A few days ago, I received the following email from a reader:Â
You are among several authors that I read regularly who are disappointing me in one small (for a non-neurotic person) way.Â For instance, Edwina would not have said, on page 122, â€œHe was quite a bit older than me.â€Â She would have said, â€œHe was quite a bit older than I.â€Â Perhaps if Edwina were a teenager, she might have spoken ungrammatically.Â I wish popular authors would not encourage that one particular bit of poor grammar, as I certainly hope I would never see, â€œHim and me werenâ€™t the same age.â€
Now, before you jump on this reader for being nit-picky, I should say that this is one of the milder criticisms I receive, and I welcome all readers to write me, whether they have nits to pick or not.Â His comments, in fact, are not all that unusual.Â I often hear from readers (many of them teachers or editor types) who tell me that I have not used correct grammar in my books.Â
And sometimes, they’re right.
In the above example, though,Â the ungrammatical phraseÂ was in the context of dialogue.Â As a novelist, I try to portray real people in believable situations.Â When was the last time you heard a real person say, “He was older than I”?Â I myself can’t remember hearing it in years.Â I knowÂ that the grammatically correctÂ phrase would be “older than I”, but real people are seldom perfectly grammatical when they speak.Â Real people say “uh” and “you know” and they use incomplete sentences.Â And they say “older than me.”
Recently I’ve been listening to a delightful audio course called “The Story of Human Language“, taught by linguist John McWhorter.Â He points out that “proper grammar” is a rather recent invention that developed in parallel with the printed word.Â Most humans speak ungrammatically, andÂ over time, spoken language can diverge fromÂ what is “proper” printed language.Â As an example he cites French, whichÂ has major differences between the spoken and the written form.Â Â If an American who learned “proper” French were to travel to Paris and speak the way he learned French in his American high school, he’d be considered a weird foreigner — because the French don’t actually speak French the same wayÂ that “high”Â French is written.
English, too, is always evolving.Â Witness any conversation between California teenagers on a school bus.Â Yes, they’re speaking English.Â But most likely it is ungrammatical.Â And it may, in fact, provide clues as to the direction in which future English is evolving.Â Language, says Dr. McWhorter, is not static.Â It is constantly changing, and he provides some hilarious quotes from grammarians of the 18th century deriding all the new-fangled changes occurring to the English language.Â A language which resulted, after all, from an amalgamation ofÂ numerous foreign influences.
So the novelist, when portraying real people talking, must make the choice: do I have them speak with “proper” grammar — or do I have them speak like real people?Â If they speak completely properly, trust me– they will sound like stilted robots.Â If they speak like real people, you will get letters from the grammar police.Â
I’d much rather get the letters.
Coincidentally, the next day after I got that email, I was alerted to a teacher’s website that dissected aÂ sentence in MEPHISTO CLUBÂ as ungrammatical.Â The points raisedÂ were valid ones (although there was also aÂ typo involvedÂ — not my fault–Â that temporarily confused them.)Â The tone of the site was very civilized so I feltÂ comfortable commenting on their analysis.Â I agreed that a disputedÂ comma was unnecessary, but I also pointed out that, in a manuscript of 100,000 words, it’s not uncommon for aÂ little thing like an extra comma to slip in.
The point is, a writer’s published words are always being scrutinized.Â We mis-use a word, someone will notice.Â We slip up on our grammar, someone will notice.Â We get a fact wrong, you can damn well expect someone to notice.
It makesÂ one afraid to ever write another sentence!