Beware: the grammar police are always watching

A few days ago, I received the following email from a reader: 

You are among several authors that I read regularly who are disappointing me in one small (for a non-neurotic person) way.  For instance, Edwina would not have said, on page 122, “He was quite a bit older than me.”  She would have said, “He was quite a bit older than I.”  Perhaps if Edwina were a teenager, she might have spoken ungrammatically.  I wish popular authors would not encourage that one particular bit of poor grammar, as I certainly hope I would never see, “Him and me weren’t the same age.”

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.  His comments, in fact, are not all that unusual.  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. 

And sometimes, they’re right.

In the above example, though, the ungrammatical phrase was in the context of dialogue.  As a novelist, I try to portray real people in believable situations.  When was the last time you heard a real person say, “He was older than I”?  I myself can’t remember hearing it in years.  I know that the grammatically correct phrase would be “older than I”, but real people are seldom perfectly grammatical when they speak.  Real people say “uh” and “you know” and they use incomplete sentences.  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.  He points out that “proper grammar” is a rather recent invention that developed in parallel with the printed word.  Most humans speak ungrammatically, and over time, spoken language can diverge from what is “proper” printed language.  As an example he cites French, which has major differences between the spoken and the written form.  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 way that “high” French is written.

English, too, is always evolving.  Witness any conversation between California teenagers on a school bus.  Yes, they’re speaking English.  But most likely it is ungrammatical.  And it may, in fact, provide clues as to the direction in which future English is evolving.  Language, says Dr. McWhorter, is not static.  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.  A language which resulted, after all, from an amalgamation of 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?  If they speak completely properly, trust me– they will sound like stilted robots.  If they speak like real people, you will get letters from the grammar police. 

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 a sentence in MEPHISTO CLUB as ungrammatical.  The points raised were valid ones (although there was also a typo involved — not my fault– that temporarily confused them.)  The tone of the site was very civilized so I felt comfortable commenting on their analysis.  I agreed that a disputed comma was unnecessary, but I also pointed out that, in a manuscript of 100,000 words, it’s not uncommon for a little thing like an extra comma to slip in.

The point is, a writer’s published words are always being scrutinized.  We mis-use a word, someone will notice.  We slip up on our grammar, someone will notice.  We get a fact wrong, you can damn well expect someone to notice.

It makes one afraid to ever write another sentence!



30 replies
  1. doomer
    doomer says:

    California teenagers do not speak English, unless you consider the word ‘dude’ to be punctuation. 🙂

  2. emineminy
    emineminy says:

    I *fully* agree with your point of view on this one. When I first began writing my novel (which is purely for pleasure, I’ve a very limited education and would require far too much editing to consider submitting it) I wanted to make the characters as real as possible and I allow them to speak in whatever form feels most natural. That includes trailing off mid-sentence when appropriate.

  3. Rob in Denver
    Rob in Denver says:

    Whenever I see someone get bent out of shape about grammar, I remember this quote attributed to Winston Churchill:

    “This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.”

    No matter the originator, it illuminates the absurdity of rigid adherence to strict grammar.

    The written word, as a form of communication, must enable understanding in the reader… above all else. And, in that respect, it’s no different than the spoken word.

    If some rule is standing in the way of clarity — or even the way words sound together — then I think it must be broken, bloodied and buried.

  4. dustinhood
    dustinhood says:

    I just have to comment on this one. To clarfy the situation from you could say “a teenager on a bus.” I’m 16 and also a writer, so, I can really tell you about this subject. From a teenagers point of view, we have new words weekly, and those words are called slang. But we know when to use them and when not. We use them when we’re with friends. I give speeches to the school board and Chamber of Commerce and you best belive I know to forget every slang word I know. And to add to the slang, I’m from the south, so I also say y’all. And now, there is the annoyace of teenagers saying “ttyl” instead of “talk to you later.” Honestly, I can’t stand that, but I used it when IMing my friends. The writer in me says, it’s called dialogue, diction, whatever you wish to call it. I very much agree with Tess when she says she’s trying to make her character real. Come on, think, what writer wouldn’t? If they did stick to proper grammar all the time, the writer wouldn’t be a success, it would put the reader to sleep. So, Tess, you’re doing fine. But, it did make a good conversation, so thanks to the e-mailer.

    Dustin Hood, 16

  5. Kyle K.
    Kyle K. says:

    I completely agree, and you rightly guessed that we would be jumping all over that comment… People never talk like that, and it would sound too proper and false if we had our characters do it.

    And don’t worry, I forgive authors the inevitable slip-up… though I can’t help circling a typo (maybe I should have went to school to be an editor!)…

  6. WJS
    WJS says:

    You should change the title from Grammar Police to Grammar Nazi. Thats how picky and blunt Nazi could be. 😛 Grammar Nazi are very common on forums and message boards across the Internet where people cannot exercise their language clearly and properly.

    Right or wrong they can be, but you as the writer control what you want the character to behave and emit any verbal communication.

    -Josh S.

  7. Zoe Sharp
    Zoe Sharp says:

    Hi Tess
    I haven’t commented on your blog before, but JT Ellison over on Murderati sent me the link this morning, as we’ve been emailing back and forth about exactly this subject. I’m in the midst of copyedits at the moment, for both my UK and US publishers, on the same book. One of the copyeditors ‘got’ the style of the book totally. The other has tried to correct it to read as a textbook on the correct use of grammar and it’s driving me utterly insane. Nice to know you experience this, too!

  8. terri
    terri says:

    Hi Tess,
    Write like real people, because that is one big reason why people hang on to reading. Excitment is lost if the novelist phrases every sentence in standard, perfect English. The resulting product will be so boring there’ll be no more urge to continue the next line.

    You have succeeded as what you are, be what you are.

    p.s. We’re all eager for your new book to be in stores. Well, thats what all real people do, isn’t it?

  9. knaster
    knaster says:

    Hi Tess,

    I have a degree in English, but that doesn’t get you far in life. But when I hear someone use the wrong word in a sentence, it drives me nuts (and it’s usually a short drive).
    When someone says “You did that very good,” that gets me going. The abuse of the English language is a turn-off point for me. But for someone like me who is originally from Brooklyn, NY and who still uses the words “ain’t”, “gonna”, and “wanna”, I shouldn’t cast the first stone for fear I may get it right back in the back of the head.
    Sure we abuse language, whether we are readers or writers. It comes with the territory. Sometimes we take it with a grain of salt, and sometimes we speak up. Who knows what’s right anymore? If anyone out there can answer that question honestly, please let me know. If not, then to those language abusers out there, It ain’t gonna make no difference to me if you don’t speak no good English. I just don’t wanna be you.
    More power to you, Tess.

  10. BernardL
    BernardL says:

    Stilted dialogue will turn a reader off faster than grammatical idioms. As you say, I haven’t heard the reader’s grammar correction in many years, and it would pop out at me if I saw it used in dialogue.

  11. SheilaC
    SheilaC says:

    As my mother used to say, “a preposition is a word not to end a sentence with.”

    Dialogue should sound natural. If I heard someone say “he is younger than I,” I would assume that person is (a) elderly, (b) an English teacher, or (c) a prig. If that’s what you intended to show, great.

  12. GerritsenFever10
    GerritsenFever10 says:

    I don’t think you went to med school to learn English though. That’s why you pay your editors damn good money (or I’m sure they get their fair share anyway) to correct what you write. Critics should be worried about the story itself, not how many commas are running rampant or if you’ve used a word out of context for the sake of dialogue. And you’re right, when you have a manuscript of over 100,000 words there’s no way you can possibly have enough time to look at every single word. I realize it was just nit-picky criticism, but still, it’s unwarranted, you’re the writer not them.

  13. emilee
    emilee says:

    I’ve read your books for years and recently found your blog, and I love it! Thanks for sharing your insights; your posts are always SO interesting.

    Two things occurred to me in this discussion. First, I’m an editor (of scientific reports) by day and a voracious reader by night. I agree with other comments here that I expect characters to speak “in character” when I’m reading a novel, and as others have said, so few of us speak grammatically!

    The other thing that occurred to me had me chuckling. My daughter is a college freshman this year, so we text each other a TON. In that texting, there are times when I find myself thinking, “Oh, I need to add a comma there, because that’s how it ‘should’ be written!” Even worse, I recently got a new phone that doesn’t have an apostrophe in the “symbols.” My biggest decision was whether to avoid using contractions or to go ahead and use them without the apostrophe! It’s almost a painful decision to have to make…

    So, that’s just great. My self-introduction here has me coming across as a total nerd!

  14. therese
    therese says:

    Thanks again Tess, for another blog on the subject ‘du jour’ in my writing life.

    Fortunately, my brother and his wife are great grammar police and are now combing through my memoir, as I focus on editorial suggestions to take the content from good to great. I changed my grammar checker from casual to formal, which helps.

    However, I am also taking some college writing courses and am being challenged by the differences between academic and commercial writing. It’s been tons of fun since my professional background is business and technical writing. All of these styles are so different! Yet all require consistent word use and sentence structure.

    Last month I gave an informative speech to my fellow students on romance novels. One of the questions I was asked; “Why is it so easy for me to read novels while I struggle so much understanding my textbooks that are half or a third of the size?”

    Which means, I am not going to stress over grammar and will continue to focus on dramatic flair and active voice in my writing. Including facts and “real” people in novels means readers can learn something and enjoy the journey.

    Delightful blog!

  15. drosdelnoch
    drosdelnoch says:

    LOL, thanks for this Tess. It is a bit of a weird thing when you look at it and you only have to look at Shakespeare which was written for the masses and the common man these days who tend to think its hoity toity rubbish. You just can’t win (or should that be, One just can’t win.)

    Characters need to have a hook and were they to speak correctly in each and every way then there really would be nothing to endear them to the reader and thus get an author off a best seller list quicker than grease lightning. As a reader, I understand the whole difference between “high” English and “common” English and cant believe these finnicky people who pick holes in everything. They probably sit with thier newspaper each day disecting the language. Were all rules to be adhered to it would probably make a nonsense of the whole article. It really does beggar belief.

    Just keep turning out these cracking novels with characters I can get a hook into and Im a happy bunny. After all, one has to please one’s fans. 😛

  16. Jude Hardin
    Jude Hardin says:

    Watch the hyphens, Tess. None needed for nitpicky and misuse. 😉

    After a writer has a fairly stout command of the language, it’s perfectly okay to shatter the rules of grammar and punctuation for style and verisimilitude. Cormac McCarthy, last year’s Pulitzer winner, is a perfect example.

    People who write to novelists with grammar corrections need to get a life, IMO.

  17. Craig
    Craig says:

    Knaster, I too have an English degree that I earned from the University of Central Oklahoma. In my senior year I had a fabulous teacher Miss Lorraine King Bell (not a professor and not a Ms.) for English Grammar and Usage, a required course for all English majors. Miss Bell was the only one who taught it. She was a veteran when I had her for the course, sadly nearing madatory retirement. I remember one thing that she said–“There’s no law that anyone has to know what an adverb is.” Now she was probably the most plain spoken teacher I ever had. If you’re teaching students older than you then treat them with respect when working with them and don’t talk down to them. The most important lesson I learned from her was that there are two types of English–formal and daily. The trick is to teach them when to use what.
    Now in this case I’m puzzled by the statement that this reader knows more about Edwina and her speech pattern than the author. Reader, if you’re out there, how do you know? Quoted passages are tricky and should match the speaker’s character and not necessarily follow the king’s English. It sounds to me that the reader was just dying to pounce on something.
    As far as commas go, I’ve learned and taught that when in doubt, leave it out. At least you won’t comma up with a comma splice which is a huge no-no.

  18. Craig
    Craig says:

    A PS on my last post–I have heard that some publishers will send out a check to anyone catching an error in a book. Is this true, partly true, or urban legend? The reason that you get some of these e-mails might be purely financial.

  19. john lovell
    john lovell says:

    Unless there were onlt two teenagers conversing on that bus — “Witness any conversation between California teenagers on a school bus” — you probably meant “among” California teenagers. Sorry.

  20. Tess
    Tess says:

    I’ve never heard of a publisher sending out a check to anyone catching an error in a book. My gosh, that’s a prescription for bankruptcy!

    And john lovell, you are a naughty boy, catching me at it again.

  21. spyscribbler
    spyscribbler says:

    The comma makes me laugh. I have read so much about the comma. Once, I brought it up on a blog. I mentioned how one book said there were 46 rules to the comma, and another said there were six, which I preferred.

    Someone else dropped in and said her professor had told her there were thirty-two rules to the comma.

    Another friend was quite irritated, and insisted that there were exactly eighteen rules to the comma: no more, no less.

    I prefer to think of language as a fluid, ever-evolving thing, except when I get an email from the younger generation that I can’t translate.

  22. RJ Mangahas
    RJ Mangahas says:

    One of the earliest things I learned in writing is that you can’t please everybody. Whether it’s correct grammar or certain language there’s going to be someone who gets offended.

  23. KellyJ
    KellyJ says:

    Love that split infinitive at the end of your post, Tess.

    Your (probably) newest fan – just found your books in the past month and am reading them voraciously!

  24. Hansw
    Hansw says:

    The spoken language is simply like it is. Good writing should reflect those written about in order to be authentic. Good fiction should of course be able to reflect the changing landscape of people with many different backgrounds.

    Myself I realize that my english is a kind of mix with norwegian. The grammar will be somewhat influenced and I realize that those having the language as their native tongue will notice. Still it is a tool to be used and mostly it functions were well even if even if I am identified as a outsider.

    That is my position being an outsider using the language – signalizing my background

  25. Katrina Stonoff
    Katrina Stonoff says:

    Funny you should use that specific example. My mother and I are amateur grammarians, and one year we had an ongoing battle over which was correct: “He was _______er than I” or “He was _______er than me.”

    One of us argued that the “I” or “me” was the object of the sentence, hence it should be “me.” The other argued there was an implied “am” after the sentence, hence it should be “I” (I cannot remember who argued for which construction).

    At the time, we both worked at Arizona State University, so we both (independently) went to the library and found a grammar text that supported our position. Then we both found people in the English Department who specialized in grammar and swore our construction was the only correct way to state that thought.

    We finally laughed and admitted there wasn’t a firm answer to that question.

  26. Tess
    Tess says:

    as I understand it from linguists, the “–er than I” form is fast disappearing in common usage, and soon it will be “proper” English to say “___er than me”.

  27. Katrina Stonoff
    Katrina Stonoff says:

    Thanks, Tess. Now, if I could just remember who said what, I might have the chance to say to my mother, “Neener, neener, neener!”

    Or the chance to pray she’ll never stumble on this blog entry.

  28. Ann-Marie
    Ann-Marie says:

    Hey. Just thought I’d put in my Two Cents.

    It sounds as though that particular reader was nit-picking in the highest degree, especially seeing as the part that he/she found so unbearable was words uttered by your own character. It is, after all, up to yourself whether your character speaks in such and such a way and it is not appropriate for anyone to reprimand you for these choices. If, however, these sorts of grammatical mistakes are made in descriptive sentences or whatever then I could totally understand why it would be an issue.

    Still, in that case, it totally wasn’t. ¬_¬

    Oh and hello, I think its awesome that you actually post into your own blog personally. Big fan, right here.

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