What would Jane Rizzoli say?

After that last little discussion on grammar, it’s time to play “you’re the writer.”  Below are the sorts of choices I have to make with every line of dialogue I write.  I know perfectly well when I’m being ungrammatical.  And when I am ungrammatical, I know that someone, somewhere, is going to look at that and think I’m an ignoramus.  That’s the dilemma you, as a writer, have to struggle with.  Do you write “proper English?”  Or “spoken English”?

Most of you know the character of Jane Rizzoli.  You know that she comes from a blue-collar background, that she’s a cop who worked her way up to detective, and that she doesn’t mince words.  So which of the following would Jane say:

“Who should I give this to?”  or:  “To whom should I give this?”

“I gotta go.”  or:  “I have to go.”

“He’s taller than me.”  or:  “He’s taller than I.”

“What’s that meant for?”  or:  “What is its purpose?”

“Give me that.”  or:  “Give that to me.”

 “Do you ever wonder about him, like I do?”  or:  “Do you ever wonder about him, as I do?”

In every case, I think that either choice is perfectly comprehensible.  There’s no doubt of the speaker’s meaning.  Some versions may not be grammatical, but they get their point across.  And that’s the whole purpose of language, isn’t it?

24 replies
  1. knaster
    knaster says:

    Hi Tess,

    Here are your answers:
    “To whom should I give this?”
    “I have to go.”
    “He’s taller than I.”
    “What is its purpose?”
    “Give that to me.”
    “Do you ever wonder about him, as I do?”

    It pays to have a degree in English.
    Abe

  2. knaster
    knaster says:

    …..as a PS to my answer above, there is confusion as to when we should use “proper English” as opposed to “spoken English.” I feel that if you’re an author, you should write in proper English. But in the story, we can change the vernacular if there is a character that may use spoken or street English. When talking on the street to a friend, I don’t think it’s proper to talk The Queens English or Shakesperean English. Just be yourself and let your backgound dictate your method of talk. The point will come across either way.

  3. Jude Hardin
    Jude Hardin says:

    Dialogue, of course, has everything to do with how the author hears the character speaking. It has nothing to do with proper grammar.

    Sorry, Abe. If this were a quiz, you would have gotten a zero.

    I read a while back that Quentin Tarantino is practically illiterate and scratches out his scripts phonetically on spiral notebooks. Seems to me he’s done all right.

  4. claytonh2
    claytonh2 says:

    Tess , i met you a couple of years ago at a book signing in Newburyport. following your comments i stopped by to say hello , have you sign my books and to tell you how much my family enjoyed your writing.My comment to you at the time was that your writing is easy to read, it has a nice comfortable flow to it.I’m not a writer but I think a good story is written for the ear. Sometimes proper grammer can be awkward.

  5. Robby
    Robby says:

    Hi Tess,
    although I’m German I can give you all the correct answers. I had to learn it for many years at school.
    I have never met an American who wrote quite correctly. Honestly, I think it isn’t important to write correctly. If I were an author, I would have lots of problems when I needed to look up in a grammaire book every time 😉

    Carry on writing as you do, I’m loving it so much!
    Robert / Nuremberg-Germany

  6. GerritsenFever10
    GerritsenFever10 says:

    Please please please don’t make Jane speak “properly” I like her too much for her to die just yet!

  7. Craig
    Craig says:

    Well, I too have a degree (MEd) in English Education and my answer is the same as in my post on the previous topic. If Jane is not writing for a professional journal or in a lecture hall I personally am OK with the first choice in each instance, that is if we’re dealing with a situation where a couple of friends are talking either on the phone or on the street.

  8. knaster
    knaster says:

    To Rob in Denver, Jude, and any others out there that have told me that I was “wrong,” your point has been taken and let’s please move on.
    Abe

  9. Craig
    Craig says:

    Have you been watching Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? There are some tricky questions. One poor soul had to come up with the answer to this in front of thousands and thousands of viewers. What is the infinitive of “went”? A spelling question–How many z’s in “lizard”? This is a humbling experience which is vital to all of us with advanced degrees.

  10. Christine
    Christine says:

    You know, I do not even want to buy into this thing of what is right, what is wrong. What I want to say is that I think it is so unfortunate that you are getting caught up with this. You are a great writer, and you have plenty of proof of it. You are blowing valuable writing or ‘you’ time on this. I know how it happens. It happens to me too. I just spent 5 days beating up on myself. And I have to say, I gained nothing from it.

  11. Tess
    Tess says:

    Thanks for the fun comments! Obviously we all have different approaches to language, and no one is “right” or “wrong”, as long as we’re communicating and understood.

    Language is an ever-changing creature, something that we’re more aware of as we get older and remember how phrases of 30 years ago no longer make any sense today.

    Back in 1776, John Adams used “You was” in his letters to his wife. At the time, that was correct form. Nowadays, of course, it would be “You were”. Just as an example of how grammar can evolve.

  12. Craig
    Craig says:

    That being said, I’m reminded of something I saw on a marquee for a fast food restaurant that catered to children. “Ain’t No Reason To Go Nowhere Else”. That is totally unacceptable in any language.

  13. Kyle K.
    Kyle K. says:

    I think that “street speak” should be used even when not in dialogue, because that is how everyone thinks, let alone speaks. It makes it easier to read, and flow is very important…

    But obviously that’s on a book-by-book basis… Some books may require proper grammar. It’s all about context, though, isn’t it? You do what makes sense for the book, and as the author is it completely up to you what you chose to use.

    I think it’s funny when people criticize something that they would probably never attempt to do in their lives.

  14. Allison Brennan
    Allison Brennan says:

    I’m not a grammar purist, though I usually know when I’m making an “error.” Most of the time I do it on purpose. I have some of my “own” rules, such as my comma rule. “When in doubt, leave it out.” My husband, on the other hand, loves commas and will always add them when he has the option.

    As far as dialogue goes, I read it out loud. It has to sound like my character, whether it’s perfect grammar or how regular folks speak. How characters talk–and how they sound–says a lot about their character.

  15. bob k
    bob k says:

    As a long time, avid reader, I would be disappointed if Jane Rizzoli said “To whom should I give this?”. If Jane starts talking like this…my ability to believe in her character, to accept her as the previously described in the books, would be diminshed…and frankly, Tess, I would think you were losing it.

    On the other hand, if you introduce a character who is an English professor from Wellesley or an Aerospace Engineering professor from MIT – I would not expect them to speak like Jane and I wouldn’t find them believeable if they did.

    And how many times over the last 20 or 30 years have I heard someone who was not born into a family of American English speakers say that watching American TV and reading popular books helped them understand the way we really talk and improved their comprehension immensely over what they were taught in schools as “correct” English?

  16. john lovell
    john lovell says:

    Dialogue is a special art. Too few novelists excel at it. Tess does. Others who come to mind are John Sandford, Elmore Leonard and the late George Higgins (in his early novels). Their characters talk like real people talk. And they don’t all talk the same, know what I mean?

  17. Dan Williams
    Dan Williams says:

    This might be an argument that the writer just can’t win. Why? Because “you can’t please all of the people all of the time.” Some people want absolutely correct grammer no matter what. Others will go along with common usage in some cases but not all. Others don’t mind common usage all of the time. Basically, the comments don’t tell the writer about herself, they tell about the reader. And the reader is always entitled to their own opinion and to judge the writing any way they see it. Therefore, a writer should just say to the reader that, on points of grammer and such, each can have a differing opinion and both can be right at the same time. It’s all in the POV.

    However, there is such a thing as bad grammer and the case could be made that writers should strive to master the grammer of the medium there are using. If this means taking a community college grammer class then why not? To a writer, grammer tends to be fascinating. It’s like using Microsoft WORD all the time, then taking a class, and learning all the other neat features you never knew about. It’s cool.

    Anyway, I have taught grammer classes and no matter how much grammer I learn, there’s always some picky little rule I’ve never heard of before that puts me in the wrong. All you can say is, “Oops! Sorry about that!” and move on. Because nobody, not ever, is ever, ever going to speak grammatically correct all the time. But it’s not the grammer that counts. Its the writing, the characters and the story, and the values and the ideas and the conflict. Yes, we are human, but part of us is divine, and so we all need, I would argue, to look for the good and disregard the rest. And I think your books are doing pretty good from this POV.

  18. shortirishcuti
    shortirishcuti says:

    Hey Tess!! I’m new here, but I wanted to comment and let you know that I absolutely LOVE your Rizzoli/Isles series. I started reading them last year, and I’ve never been able to put one down. I picked up Mephisto Club yesterday at the library and finished today. I’ve never read a novel so fast in my life! I just get lost in your stories. Your writing is beautiful, correct grammar or not. In my opinion, if your characters talked in “proper” English, I’m not sure I would get as much enjoyment out of the stories. The books are so great because the way you write draws us in. Your characters speak believably, and that’s very important. Use all the “improper” grammar that you want. I’ll still read them!!!

    P.S. Are you going to write another book in the series? Please do!! Oh, and I almost forgot, I really hope everything works out with the TV series. I can see it being a show that I refuse to miss. I hope you get to play a part in the script writing!!

  19. therese
    therese says:

    What is write and what is wrong?

    It all boils down to “who is the reader?”
    Yes, an author needs to write to the first audience of – an editor who may cringe at improper grammar – but the target reader is the one who picks up the book off the shelf.

    Writers love words and we have a plethora at our disposal yet, our reader may close the book and walk away if we don’t use the word, “many” instead.

    If we worry about the grammar police and the politically correct readers, how can we create real characters? Good writers touch the hearts of readers who want the journey presented, not a lesson in the moral use of “I” vs “me”.

    Since we live in an economic society, I think the verdict is a done deal. Who gets paid more? The excellent English Teacher or a great storyteller.

    and that’s my two cents on this…

  20. april
    april says:

    I agree with Dan actually so I won’t repeat all his great points. I have my degree in English though can’t say I use proper English all the time (or much of the time). I believe that there are allowances for fiction and dialogue. When possible, I believe that any non-dialogue portions of a book should adhere closer to proper English depending on how the POV is written.

    It’s a tough spot. If you use proper English all the time and call people out on it, a person comes across as telling people he/she is better than everyone else. If it is socially correct, I don’t mind too much especially in novels because I want to believe a character is real and most characters are not going to say “It is I” when answering the question “Who’s there?” My husband always says if he answers his mother with that answer, she’d never believe it was him and let him in the house.

  21. prowan
    prowan says:

    Tess,

    I get so caught up in your story telling I wouldn’t notice something like the grammar errors you are pointing out.

    prowan

  22. amandao
    amandao says:

    Tess,

    Thanks for the Rizzoli series. I have only recently discovered them and they are a real joy.

    With regards to your comments about ‘spoken’ english or grammatical english – I am responsible for producing examination papers, written in english, and that are available in over 100 countries. When case studies are written for the exam papers, spoken english can not be used. This is because as you are aware most spoken english is colloquial. This can be difficult for students, for whom english is not the first language, to understand.

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