The Agony of Grammar

I’ve been running into an issue in writing lately that has me stumped: grammar. Specifically, how precisely to follow grammatical rules in writing, particularly in dialog. On the one hand, John McWhorter (Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue and others) points out that the language is always in motion and often intimates that the “rules” we follow are dated. On the other hand, a shared grammar should give the most possible meaning to those words we write.

The difficulty I have is bridging the gap between real speech, which has available to it gestures and visual cues to help meaning along.  Also, because it’s thought on the fly, it includes repeats, irrelevancies and meaningless y’knows, umms, and so on, which we tolerate and edit out.

Written dialog needs to be clean and economical while sounding natural. It’s a delicate balance. I try to stay grammatical, but occasionally find my characters sounding stuffy as a result. (That’s what rewrite is for.)

Here are some I struggle with or see in my writing groups:

Bring/take: Most people seem to know the difference between transporting something toward where we are now and transporting it away. That said, common usage is collapsing to just plain “bring.” Writing needs to minimize confusion about motion. I’m sticking with the distinction.

It's LIE, dammit!

It’s LIE, dammit!

Lay/Lie: Difficult because lay is also past tense of lie. But lay is something you do to an object and lie is an action you do to yourself. (Furthercomplicated by the fact that no one is interested in getting lied or even lain.) I stick with the distinction.

Who/whom: At least in speech, few of us observe the difference. I try to rework sentences to use who, thereby getting over the speed bump of the reader trying to remember the correct application of the rule instead of following the story line.

All part of the accretion of the craft.  If you have ones that bug you, let me know.

 

 

2 thoughts on “The Agony of Grammar

  1. Yep. A quandary. Including errors in dialog can give readers clues about the character, but will it make them pause when you don’t want them to pause. Two grammar errors that bug me:
    The use of “I” when it should be “me.” “She handed the gift to Jim and I.”
    The use of “myself” when it should be “I.” “Jim and myself went to the store.”

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