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because I say so
Thursday, 1 May 2014
Listen to Your Grammar

A young man sits down next to his fellow passenger on an airplane. Attempting to strike up friendly conversation, he casually asks his seatmate, "Where are you from?"

His seatmate turns coolly to him and replies, "I'm from a place where people know better than to end a sentence with a preposition."

The young man nods knowingly, and then says, "I'm sorry. What I meant to say was where are you from, asshole?"

I hasten to add that the second man's next response ought to fittingly be, "Toronto," though that was likely not in the joke's original telling and is based primarily on my disdain for their baseball team, particularly as my beloved Boston Red Sox currently sit just one game ahead of Blue Jays at this writing. Alas, having just passed through Pearson International yesterday I'd best tread lightly lest any of them followed me home.

Last week I waxed eloquently (some would characterize it as whining) about my feelings on the chronic abuse of both the preposition and the apostrophe. By the time I reached the end of the column, or at least the end of what I thought the limits of readers' ability to continue a treatise on grammar, I realized so many more grammarian gripes were yet to be aired, from the lowly typo and the complete lack of clarity on the purpose and function of the comma (are you listening, Vancouver Sun?) to the inability to determine where one paragraph really ought to end and another begin (wait - are you still listening Vancouver Sun?).

But rather than create a laundry list - or worse, a bullet list - of language beefs, I remembered my original point of the conversation was to look at how my own grammatical eccentricities impact my writing. In short, how does one maintain good grammar when trying to write about real people?

To be sure, it would be much easier to do if more real people actually used better grammar, but since English language usage standards seem to be dropping faster than Justin Bieber's pants it seems I'm going to need to find a way to swallow my disdain and integrate the common parlance into my work if I want to maintain its authenticity.

Frequently, as I’m writing dialogue in particular, I find myself having to stop from writing in, well, proper sentences. I like to think my protagonist, Winston Patrick’s, use of language even in every day speech is, shall we say, more eloquent than that of many of his peers. At the risk of him appearing snooty – though a certain feigned snootiness is an element of who he is – I do like him to sound a bit different than other characters, that his words are often chosen more carefully and he speaks with the air of one who is well read and considerate of his language usage, not for grammar’s sake but for the sake of ensuring his message is clear, articulate and effective. Essentially, he uses language the way we would expect, to some extent, a lawyer to do. Lawyers, after all, are trained to use language with precision and craft; their work depends on its effective use.

Even beyond dialogue, I sometimes find myself challenged by wanting to write prose in a manner befitting my appreciation of the language but recognize that it often sounds, well, stilted, I suppose. Could it be that we’re so used to the casual nature of language in our 140 character, text message culture (I confess my text messages take longer not only due to my clumsy thumbs but to my need to have them grammatically correct) that deviation from the truly informal is the new unusual?

One time, when writing freelance for a daily publication (not the one previously mentioned but one published in the same building) I was told by an editor to be mindful of the fact that the publication targeted a reading ability between sixth and eighth grades. In other words, park your semi-colon at the door, Mister.

I like to think readers of the crime genre are a somewhat more literate lot, though I recognize they’re likely not expecting Proust when they crack open Deadly Lessons and it had better not read like him if I want them to continue on to Last Dance and W3.doc.

It’s a fairly constant pull for me, maintaining my own commitment to not contributing to the death of the Queen’s English and the authentic, credible sound of my books.

Next week: I guess it’s time for a W3.doc update.

Posted by davidrussellbc at 12:01 AM PDT
Updated: Thursday, 1 May 2014 6:57 AM PDT
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