My Name is Aravan. I Use Bad Grammar.

I am a writer, and I have sinned.  I have committed grievous and continuous offenses to all forms of correct English grammar, and I approach the altar as a supplicant, begging forgiveness.  I have let my participles dangle obscenely.  I use Inappropriate Capitalization.  Fragments.  Sentences have been written passively.  I have even succumbed to the strange thrill of writing increasingly complex and hard-to-understand run-on sentences because I love the strange but unmistakable air of someone who’s really trying to hard to say something all in one breath so that it seems like the sentence itself is generating its own sense of manic energy and continues on long after it shouldn’t and would make Ernest Hemingway roll over in his grave if he could manage it.  So I bow before thee, gods of the grammatically correct, and beg your forgiveness.  I have done well with the basic essentials of grammar, I swear, like correct punctuation and sentence structure and things like that, and my spelling tends to be good, so there’s still hope, isn’t there?  I present myself to you humbly and beg and plead for leniency and I promise that I’ll never –

You know what?  Fuck that.

I get the rules of grammar.  I do.  I understand that the rules are there for uniformity of language, so that words aren’t just randomly sprayed across the page like buckshot.  It’s all well and good.  But I have to admit that I have a problem with the overstiff formality of several of the grammatical rules, specifically the ones I’ve listed above.  The main problem with these rules is one thing, that one major problem that makes the rules so darn hard to keep intact and pretty and perfect like a 10-year-old in their Sunday best.

It’s people.  People are the problem.

Listen to people talk to one another in real life.  The grammar is terrible.  Fragments, run-ons, unclear subject-adjective-verb relationships.  And yet, somehow, we are able to speak to one another and make each other understood without having to sound like we are pretending like we live in Victorian England.  I’ll willing to wager quite a lot that the only people who spoke that way in the Victorian Era are the people in novels written about the Victorian Era.  This disconnect with how people speak in real life and dialogue on the written page is part of the reason (Standard Disclaimer: in my opinion, of course) why dialogue can be so hard to write and read.  The writer tries to make it grammatically correct; the reader tries to imagine the conversation playing out.  It doesn’t always come out too well.

The people problem causes a ripple effect.  English isn’t a dead language like Latin.  Living people still speak it conversationally, and that means that new ways of speaking become accepted.  Slang words become mainstream.  All manner of shenanigans follow.  “Who’s that guy I saw you with?” is a normal thing to hear.  It’s grammatically incorrect.  It also makes perfect fucking sense.  I understand the question.  You understand the question.  The only people who would correct it are the types of people who deserve to get punched in the face for correcting grammar in others’ speech (unless it’s your kids, then you get a pass.  Everyone else just needs to be left alone).  Especially if you bust out a Whom.  If you are the kind of person who regularly uses Whom, then, well… you are unlikely to enjoy my writing.

Why?  Because I like to break the rules.  Not because I’m some Grammarian James Dean, smirking and leaning against a library bookshelf.  It’s because I can use incorrect grammar to make a point, like I did up top with that run-on sentence.  I like using them occasionally, to convey a sense of a lot of things happening in a very short span of time.  I use them when the character’s perspective lends itself to using them – if I’m writing from the eyes of a manic who just finished eight shots of espresso, I need that sense of breathless thought to come across the page.  Deliberate, planned, coherent sentences don’t lend themselves to me trying to show this viewpoint to the world.

Same thing with fragments and Incorrect Capitalization and all that.  I do it on purpose, because that’s my style.  It becomes much more pronounced in first-person stories like “Blamers” since they are, to me, extended dialogues.  I use them a lot less in fixed perspective stories like Curse, and still less in narratives like “The Space.”  For better or worse, it’s how I communicate with the world, and I can’t do it any other way, because when I try it feels less genuine, less like me.

So I’m going to keep doing it.  I’m an Unrepentant Despiser of Whom.  I apologize in advance to those I offend with my flouting of the rules.  But I assure you: I do know those rules.  I just don’t always choose to follow them.  My voice is far from perfect, but it’s Mine, and it’s the only one I know how to use.

About Alan Edwards

Former cancer caregiver. Husband of the most magical and amazing person who ever lived.

Posted on May 9, 2011, in Philosophizin' and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. While I’m a huge grammar fanatic, I agree with many of your points, especially what you said about how people talk. The way we speak is full of major grammar no-no’s, but we’re still able to get our message across. That’s fine and acceptable in every day life. Expected, even.

    Characters in books have to speak in ways that sound natural, so sometimes we resort to incorrect usage. I have no problem with that. If incorrect grammar is a voice/style thing in narrative, fine–as long as it’s consistent throughout the entire manuscript. My problem comes when I read something that clearly shows a lack of command of English language rules. If I pick up a book with tons of errors that aren’t *intended* – and you can tell when it’s intended – I won’t read.

    Great post! Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    • I agree with you about having a problem with stuff that just ignores every rule. That drives me absolutely insane, which strikes me as funny since I so often use bad grammar, but I can’t help it. Trying to read stuff that is completely ignorant about the rules is just brutal. I always hope that when I write it’s comes across as on-purpose. It probably doesn’t. Editors hate me. Heh.

      Thanks for commenting! It is much appreciated. =)

  2. Annie K. Griggs

    My mother is a retired English teacher. My daughter graduated Magma Cum Laude with a degree in English.

    I *have* to break the rules. I can’t help it. I just love the looks on their faces. My daughter rolls her eyes in just the cutest way.

    I have to admit, though, I rather miss my mother sending back my emails, all corrected and purty like. And I’m one of those ‘whom’ people. But mostly just at work. I work at a hardware store. Again, I do it for the looks from the employees and customers.

    I just might need a real life.

    • That’s awesome. I wouldn’t be able to resist either. Egging people on is just too much fun.

      And being a Whomer at work just for the looks it generates? That sounds like the correctly warped perspective necessary to qualify as a Real Life.

  3. So true & so Freaking funny! I hate stiff, overly formal dialogue when I read. Thanks for sharing!

    • Heh. I was actually partly worried to post this and enrage an army of red-pen-wielding English teachers – I’m glad it come across as funny as intended. Thank you for commenting!

  4. Okay, just because it seems like you expected it…You BARBARIAN!!! How dare you flout the rules of grammar!!! don’t you know that it’s attitudes like yours that are leading to the collapse of Western Civilization!??!?!?

    There. Feel better?

    Seriously though, I don’t think you should ever feel constrained to follow grammatical rules when writing dialog, unless it is appropriate for the character. Deliberately using incorrect grammar to make a point as you did in your post(well done, btw) should certainly be a tool in your tool bag.

    When I was in college I took a history of the English language course. As part of the class we had a lecture series discussing form versus function. After an hour long talk about the primacy of function (Did you understand what the sound meant? Then it’s a word.) During the question phase one of the professions asked what could be done about getting students to stop misusing “alot.” Perhaps this one, or one of her ilk have been persecuting you.

    On the other hand, I have a pretty good grammar background. I know when to use whom when I need to. (Oops) I also know how to use the conditional were. Oftentimes poor grammar leads to sentences that do not sound/read right. Knowing the rules makes it a heck of lot easier to ferret out the problem.

    To be sure I have not read that much of your stuff, just this blog mostly and some of your short stories. I finally got around to downloading Troius and just started reading it on my phone (cha ching!). Frankly, I just don’t see grammar problems in your writing.

    • I’m glad you haven’t come across the bad kind of bad grammar (yet), when things become unreadable. I tend to mostly flout the nit-picky stuff, I hope.

      And thanks for the punishment! Maybe that’s what I secretly crave, getting my hands slapped by stern-looking teachers with rulers. Wow, that totally came out weirder when I typed it than when I thought it in my head.

  5. You know what I hate? It’s when people take nouns and make verbs out of them. You know, like attrition. As in “We attritted the enemies forces.”

    Or like building. “We are building that building over there.”

    • A co-worker recently told me that they were going to diary something, then later on they said they would calendar it. I thought my brain was going to melt.

  6. LOVE this! I actually have a degree in English, and I couldn’t agree with you more. Write with abandon, be true to your voice, and screw those uptight “grammarians.” 🙂

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