The Agony of Grammar

My apologies, gentle readers.  A month and a half since the last post.  Don’t know where the time’s gone.  Rewrite on two novels, a passel of query letters sent out, and … oh, quit with the excuses.  Reminds of my gentleman cousin, Gamble Rogers.  He used to say, “Life’s what happens when you’re making other plans.”  Guess keeping up the blog got drowned in life.

ANYway, 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. We also tolerate and edit out imprecision, along with meaningless y’knows, umms, and so on.

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, right?)

Punctuation Grandma




I won’t even start on punctuation.

2 thoughts on “The Agony of Grammar

  1. In speaking, people certainly break many rules of grammar. For example, very few of us say, “To whom did you give the paper?” rather than “Who did you give the paper to?” Even the “ums” and the “hmmms” are telling when writing dialogue. The rules of grammar and punctuation, however, do communicate important things to the reader.

    One of my favorite short stories is by Katherine Anne Porter entitled, “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall.” It is a primer for how a knowledge of the rules allows the writer to convey even more than the words themselves. It offers a nearly perfect example of the “third person limited” point of view and a masterful use of stream of consciousness.

    The second and third sentences offer dialogue without quotation marks, yet one ends with an exclamation point. The fourth sentence employs quotation marks. We therefore understand that the second and third are “thoughts,” whereas the fourth is spoken aloud.

    We then proceed with regular dialogue—each speaker being given a separate paragraph in the traditional way. In the sixth paragraph we are introduced to a brief “hallucinatory” or “sleepy” scene in which we see Granny’s consciousness waver and then snap back to full awareness. In the seventh we get a hint more of the perspective of the ill woman lying in bed with the line, “…Doctor Harry appeared to float up to the ceiling and out.” In actuality, the man who was leaning over her bed stood up and walked away.

    The eight paragraph is a brilliant evocation of that phenomenon of drifting in and out of sleep and slowly drifting awake with a lovely bit of stream of consciousness. The paragraph ends with this line: She leaped broad awake, thinking they whispered in her ear.
    “She was never like this, never like this!” “Well, what can we expect?” “Yes, eighty years old…”
    Well, and what if she was? She still had ears.

    In that paragraph, clearly, two people are speaking aloud; however, they are not given separate paragraphs as they deserve. This allows the author to convey the fact that because this is whispering, Granny can hear the words, but she cannot differentiate the speakers. She then responds, but only in her mind.

    This is only the beginning of this powerful story of strength, denial, jealousy, anger, pride, faith, loss, and doubt. The main character bears a strong resemblance to Lucinda Matlock, the namesake of the poem by Edgar Lee Masters, and the story’s ending seems to, perhaps consciously, echo the ending of the wonderful Emily Dickinson poem, “I Heard a Fly Buzz—When I Died.” Note the similar use of sound, color, light and darkness in both.

    You can read Porter’s short story here.

    I say, “Use the rules and break the rules carefully and consciously for best effect.”

    By the way, I just noticed that I haven’t added to my blog in nearly four months. However, I have gotten quite a bit of video editing done in the meantime. Oh, and way too much time on Facebook and other people’s blogs and links….

  2. Pingback: An Exercise in Descriptive Writing | Pilgrimage

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