Saturday, 24 July 2010

Sometimes it's right to be wrong

I know the rules of English grammar. I do, honestly I do. I understand who and whom, your and you’re, and where words go in sentences.

I’ve had rows with people about English grammar. A mother at my children's school got very upset because the class teacher had written a sentence which ended with a preposition. ‘You learn that you shouldn’t do that in sixth grade!’ she said. ‘I think it’s fine,’ I replied. ‘You’re wrong,’ she said.

I gritted my teeth. How dare she challenge me? I had been a commissioning editor on a broadsheet national paper. How dare she! I’m ashamed to admit that I spent the evening printing out pages from the internet ('You've finally gone mad' said my husband) proving that I was correct – and presented her with them the following day. This is the kind of petty mania which possesses expat mothers, cut off from their professional lives. Quite soon afterwards I found myself a local job as an editor.

But in When I Was Joe and Almost True I break rule after rule, with abandon. It’s all in the voice. Ty says less when he should say fewer, he splits infinitives, he says ‘like’ instead of ‘as if’. Reading the final version of Almost True, I was horrified to find an error – a place where Ty uses correct grammar in saying ‘If I were Harry Potter’. Of course he should have said, incorrectly, ‘If I was..’

Sometimes I felt I should put a disclaimer at the beginning of the books reading: ‘The author would like to apologise for the narrator’s poor grammar, and assure readers that the mistakes are deliberate.’ But I didn’t. So if the preposition stickler mum ever gets hold of a copy then she will probably wave it in the air, saying ‘I knew it! She knows nothing about grammar.’

The final edit for Almost True was an exercise in thinking about grammar. The proof reader and editor had identified 972 instances where there could be a comma added or removed. I had to consider each one, thinking about the pace, the context, the clarity of the sentence. My instinct when writing was to avoid punctuation as much as possible, and to keep it simple. No colons or semi-colons, lots of ellipses, dashes - I love dashes – and full stops. Quite often my response to these phantom missing commas was to find a way to avoid their use altogether by cutting out sub-clauses and creating new short sentences.

I loved a recent obituary in The Economist for the Portuguese Nobel laureate in literature Jose Saramago, pictured above. Here is an extract from it:

Punctuation, he said, was like traffic signs, too much of it distracted you from the road on which you travelled, and if you wondered, Wouldn’t writing be rather confusing without it, he would say No, it was like the constant wash and turn of the sea, sounding even more sibilant in Portuguese than in English, or like a journey taken by a traveller, every step linked to the next and every end to a beginning, or like the press of time, no sooner coming than going, never stopping in the present, which consequently never existed.


  1. Grammar and punctuation - we really do use them mindfully! Why will editors never believe that?
    All you can do is grit your teeth and work through each and every one ...
    (Oh, and I love a good dash too. They definitely do things that no other punctuation can. Do you think that maybe editors never read the stuff aloud? Maybe that's it.)

  2. Well wrote, young lady! Grammar and punctuation frighten the hell out of me. I write in fast flurries and if it ain't right, then I must be excused. The whole point and message can be lost when one bogs themselves down with the 'proper/improper' use of. This message is full of mistakes, but it's what I wanted to say, my thoughts and words and if someone doesn't like it, that's their problem. Don't take the joy out of writing and's individual and far too precious!

  3. Grammar!
    Love this post, hate grammar though, lol.

  4. Whenever the words 'grammar' and 'rules' get combined in a sentence, I just know that there'll be bugbears about before too long. I tend to work quietly to my own standard, ignoring latin plurals and splitting my infinitives with abandon. I know the rules, so I've earned the right to ignore them, but that doesn't stop the Gotcha Brigade from jumping out of the bushes with 'AHA!' And there's no target so fat and juicy as a published writer.

    I love dashes too -- what would we do without them?

  5. No wonder so many kids write under pressure, panicked that they'll slip up with grammar. How is their creativity supposed to flow bounded by so many rules. I believe grammar has it's place, but so does honesty. It sounds like your story is narrated with a truthfulness that rigid grammar would mask.

    Thought-provoking post.

  6. I, too, have a dash habit - is this a family foible?

  7. I do understand what you mean about sticking, or not sticking, to grammatical rules. When we were editing our annual report, I had a running battle with the proof reader about 'which' and 'that'. It became a complete obsession. Tremendous fun though!

  8. I actually learnt a lot from the MS Word grammar checker. No really, I did. Once I got to the stage where I could understand why it was calling me out, I felt I was finally back in control of the whole grammar business.

    There seem to be a lot of people who have a fixed idea of language and grammar, unable to accept that these things shift constantly. Split infinitives, for instance, are largely old news now and I have to think the "like" and "as if" debate is going to be harder to argue considering the wholesale use of "like" in the wrong places by an entire generation.

  9. Slapping my editor's hat on, I do think it's an editor's job to challenge a writer when they seem to make grammatical errors. I mean, what if they don't realise.
    The challenge is how to teach children the rules, and at the same time let them know that the rules are there to be broken. Without the rules then they're lost, I fear.
    @Alun - no doubt because no one can ever finish an entire sentence.
    @Nick I hate the grammar checker. It's always telling me that I'm writing in fragments, and it's obsessed with semi-colons.

  10. Oh boy, I'm so dreading having an editor look at my work! I love my commas :)

    A lot of writing does break the rules though.

  11. Great post!
    I discovered, only when writing my ms, that I'm allergic to commas but use semi-colons almost as obsessively as MS Word; it is the most annoying tool.

    Now, is when I have to write lol; no?

  12. As a writer for 30+ years and an EFL ( English as a foreign language) teacher I can see both sides.
    I think writers need to know the grammar rules so that you can intentionally break them and not just make mistakes inconsistently here and there.
    But, as I always tell my students, the important thing is to be understood not to be grammatically correct.
    And I tell them my favourite quote ( but unfortunately I don't know who to attribute it to - there's a prepsition at the end !!)
    When you're in a foreign country what would you get on better with a dictionary or a grammar book.
    Grammar has its place in foreign language learning and for native English speakers - but you need to keep it in its place and not be a slave to it.

  13. Less and fewer drive me crazy when used incorrectly. And I agree, by the way, that there's nothing wrong with ending a sentence with a preposition. I also allow myself to start a sentence with 'and', if I want to. However, I wouldn't start a sentence with 'but'. Go figure. (That was a phrase with a capital letter and a full stop.)

  14. I'm a long time abuser of the comma splice (Hi, my name is Jan and I splice commas). Mind you I've see it done in literary award winning novels. Grammar, in many ways, can be quite subjective depending on what you decide to do with the sentence.

  15. When did "their" become singular? Is it now considered a correct substitution for "his or her"? (It is certainly less cumbersome.) Someone wrote, "If someone doesn't like it it's their problem."