Sometimes you gotta break the rules.
The summer I turned eighteen, I worked as an assistant for my high school art teacher. It was the job of a lifetime: preparing canvases, making tuna sandwiches, having lunch on the deck of his houseboat. I even got to dress in a gorilla suit to pick his literary agent up at the airport.
(Oh, the pre-9/11 days of lax airport security.)
Anyway, yes—in addition to being an art teacher who let us draw nude models, this man was about to become a New York Times bestselling author.
But we didn’t know that just then.
In the weeks leading up to publication, one of my tasks was to read a final draft of his book before he sent it off to his editor. He asked me for my feedback, and I dutifully complied, sitting at my parents’ kitchen table with a red pen in hand.
Every time I found a sentence fragment, I’d mark it. X! Every time I found something that in some way conflicted with the iron clad rules I’d learned in English class, I let him know. X! X! X!
I might also have put in a few notes about things I read that touched my young-but-shriveled heart, but I am pretty sure I focused on the grammar.
The book was “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.”
It became a bestseller and cultural phenomenon, and in my beady-eyed focus on the sentence fragments, I’d almost entirely missed the stuff about that book that rocked the world. I was trying to be useful, but really, I had been an idiot.
Grammar in Fiction
Fast forward twenty-five years. Although I founded National Grammar Day and the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar, I’ve since come to understand that good grammar has its place—and that place is not necessarily in books.
Certain books, of course, must follow the conventions of grammar. Most business books, textbooks—anything seeking to convey information to an audience expecting conventional grammar.
But other books, especially works of fiction, can benefit from throwing the so-called rules out the door. I’d go so far as to say that correct grammar might even keep aspiring writers from publishing their work, and that correct grammar in the wrong place might diminish the reading experience.
This doesn’t mean writers don’t need to learn grammar, of course.
Just as athletes need to learn the rules of the game to play, just as painters need to learn all about color and form and canvas, writers need to understand what the conventions of language are. This is what lets them break the rules artfully to create a believable world and sympathetic characters.
Mark Twain, who’s created some of the most memorable stories in history, said in an 1887 speech to the Army and Navy Club of Connecticut, “Great books are weighed and measured by their style and matter, and not the trimmings and shadings of their grammar.”
The shadings and trimmings of grammar are important to building the style and matter. But they’re a tool and not the end goal.
That said, the more a writer knows about grammar, the more it can be styled and shaded to great effect.
Jane Austen and Grammar
Take the case of Jane Austen, whom I bring up not because there’s anything wrong with contemporary fiction—far from it—but because everybody’s read her and you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Jane Austen was a master of bending language to create character and voice, and while she didn’t go around clubbing grammatical conventions to death, what she managed to do with Latinate words is nothing short of astonishing.
A pair of academics, Mary Margolies DeForest and Eric Johnson, wrote a computer program to analyze the frequency of Latinate words in her novels.
They found that she used more Latin-based words to create pompous and arrogant characters, and fewer for her idiots and for people under emotional duress. The narrator, meanwhile, uses the same percentage of Latinate words as Elizabeth Bennet, which makes her seem more sympathetic.
If you have time to check out their extensive analysis here, be prepared to be blown away by the incredible consistency of her word choices.
Word Choice and Characters
In any case, it’s not just highfalutin Latinate words that can be used to such effect. Imagine a character who regularly speaks with dangling modifiers. That could be hilarious. A teen character who fails to use “lie” and “lay” correctly, meanwhile, would probably be more believable. There’s already at least one child character who conjugates verbs with a meat grinder. That would be Junie B. Jones, and she is hysterical in the very best sense.
Learn the Rules Before You Break Them
None of this can be done well, though, if the aspiring author isn’t sure of the rules to begin with. Just as Picasso first learned to draw like Raphael before he ventured into wild new territory, truly great writers consider their words and the way they use them, from the length of the sentences to the nature of the punctuation. This is why truly great books are not accidents. They’re carefully wrought miracles—unconventional grammar and all.