I am a self-professed grammar geek.
I suppose it was inevitable. After all, my mother used writing exercises as punishment. She’d hand us a dictionary and have us copy out the full definitions for the number of words she considered proportional to the offense. Naturally, the words were related to the crime: respect, consideration, lying, etc.
Although I was a pretty good kid, my sister and I fought a lot, so we learned a lot about the dictionary and, thus, the English language.
I should probably copy out the dictionary definition of “gratitude” and send it to my Mom for old times’ sake.
These days, my dictionary is always close at hand. But my love of all things grammar has had to take a bit of a back seat.
Not because it’s no longer important — it is — but because in fiction writing, proper grammar can just get in the way.
I was dismayed the other day to find out that no matter how pretentious I am about proper grammar, I don’t speak it. And that’s a good thing.
Were I to speak as I write — mindful of every word, punctuation mark, coordinating conjunction and dangling participle — I’d sound like Data from Star Trek.
I love Data, but that’s not what I want to sound like.
In fiction, it’s important to write the dialogue as the character would speak it. After all, that’s how we’ll hear it in our heads as we read it. But this can be harder than it sounds.
You see, I’m not the only one who gets proper grammar stuck in her head.
I was conferring with one of our book editors the other day and advising her about a problem she had with a piece of writing she was reviewing. The author, new to the field, had warned about his bad grammar. But in reading the copy, it had the opposite problem. The grammar was far too proper for the characters. The writer had gotten in his own way and sterilized his characters’ voices because he was so worried about using proper English.
It’s a mistake we see often with new writers. Hopefully, this author will learn to overcome his programming, find his voice, and write for the characters instead of his English teachers.
Allyson Longueira is publisher of WMG Publishing. She is an award-winning writer, editor and designer.