Should grammar matter?
So I’m working on SWEET SALT AIR, rereading Chapter 6 for the umpteenth time, and I pause on the following paragraph:
“By Oliver Weeks?” Charlotte cut in. “Still? What a character. Major interview there.”
Charlotte and Nicole are talking about ramekins that are hand-thrown by a ceramicist on Quinnipeague, but there is not one complete sentence in what Charlotte has said. I try revising.
“Were those ramekins made by Oliver Weeks?” Charlotte cut in. “Is he still here on Quinnipeague? He is a total character. An interview with him will be crucial to our book.”
Actually, an interview won’t be crucial, Nicole points out, since their book is about food and foodies, not artists and plates. But you get my drift. Which version is better? That depends on how you want your dialogue to feel. Since I want my characters to sound like relaxed thirty-four-year-olds who are close friends, I vote for the first.
Not one complete sentence – which is how I often write, because it captures my train of thought. But is this okay in a novel? How grammatically correct should a novelist be?
You have my answer in the choice above. But let me tell you why.
The second book I ever wrote opened with a woman receiving a phone call. She picks up and says hello. The man on the other end asks for Professor Blake, because he doesn’t recognize her voice, but she does recognize his. “Uncle William. It’s me!” At least, that’s what my original manuscript said. My editor changed it to the grammatically correct, “It is I!” And that’s the way it reads to this day.
Really. Who talks that way? “Hey, good buddy, it is I!” Not me, that’s for sure, but I was naïve and so grateful to have a publisher that I didn’t argue. I would now. Here are four rules I like.
1. Dialogue has to sound real if it is to be believed. The words should fit the characters, and if that means breaking rules of grammar, so be it.
2. Narrative should be grammatically correct, unless it directly reflects inner thought. We don’t always think in grammatically correct syntax. Nor should our characters.
3. Good grammar is crucial when you are writing a cover letter (or email) asking me (or an agent or editor) to read the manuscript you’ve just finished.
4. Good grammar is also crucial in the delivery of news on TV. At least, that’s what I believe. I mean, isn’t it about setting an example? Brian (Williams, my news idol) is grammatically impeccable, though lesser reporters aren’t necessarily so. And then there are ads. My favorite right now is the one showing slides of gorgeous sunrises, with the voice-over telling me that each of these photos was taken by a person at the start of their retirement.
What’s wrong with that picture?
BTW, the little white book in front of my dictionaries in the picture above (yeah, that’s my desk!) is “The Elements of Style,” by Strunk and White. It’s a good one to keep around.