Fear in Writing: To write or not to write (correctly)

Today in Literary History

Today in Literary History...December 14, 1907: Rudyard Kipling receives the Nobel prize for literature, the first English-language writer to do so.ud

Monday, September 27, 2010

To write or not to write (correctly)

I read a book last week that was written in perfect grammatical style.  I mean, every preposition was in place, every subject tense matched every verb tense.  Crystal would be proud!

But as I read it, I wondered several times if this was appropriate.  I mean, who really speaks this perfectly?  (Beside Crystal, I mean, and me, according to my husband.)  And if you don't speak this well, do you want to read immaculate grammar?

Statue at the Uffizi in Florence.
 Think back to the early works.  They were mostly written by the Church and they were all inaccessible.  One of the first works to be written in the vernacular was Dante Alighieri's The Divine Comedy.  (Written in Italian, Dante's work also made this a literary language  Later, when Italy chose an official dialect for their newly unified country (around 1871), the government chose the Florentine dialect--the language of Dante.

I love reading well-written works.  I enjoy and author who knows his proper English and uses it well.  But does it always fit the genre in which you are writing?

That's one part of this post.  The other is what I discovered about the author and the series I was reading last week.  The author is Michael Malone** and, on Wednesday, I finished First Lady.  Let me first say that this was the most wonderfully plotted mystery I have read in a long time.  The twists were truly surprising, often, and appropriate.  The characters were compelling, real, and likable--even when they weren't liked.  Then I began reading another Malone book in the same series (called 'Justin & Cuddy' after the main characters)...Time's Witness is not written in the most perfectly formed English at all!  And it's not because the author couldn't write when he wrote this one.  It's because this one is told from the viewpoint of Cuddy--the educated but country chief of police in the little North Carolina town of Hillston; whereas the first one I read, First Lady, was in the point of view of Justin Savile V--educated son of North Carolina royalty, gentry with poilitical ties.

So the author switches voice based on who is telling the story!  "Of course he does," you say.  BUT, I didn't know about the voices of other books when I read First Lady.  So, is this technique successful?  Knowing the entire picture, I like it and am impressed the author emersed himself so completely in the points of view of his characters.  But what about those who don't know the whole picture?

So...two parts to this one.
One: Does correct grammar fit every genre?  Should you ever sacrifice syntax for characterization?
Two: Does it work if the reader doesn't know?  Is a technique successful if it takes a while for the reader to get it?

*Thank you all for indulging in my self-indulgence last week.  I've truly enjoyed writing the blog and the interaction it brings.  So a little first birthday celebration was in order.  I loved reading all of your HBBlogfest entries, and I hope to participate in more blogfests in the future.  It always gets me writing!
**Malone's 'Justin & Cuddy' series is set in North Carolina and is fantastic!  I highly recommend it to all mystery readers.  Malone is a very talented writer.


  1. I think you're right. I think a person shouldn't talk proper unless they are all from Oxford or Harvard and how is that interesting at all?


  2. Michele - You raise such an interesting question about using language! Here are my thoughts (*rubs hands together in glee because of being a linguist*). For one thing, if you really think about it, there is no such thing as "proper" English (or any other language). Why? Because there are so many varieties of language, each of which is a perfectly legitimate way to express oneself. Dialects are just as valid as standard speech for communication.

    Besides, English has evolved over the years. For example, consider the difference between the Old English in which Beowulf was written and the Middle English in which The Canterbury Tales was written. They are so different from one another that that they are almost unrecognizable as two evolutionary "stops" on the road to what we consider English. So who's to say which was "proper?" They both were at the time...

    Finally, there is the voice of the character to consider. For almost all of us, our language and the way we speak are integral parts of our identity. To change that is to change an identity. So if a character is educated, s/he's probably going to speak that way. If a character is an immigrant, that's how s/he'll speak. If a character is from one or another area of a country, that, too, will be reflected in her or his speech. So why wouldn't there be different voices?

  3. I'm with Margot(especially since she really knows her stuff!) I don't always use perfect English in my books because I don't see Lulu Taylor using some of the stuffier correct forms. I know she should be using whom as the object of a clause, but it's just not something Lulu would SAY.

    It's with some regret, though, that I write Lulu that way...English majors are hard to reform. :)

  4. I'm with Margot as well. I tend to write in first person, so I try to stay within the boundaries of perfect English while sprinkling slang and combining certain words to get the voice of my narrator. It's the narrator of the story that drives my story and I try to stay true to her.

  5. I have absolutely horrid grammar, to the point in which just about every sentence I write is grammatically incorrect (I'd be willing to bet $$ that includes this one). So when I read it takes a noticeably incorrect, or just annoying, use of sentence structure to really catch my eye.

    When I write I go for what gets the point across in the manner I want it read. Sometimes that does mean intentionally messing with a sentence to put a pause, or emphasis, on a word that otherwise wouldn't be.

    So there's my two cents from the movie blogger world :)

  6. The grammar needs to be good, but for dialogue, perfect grammar is just... odd. Very few people speak like that!

  7. I guess the grammatical structure should change based on the character in question, especially if written in first person.
    I think there is a great deal of leeway to express different voices while remaining 'proper'.
    That said writing realistic dialogue is going to suspend many of the rules of grammar if it is going to be at all authentic.

  8. I think the grammar has to fit the character. There are few characters who would have perfect English, unless maybe they were English professors.

  9. I agree with Jane. Characters should resemble real people, and rarely do people use correct English every single second of their lives.

    Interesting post :)

  10. I agree with what everyone says- the words have to fit the character. And if the character does speak textbook English, then however tedious it may sound, you have to use it. But if you have a guy who is unlikey to speak that way using perfect English, the book loses authenticity.

  11. Just let the character speak. If the dialogue is forced it goes out of character and most readers won't continue to suffer through it.
    Rules ae just guides after all.

  12. Clarissa- But it was interesting to find out that the character who was speaking WAS educated on that level. So in the end it fit--I just didn't know it while I was reading the book!

    Margot- I love that you love this post! I must disagree that there is not a proper English. There is definitely an official way sentences go together and words are meant to be used...BUT I love writers who experiment, maybe even make up their own words! I think in the end, it depends on the book, the writer, and the character.

    Elizabeth- This is my struggle, too! I HATE writing "incorrect" English. But you're right, we have to follow our characters' hearts.

    Brenda- The POV definitely plays a part in this question. Interesting that you "sprinkle."

    Univarn- There's a difference between writing for correctness and writing for reading. When I read something, I want to be told where the pauses should be. So adding those accordingly is helpful.

    Alex- Dialogue is a different animal. Good point!

    Al- All accurate. Glad to see you here!

    Jane- Now I feel challenged to write a perfect English speaker!

    Victoria- Again, funny if one DID speak that way! Characters drive everything else, so why not this, too? Or especially this, actually.

    Rayna- Authenticity. Perfect word for the answer to this question!

    Mary- Rules ARE guides, that's right. GUIDES. But break them intelligently.

  13. I read the follow-up book to TRAINSPOTTING by Irvine Welsh, PORNO and I loved it (especially because I love the film TRAINSPOTTING).

    And it is all written as the characters speak - its difficult to get into the swing of it, but once you are reading it properly you feel the voice speaking through the text on the paper!

    Increidble author that Irvine Welsh!