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Grammar Quirks: Brian Panowich on Dialogue and Dialect

Brian Panowich, author of "Hard Cash Valley," has one piece of advice for aspiring writers: abandon all grammar rules. 

By
Brian Panowich, Writing for
4-minute read
hard cash valley

Grammar Girl: What’s your favorite word and why?

Brian Panowich: “Deddy.”

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Not Daddy, or Dad, or Father, but Deddy. It’s so uniquely Georgian and doesn't sound funny or odd coming from the mouth of either a child or a woman or a full-grown man. It was, and still is, the spark of great debate on panels I’ve attended and at lectures of mine, because I intentionally use the misspelling in my books. At least the characters I write about from Georgia do. But dialect is integral to my writing so it’s a war I always win. Or at least I like to think so. Even if an academic-type tries to bombard me with reasons why I’m not allowed to abuse the rules of grammar or manipulate the English language anyway I choose, and believe me, I do get accused of that often, I know that just my arguing the point, makes my “Deddy” proud.

GG: What’s a word you dislike (either because it’s overused or misused) and why?

BP: “Furrowed” and “Pursed”

I’ve been guilty of using them both before, so I’m not claiming to be all-wise or perfect in any way. It’s also not because they are both overused—although they are. It’s because of this…

“He furrowed his brow as he looked over the documents.” Or “She pursed her lips while her husband spun more of his nonsense.”

Who talks like that?

I’ve never had anyone point out to me that my brow was furrowed or told not to purse my lips. I’ve had folks ask me, “What’s that face about?” or “I can tell by that look, you’re not down for all this.” But furrowing and pursing are lazy words to describe actions or expressions that the right bit of dialogue can handle much better. Those two words sound like “writing” and suck me right out of a story.

I’m going to throw in “zesty” too. Because no one on earth says the word zesty unless they are reading the side of a Cheez-it’s box.

“Wow, baby, this baked chicken and pasta you made tonight is really zesty….” Um, no.

GG: What word will you always misspell?

BP: Necessary.

It’s totally Nessi…Nesa…dammit…Necesaray…AGGGGGG…necessary…for me to spell that word wrong at least three or four times before I remember the dang “c”. That word lives in the broken part of my brain.

Learn the rules. Sit down in the chair. Forget the rules. And finish the damn thing.

GG: What word (or semblance of a word) would you like to see added to the dictionary? Why?

BP: “Atcha.” As in “Right back atcha, brother.” It’s about as Southern as “y’all” and “ain’t,” so it’s about due for “atcha” to have its day in the sun.

“Shirtbird” would be my runner-up. There’s just too damn many of them in the world not to be formally recognized.

GG: Any grammar pet peeves we should know about?

BP: Not really. I feel like once a writer has a firm grasp on the basic rules of grammar, then it’s just fine to throw the rulebook out the window. Sometimes dialect should be at the wheel, and grammar should take a back seat. Again, that’s something that stirs the pot with a lot of academics I’ve shared panels with, but throughout my career, I’ve come to learn that if the story is cooking with gas, then there are no rules. Just go for it.

GG: To what extent does grammar play a role in character development and voice?

BP: I usually play by the rules as far as narration goes if I’m writing in third person, but like I said, dialect is significant to building a character’s voice.

A nasty southern gangster is going to say…

“Don’t none y’all call me ‘till that sum b--ch is burnt all to hell in that oven out back,” Eddie said. “Ya’ll get me?”

Not…

“Please don’t anyone try to reach me until you have disposed of the corpse in the incinerator located outside in the back,” Eddie said, with a furrowed brow. “Does everyone understand me?”

GG: Do you have a favorite quote or passage from an author you’d like to share?

BP: I sure do.

Dig this passage by Hemmingway. This piece also fits nicely into the grammar conversation we are having.

“If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”

That passage above is lifted verbatim directly from "A Farewell to Arms," but do you think Papa gave much thought to the grammar as much as he did the power of what he was saying? Clearly not.

Yet, here it is anyway in all its glory existing to outlast us all. 

GG: What grammar, wording, or punctuation problem did you struggle with this week?

BP: Whether or not I wanted to share with the world my consistent inability to spell the word, Nessi…Nesa…dammit…Necesaray…AGGGGGG…you get my point.

And here’s a little springtime quarantine of 2020 bonus tip for all you up and coming writers out there who are locked inside your houses, feverishly working on the next great American novel.

Learn the rules. Sit down in the chair. Forget the rules. And finish the damn thing.

About the Author

Brian Panowich, Writing for Grammar Girl

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