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What grammar rules have you broken on purpose?
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There is a rich history of breaking linguistic rules that I heartily support. Shakespeare, for one, was a genius at unconventionally turning a phrase. Thankful for his efforts, present day English speakers still quote him. They may not be aware, but his rule breaking had lasting affects on the language.
While the majority of us will never enjoy such a legacy as the Bard, either because we disappear in the sea of authors existing today or don’t rise to the level required, the language is still being affected in similar ways. This is all because we speakers of languages defy convention. Rules are meant to be broken. If you understand the mechanics of grammar and language or not, there are social pressures that helm its shaping.
Another way to think about this is speaking out of character for your social group. If you want to fit in, you match the lingo. Otherwise, those people you want to be around are likely to avoid being around you. There’s a signal in the way we speak. It says I’m down. Or, it exposes a forked tongue. People have histories by which they judge the world at large. They’re not going to befriend someone that is signaling them they don’t belong and have the potential to cause harm.
This also reaches into the way that we write books. We write to reach certain audiences. There are expectations. While they’re not laws, they are rules of convention. Most authors abide by them. That said, many will also defy those conventions. Those authors may be operating on purpose or they may be operating from misinformation. Telling the difference is not difficult in most cases. Therefore, an author must take great care in what they choose to defy. Criticism in this area directly correlates to the author’s success.
How would a writer process such criticism, you may ask. Like other criticism, you have to take into account the source, their intention, and the usefulness to you in the moment. If we can dismiss malice, then the criticism should be considered seriously. For instance, when I was studying for my degree, professors said avoid using dialect in dialogue. I thought that this was well-intentioned criticism. Not everyone was accomplishing the goal. The problem I cited was in the inexperience of the authors with the people they were attempting to characterize. Instead of relying on facts, they fell back on stereotypes.
Thus, you may wonder, did I continue to use dialect in my dialogue? Of course! How I applied the criticism was to learn the pitfalls of such devices for writers, and then I learned what prevented doing a disservice to my writing in using them. Following along with the example above, I studied the dialects of regions and those of classes. You don’t need to study all of them. Only the regions/classes/ethnicities of the characters you intend to portray are necessary to study. In addition, I highly recommend that a writer use a sensitivity editor. Stereotypes are hard to unlearn. Best intentions can still blow up in your face.
Defying grammar in dialogue is one of the places that make the most sense. If you listen to people speak, you’ll note that they do not carry on conversations in perfect grammar. They code switch depending on the situation. Contractions and shortenings are the norm. Well-written prose does not like any of this. However, if you are going to make believable dialogue, show something without telling, you’re going to need to defy the rules.
A notable example of the above in my own work can be found in the dialogue of Carsten Reiniger. He both code switches and he changes the way he talks depending on what he is trying to show those around him. The inconsistency is on purpose. His sharp, grammatically correct sentences are meant to convey a sense of superiority and condemnation of the people in his care. When he talks to Claire, his voice may soften, but the edge remains. Carsten is trying to show the distance between them, while she tries to maneuver closer–possibly to use him for her own ends.
Additionally, Carsten speaks differently to those he views as colleagues, such as Marcel. When he (SPOILER ALERT) shows a different persona to the women, vernacular and dialect becoming a complete costume change for his character. It is meant to be jarring. Hours pouring over the accent of the chosen regions and the historical words of the time (1940s – Various US localities, European states, etc.) resulted in the dialogue contained in the book.
While some authors would say that is too much work, I see it as my duty in historical writing. If you’re not going to put in the time, why on Earth should anyone take you seriously as an author? Would a chef just drop ingredients from their recipe because it was too much effort to include them, and then expect the same reception to their dish? Much like cooking, every ingredient you include in the finished book will not only show your skill, but it will also fulfill the recipe resulting in the best possible dish.
While you may be the chef cooking up your entrée, you know there are some rules that you can bend/break while there are constants that can irreparably damage the results. In order to defy the conventions of language, you have to understand why they exist and how your change will play out in light of that. There is a lot more planning involved beyond saying, I don’t care what they say, I’m doing it this way. Of course you can choose to do whatever you want. The fact is, your intended readers will tell you if you succeeded or not. Be prepared for that feedback.
Do I recommend defying the conventions of grammar to write your dialogue. Only if you’re going to do so with the utmost of intentions for your work. Consistency still matters. If a character says a word some sort of way, and you spell it some sort of way to convey that–spell it the same throughout. Consider how dialect and stereotyping can create a problem. Ask yourself, why is this character speaking this way? Does it make sense to their present based on their assumed past?
Breaking the rules can be a good time. Don’t just break them because you can. Do it with informed purpose. Show that you are skillful and that this really has purpose. Otherwise, readers will believe you can’t write and won’t be back for more.
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Samantha J Bryant says
I’ve fallen down many a research rabbit hole trying to figure out how someone might have said something, especially when I’m writing fiction set in another era. @samanthabwriter from
Richard Dee says
I write in a different style for each genre, in description and dialogue, with my use of language and grammar being what I consider appropriate for each. After all, a Steampunk villain will not talk in the same way as a space trader. Nor do they live in similar worlds. I think the way the story is constructed should reflect the times and places in which it is set. And if that mean’s breaking rules…, never mind.
P.J. MacLayne says
It’s interesting how language changes. It’s challenging to preserve the music of how words are used from one dialect or time frame in our writing.
Stevie Turner says
The trouble with writing dialect is that not all your readers will understand it. The ones that do not understand it will give the book a thumbs down for sure.