by Kassandra Lamb
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.
~ 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.
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.
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