Category Archives: Grammar

Wrestling with proper grammar

You’re writing a novel –
must the grammar be correct?

The answer is both ‘yes’ and ‘no’.

There are two main types of writing in most novels: the narrative and the dialogue.

Dialogue completely throws out all the rules – it is as the characters say it. And everyone knows when we speak most of us tend to ignore grammar. Even an upper class character will shorten or combine words (‘we’re off ‘) or use colloquialisms like (ol’ blighty).

Did you realise, however, that action too can ignore the rules of grammar in order to emphasise or create a certain feel to the narrative.  Short clipped sentences, or even clauses left hanging, convey urgency, speed or fear.

Examples

  • Heart beating fast, he sprints along the pier.
  • Heart beating. Fast he sprints. Along the pier.

The totally ‘incorrect’ punctuation of the second sentence conveys speed and a greater sense of fear.

You can also convey the tenor of a piece of writing by varying the sentence length or structure. Shorter sentences (as above) speed up the narrative and longer ones draw out the mood of the writing. Variety in length of sentence keeps the reader from being bored by the writing. A continuous smish-smash of short sentences could so easily descend into shopping list writing.

Starting with conjunctions

A conjunction is a JOINING word that links two sentences or ideas together. Take a read of these opening words of the Katherine Mansfield 1917 short story, A Dill Pickle:

“And then, after six years, she saw him again. He was seated at one of those little bamboo tables decorated with a Japanese vase of paper daffodils. There was a tall plate of fruit in front of him, and very carefully, in a way she recognized immediately as his “special” way, he was peeling an orange.”

You will note that Mansfield (above) writes sentences that concentrate on details, drawing us in to the promise of a slow un-peeling of the story. But there’s more: opening a paragraph with a conjunction? What? I’m sure this was a ‘no, no’ according to my English teachers.

 Yet, if you look at Mansfield’s paragraph you can easily see that she has linked two ideas together, only we don’t know the first idea. It is hidden from our view and we only know that in the past there was a relationship between the two characters of the short story. A truly masterful use of a conjunction.

Ignoring grammar – the limitations

We’ve looked at a couple of examples (above) where the use of grammar, or disregard of proper grammar, can add to the story.  There are, however, some cautions of which we writers need to be aware.

  • Accidental misuse of grammar or wrong spelling. This will make our stories look simply unprofessional. Incorrect spelling will flick the reader out of the story. If you lose the reader because of an obvious misspelling, then you do yourself a disservice. Proof reading is imperative. Of course, English spelling and American spelling of words can differ, but if the spelling is consistent throughout, readers from either continent will make allowances.
  • Writing narrative that feels clumsy or confuses. If the reader has to re-read a passage in order to make sense of it, they’ll soon give up and put your story down. The best way to check this is to read your story aloud. If you stumble over some sentence construction then you can be sure readers will have the same issue
  • Creating dialogue without making it clear who is speaking. It is important that the reader understands who is speaking in the dialogue by at least adding an occasional attribution – the ‘he said/she said’ at the end of the lines of dialogue. You don’t have to attribute dialogue for every sentence, especially if your characters have contrasting ways of speaking. Again, read your dialogue aloud without adding your own emphasis or voice expression. Remember that the readers does not have the benefit of that audible clue when they pick up your novel or short story.

Grammar and Punctuation for Publishing

Regardless of how you word your story there are some conventions that publishers and readers expect. They are especially to do with punctuation – and some writers still get confused about them.

Here is an American view of dialogue punctuation:

Double quotes–single quotes? Listen here for the American convention.

Of course, many famous early writers experimented with ignoring the conventions of academic punctuation and grammar. This blog lists a few and explains how they defied the conventions.

If you want to learn more, then I recommend the Writers Guide to Punctuation

Or this excellent column – Talk it out, in which technical writer Taylor Houston gives lots of examples on CORRECT punctuation. Of course YOU are the writer and if you want to create a reaction in the reader with unconventional punctuation (or even no punctuation at all), you can ignore these conventions. If you are a starting out writer than follow the conventions until you are confident of when and where to break them.

Summation of Grammar Rules

So you see – there aren’t any set rules for grammar or punctuation in a novel or short story . Ignoring the rules is perfectly okay. But you need to know the rules in order to ignore them.

Heather Sylvawood – Amazon Author