Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Grammar in popular fiction

Okay, so this is a post that's been percolating in my mind for a while and probably isn't fully perked yet, but something I read this morning in a national newspaper made me consider it again.

First the disclaimers. I'm not a grammar guru. I don't pretend to have perfect grammar and know I make mistakes all the time. But I did have a few pretty good English teachers in school, and both of my parents were English speakers from birth, as were their parents and their parents, and one of my grandmothers was a teacher. (An aside... one of the aforementioned English teachers was Chinese-Canadian. So I don't mean to imply one needs to have been a native English speaker to have a good grasp of grammar. I just think it gives you a leg up if your parents used good grammar at home.) All that said, I suppose I have a better grasp of grammar than many, but by no means am I an expert. I look stuff up all the time, and even then, I'm often not sure... I mean, does anyone understand the rules for using which vs. that? (Okay, maybe it's just me with that one.)

But one thing I discovered when I started to write popular fiction, is that the rules seem to be looser in that piece of the publishing world. Either that or no one cares, because I've read a lot of published fiction with pretty loosely applied rules of grammar in my book.

One thing I think my very first manuscript had going for it was pretty good grammar. That manuscript boasted commas around every phrase, had zero sentences ending with prepositions, used the past perfect tense where appropriate--and was, well, stilted and dry.

So I loosened things up in my own writing. I probably went too far at first, shunning commas to the point my writing became hard to read, and overusing sentence fragments etc. (Still love sentence fragments.) But I started purposefully ending sentences with prepositions. (And starting them with conjunctions. LOL.) I started using "like" in places I felt sure "as if" was technically correct. I stopped being so hung up on grammar in my own work, and even cut back on marking up my critique partners' stuff.

So why am I blogging about this? The thing that set me off this morning, (or should "that" have been "which"?), was this sentence found in an in depth, hard news story I was reading on the subway:

"Nicole Richie's lawyer announced yesterday that her client will try and beat the driving under the influence rap...."

Now, correct me if I'm wrong... but shouldn't it be "try to beat" not "try and beat"? Don't know why that one sticks in my craw. I mean... wouldn't "and" only be correct if it were joining two separate actions the lawyer was taking? For example if he were both trying and beating? Doesn't the verb "to try" always need an infinitive after it? Something the subject of the sentence is trying TO do?

Grammar gurus out there. Am I right or wrong about this one?

Everyone else... Whether I'm right or wrong, does it matter? Does anyone care? How do you feel about grammar in popular fiction? Is it better to write the way the majority of people speak, or by doing that, are we adding to the problem by making readers assume it's correct? Am I the only one who thinks about this?

(Before someone says this in a comment... I think dialog should be written the way people speak, using the grammar the character would use, correct or not. But what about the other stuff???)


Molly O'Keefe said...

I think you are right regarding the mistake in that hard hitting news story you were reading - but then I still don't know how to use a comma - and instead - just keep using dashes - like it's camoflaging what a grammer idiot I am.

Unknown said...

I agree that the grammar rules seem to be much laxer than what I was taught in school. I'm not a grammar or spelling pro (even though I teach the basics), but it's taken me some getting used to.

And I agree about the "hard hitting" news story. The sentence seems very wrong. Mosly because it's talking about Nicole...

Anonymous said...

My grammar sucks... I'm ok with commas, but I love sentence fragments and I'm not really sure what the hard rules are..

I keep saying I'll take the time to learn, and then don't

Maureen McGowan said...

LOL about Nicole, Christine.

I hope she gets serious prison time. She was caught driving on a freeway in the wrong direction and admitted to having taken a vicodin and something else, too. I was on vicodin after major surgery several years ago and I couldn't have operated a can opener after taking one, never mind a car. She could have killed people.

Leah Braemel said...

Ending in prepositions doesn't bother me, to try to abide by some of the rules makes for very stilted writing. Even Winston Churchill said:
From now on, ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.

And I write using fragments to a certain degree - it can make for much more interesting, direct reading.

Like -- well, if the character is using that word in dialogue that's fine, but I drew the line when I read a recent novel by a best selling author where in her narrative she wrote something along the lines of: he had, like, the best one of his life. I'm sorry, but that made my teeth grind.

But I'm with you on the 'try and beat' error. That's sloppy. It's like 'could of' when it should be 'could have.' It's lazy speech that has become acceptable when its' not. The idea that 'try and beat' made it past not only the writer but the editor - surely there was someone else who read that? - makes me wonder just what we're going to be speaking/writing in fifty years. Well, ok, I'll be 90 then, but still...

Maureen McGowan said...

Leah, I think your examples show how subjective and loose this has all become... And I've given up on the preposition thing, too. (Although I keep trying to convince a certain historical romance writer that her educated characters probably would have avoided ending sentences in prepositions, even in dialog.)

I, personally, wouldn't have a problem with the sentence, "he had, like, the best one of his life". Especially if the entire book has that kind of tone. To me, that's just style and/or voice not grammatical error. But I guess that's a slippery slope and one could claim making purposeful grammatical errors is a style. (I think the purposeful part is key. For some errors, it seems clear to me that the writer just didn't know any better.)

Errors like "try and" instead of "try to" or "could of" instead of "could have". Those things make me crazy for some reason.

I think it's because it's just the wrong freakin' word and, like you said, an example of laziness. I have no problem with stuff like that in dialog--if it suits the character--but it really bugs me in narrative. (or journalism)

I guess everyone has their own pet peeves. Some people hate when writers animate inanimate objects. (there's a word for that I can't think of -- of which I cannot think. LOL) But I think that device can be clever. Another big one is turning nouns into verbs or vice versa. Again... I think this can be clever, but certain examples of this make me crazy, too... I think, like so many things in writing, it comes down to creative rule breaking. It's not clever or creative if you didn't know the rule in the first place.

Leah Braemel said...

Some people hate when writers animate inanimate objects.

Anthropomorphize? Yeah, I like to do that - to me it's 'showing rather than telling'. More visual.

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