done a whole series on “How Much Grammar Do You Need?”, looking at rules that are only sort of rules, depending on whom (yes, I still use it in formal writing) you’re writing for. Joseph Williams, author of “Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace,” wrote an entertaining scholarly article many years ago (“The Phenomenology of Error”) in which he pointed out that illustrious writers and critics broke rules (like “which” versus “that”) in the very process of prescribing them. Martha Kolln’s “Rhetorical Grammar” is wonderful for showing how breaking certain “rules” provides you with many new tools for creating effects through your prose.
    I DO know the rules (misplaced apostrophes drive me nuts), but rules aren’t created equal. I know when to use “whom” versus “who.” Do I always follow the prescription? No. Can I start a sentence with “And” or “But”? You bet I can.
    The value in “knowing” the rules is that you can make conscious, strategic choices without panic attacks. But reading widely and listening receptively are your best learning strategies, IMHO.

    Reply
    1. Kassandra Lamb Post author

      All well said, Virginia! And I had thought about using “ands” and “buts” to begin sentences as another example of evolving language. 😉

      Reply
  12. Maricel Jimenez

    Great post Kassandra! I’m usually quite grammar obsessed, but indeed, dialogue just doesn’t sound right if it’s too correct. Neither do interior thoughts. And typos… heck, I make them even when writing by hand. My brain goes too fast; way faster than my fingers, so sometimes I merge words. For example “she was” becomes “shas” (not kidding here!). I’ve also been known to send characters on quests across sugar hills instead of sand and that is why proofreaders who have never read the work are essential.

    Reply
    1. Kassandra Lamb Post author

      Glad you liked it, Maricel! And yes writing/typing too fast is definitely responsible for a lot of my typos. One time I must have had my fingers on the wrong keys. A word came out as pure jibberish — something like “stjfrmkewd” — and I went right past it during not one but two rewrites (reading what was supposed to be there because it did start with “st”) and I sent it out to beta readers that way. I’ve not yet lived that one down.

      Reply

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