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.

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  1. Lynette on November 30, 2011 at 12:59 pm

    I agree with you Barbara. I vote for the first simply because I like to feel “at home” when reading for pleasure, and in order for me to feel that way, I like the characters to be “real”.

    • Teresa Rice on November 30, 2011 at 3:07 pm

      Agree 100%!

  2. Carol Drew on November 30, 2011 at 1:08 pm

    I grew up in a household that insisted on correct grammar. My Father was an English teacher and my Mother was a librarian, and my brother and I were constantly corrected until correct grammar became automatic. I do agree with you about dialog, except for the fact that what would sound natural to a lot of people these days is not correct grammar. The most grating example to me is: “Me and ____ went to the store”. I had a teacher once who explained it as well as anyone…Good grammar is mostly good manners. You always put the other person first. Then you choose your personal pronoun as if the other person wasn’t there. You wouldn’t say “Me went to the store”. So you say “____and I went to the store.” I’ve found that this works in almost every instance, and has stuck with me for many years. But, as in life, there are always exceptions.

    I think your example is another one that is made so frequently that people don’t always hear it as incorrect. Person is singular, so it would be ” at the start of his or her retirement. Or else say the pictures were taken by people at the start of their retirement. Again, sometimes the correct way doesn’t always sound right, and in writing, sometimes the correct way is so round-about and awkward, that I end up using something else entirely.

  3. Kim on November 30, 2011 at 2:32 pm

    Proper grammar isn’t important in a book if it’s part of a dialogue. The characters’ words should be written in a way that seems real to the reader. We may attempt to use proper grammar when writing term papers or in business letters, but not in a novel. That’s just my opinion, however.

  4. Debbie Fritsch on November 30, 2011 at 3:56 pm

    I don’t have a problem with incomplete sentences in dialogue, and I agree that it must sound natural. Therefore there are times when improper grammar is called for depending on the character. I do have a problem with improper grammar in the narrative of the book.

  5. Linda on November 30, 2011 at 4:18 pm

    I’m a retired English teacher and am rather obsessive about using correct grammar and spelling. However, I totally agree with you about dialogue. Dialogue absolutely must reflect the way real people speak, and that is what I always my taught my high school and middle school students. Other situations require proper usage!

  6. Laura on December 1, 2011 at 10:37 am

    I agree with Barbara and the others who say that dialogue should be natural and should flow in a believable way. As long as the reader understands what is meant, perfect grammar isn’t essential because I don’t think everyone talks perfect grammar all the time and doesn’t expect others to do so either. Hmmm. is that grammatically correct?

  7. Melissa on December 2, 2011 at 5:43 pm

    I agree … one of the (many, many!) reasons I love your books is that free-flowing dialogue that makes your characters so real, as though they’re having that conversation right here in my living room. If it’s too stiff, I’d have to ask them to leave 😀

  8. Jane C on December 3, 2011 at 6:42 pm

    I am not a writer by any stretch of the imagination but I am an avid reader. Interestingly, I am very picky about grammar and I believe that grammar should be perfect. That said, I also love free flowing dialogue and I feel that dialogue adds to the meaning and feeling of the story being told. Dialogue can make the story real and at times brings me right into the heart of the characters.

  9. Amanda Stokely on December 12, 2011 at 4:16 pm

    We have the same computer!! I know that has nothing to do with your blog. Sorry!!
    I like free flowing dialogue. However you write it I am sure will be a bestseller.(maybe I am missing something)

    Take care and Happy writing!!

  10. b on December 23, 2011 at 1:00 pm

    High School English teacher (and sometimes adjunct at university) it bothers me tremendously when I read…poor punctuation, poor grammar…dialogue is the exception-that is how folks talk…another thing that drives me crazy…I teach students to leave out garbage words…such as “very”…etc…nothing creative about that. Then read a novel where the writer uses “very” so much it is boring. On a funny (ironic) note…just reread a Jane Austen-one of her favorite words “very” lol

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