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Southern_girl29
12-11-2006, 07:57 PM
My online writing group is involved in a discussion about grammar, mainly because of two works, one of my mine and one from someone else. Her novel is young adult, and my piece is a short story in the women's fiction genre.

Her work contains a lot of bad grammar, because it is the style of this particular teenager to speak and think that way. Mine is told in first person, from an older Southern woman. She also uses bad grammar.

One member of the group told us that we severely limit our market because of the bad grammar and the jargon. He also said that in the narration you should almost always use correct grammar. I said that you shouldn't always use correct grammar, especially if the voice of the story wouldn't.

So, what is your take on this? Do you think that narration should almost always use correct grammar? Or do you believe that it depends on the voice the piece is written in?

Bufty
12-11-2006, 08:15 PM
Personally, I prefer to read decent grammar if by that you mean accepted use and correct punctuation. There is leeway in dialogue, but a book wholly written in phonetic spellings and bad grammar due to the perceived voice of the narrator doesn't appeal to me off the bat.

I would have thought it preferable to use word choice and sentence construction in the narration rather than bad grammar ad infinitum. I know plenty of folk who speak correctly and intelligently even though lacking education and writing skills, and to all intents and purposes the narrator is speaking -as invisibly as possible, usually.

janetbellinger
12-11-2006, 08:32 PM
I agree with Bufty on that one.

aliajohnson
12-11-2006, 08:48 PM
[quote=Southern_girl29]

So, what is your take on this? Do you think that narration should almost always use correct grammar? quote]

Personally? No. Please no. There is something that feels wrong about a narration done in the queen's English when your setting is say--rural south or middle of nowhere Montana. There's an incongruency there that constantly reminds me it's a book. I can never loose myself in the story and characters.

On the other hand, I agree that a book written mostly phonetically is a very, very, very bad idea. But I've read a couple of your stories and you're not doing this so no worries there.

a tree of night
12-11-2006, 08:56 PM
If I can understand what is being said, and it makes sense in context, I don't have a problem with something written in a particular vernacular. On the other hand, my wife would never get past the first chapter. It's just different reading styles.

Bufty
12-11-2006, 08:57 PM
Don't folk in Montana use the queen's, or American English?

Southern_girl29
12-11-2006, 09:02 PM
I'm not really talking about vernacular. It's more of using a few sentence fragments, run-on sentences and slang, such as ain't, fixing to, gonna and a few instances where the subject and verb don't agree such as She don't or He don't, instead of She doesn't and He doesn't.

The piece in question in my writing group is posted her in the Share Your Work Forum. It's called Her Silent Voice.

aliajohnson
12-11-2006, 09:10 PM
Don't folk in Montana use the queen's, or American English?

Okay,you're right. That was poor way for me to phrase that. What I meant was--if you've got an old cowboy who speaks with an accent answering the question "What did you do with the ponies?" It's more believable for him to say "Put 'em up" than "I put them in the stables."

I'm not advocating using "'em" in narration, of course, (Yeesh, can you imagine?) but if the narration is in the style of Dickens, that wouldn't fit right either, would it? Particularly if any degree of it is from the character's POV.

It is a matter of taste, I suppose. Personally, I'd rather see grammatical errors that fit with time and place than perfect grammar that pulls me out of the story.

If this doesn't make perfect sense, I apologize--Allergy medicine. :sleepy:

piscesgirl80
12-11-2006, 09:38 PM
I'd rather see grammatical errors that fit with time and place than perfect grammar that pulls me out of the story.


Ditto. If it's something you're worried about, you might look at other Southern/Appalachian lit authors you enjoy, and see how they handle it.(Like "Fair and Tender Ladies" by Lee Smith, for example.)

a tree of night
12-11-2006, 09:38 PM
It's more of using a few sentence fragments, run-on sentences and slang, such as ain't, fixing to, gonna and a few instances where the subject and verb don't agree such as She don't or He don't, instead of She doesn't and He doesn't.

That don't confront me none.

Roger J Carlson
12-11-2006, 09:50 PM
Grammar is important because it works. Sentences that are grammatically correct are easier to read than those that aren't. So on the whole, it is better to write grammatically correct sentences -- especially in the narrative.

That said, I don't think you should be too adamant about it either. There are times when breaking the rules of grammar can be effective. Dialog is certainly one place, but if the grammar is too bad, your reader might not be able to read it. If the narrative is also in the first person, there is good reason to use colloquial English.

But even in straight, third-person narrative, there can be reasons for breaking grammar rules. A series of short sentence fragments can add a sense of urgency to the narrative. But don't over do it. A whole book of sentence fragments will be nearly unreadable.

Point is, if you're going to break grammar rules, do it purposefully and sparingly.

Shadow_Ferret
12-11-2006, 10:49 PM
I think you can still be grammatically correct while writing in slang, an accent, or "the vernacular" as it were.

Personally, I'd like to see a paragraph or three to understand what it is I'm trying to talk intelligently about, don't ya know?

Roger J Carlson
12-11-2006, 10:53 PM
I think you can still be grammatically correct while writing in slang, an accent, or "the vernacular" as it were.

Personally, I'd like to see a paragraph or three to understand what it is I'm trying to talk intelligently about, don't ya know?Good point. What are we talking about?

Using "ain't" and "gonna" is entirely different than: using, non--standard; punctuation or used the wrong tense.

Southern_girl29
12-11-2006, 11:03 PM
I think you can still be grammatically correct while writing in slang, an accent, or "the vernacular" as it were.

Personally, I'd like to see a paragraph or three to understand what it is I'm trying to talk intelligently about, don't ya know?

Here is a link to my piece. It was my work and another lady's work that brought this up.

http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?t=48059

Roger J Carlson
12-11-2006, 11:20 PM
Momma's use of vernacular is fine here. It's not really narration so much as it is a monalogue with the reader. But you've got some tense shifts that are distracting. Also, Momma switches from talking in the first person present to the first person past.

Examples:
"They think I’m senile just because I can’t speak anymore."

"I’m talking about my children."

but then:

"I nodded, then shook my head."

"She went to the college her daddy wanted her to go to, married a man we all liked, had two kids — a boy and a girl. Even though she ain’t got no control over that, I think she sort of willed it to happen because that’s what she thought she should have. Whatever Janice suggested, she’d go along with it."

ETA: I don't quite know how to put this into words, but at some points, she seems to be talking to herself and at others, she's acting as a narrator. The last example here is one such. It didn't ring true with the rest of the narrative. A little too third-person-ish to me.

ETA: Oh, a minor thing, but there are a few places where "momma" should be capitialized. Anytime it's used as her name, it's capitialized.

Southern_girl29
12-11-2006, 11:45 PM
Momma's use of vernacular is fine here. It's not really narration so much as it is a monalogue with the reader. But you've got some tense shifts that are distracting. Also, Momma switches from talking in the first person present to the first person past.

Examples:
"They think Iím senile just because I canít speak anymore."

"Iím talking about my children."

but then:

"I nodded, then shook my head."

"She went to the college her daddy wanted her to go to, married a man we all liked, had two kids ó a boy and a girl. Even though she ainít got no control over that, I think she sort of willed it to happen because thatís what she thought she should have. Whatever Janice suggested, sheíd go along with it."

ETA: I don't quite know how to put this into words, but at some points, she seems to be talking to herself and at others, she's acting as a narrator. The last example here is one such. It didn't ring true with the rest of the narrative. A little too third-person-ish to me.

ETA: Oh, a minor thing, but there are a few places where "momma" should be capitialized. Anytime it's used as her name, it's capitialized.

Thanks Roger for reading it. I really appreciate it. I'm not how to fix the first person present/first person past thing. I'll take a look at that paragraph about her daughter and see what I can do with it.

blackbird
12-11-2006, 11:46 PM
A good model is Alice Walker's The Color Purple. I suggest perhaps you read it, or read it again if you have already. Other than a few brief passages that are written from the viewpoint of the MC's sister Nettie, most of this novel is the MC Celie's voice, and it is written exactly as she would speak, in the black dialect of a rural Southern girl. Somehow, Walker manages to pull this feat off without alienating the reader (and don't forget this was a bestseller and a Pulitzer Prize winning novel). But I think the real trick is in examing the craft of how she achieves this.

First of all, the novel is an epistolary narration, so we accepot from the beginning that we are reading not only the character's narration, but her written letters. This automatically gives some license.

Secondly, the effect is achieved by carfeully choosing to manipulate words in such a way that an average reader can still figure it out without having to put a lot of effort into it. An example: "She tried to get his
tension." We know immediately, without having to decipher, that what Celie is saying is that "She tried to get his attention."

Thirdly, there has to be consistency, so that once a reader has learned your character's "code" and has grown comfortable with it, they can safely assume it's not going to change (unless we switch to another character's voice). This means if the character says "git" for "get" on page 1, we can trust they'll do so on page 301 as well. (Of course, you can make some subtle allowances if it's understood that your character has gone through significant change by the end of the book--obviously, if they are an older person, the voice may have grown a bit more sophisticated and mature. Or if they've become more educated and well-read. Naturally their voice should reflect such changes, but most readers will aceept this if you give them reason to believe the change is credible).

Another great example is Huckleberry Finn. Both the narration AS WELL as the dialogue is written in Huck's voice, and it seemed to have worked for Mark Twain just fine.

I agree with those here who have said you have to be true to your character's voice, and this is as true of their narration and internal monologues as well as their dialogue. However, if you're finding that too many readers are being put off by it, you might try reeling the voice in just a bit and making some subtle alterations. For example, if you've resorted to using funny or phoentic spellings, that may be too gimmicky for most readers. You can get the idea of their voice across by their manner of speaking and the words that they use. Unique phrases are one way of achieving this effect: "She had two sons, but everyone could tell it was David--the youngest--that hung her moon." Readers are usually much more tolerant of that kind of thing than trying to decode an entire idiom.

But I would highly suggest reading as many works as you can find that are similar in tone and style to what you're doing, that is, first-person narratives where the MC is somewhat young, naive, or uneducated. Narrow those down to the ones you really like--the ones you find most readable--and assess how the writer achieves their effect. This is really the best way to learn, and as for the critque groups, take it with a grain of salt. Many people who offer that kind of critque simply haven't read enough, or they haven't read enough first-person narratives in this style that truly work. Remember that a good critique group will work WITH your story and the aims it is trying to achieve; not to try to turn it into something it's not.

Roger J Carlson
12-11-2006, 11:47 PM
Thanks Roger for reading it. I really appreciate it. I'm not how to fix the first person present/first person past thing. I'll take a look at that paragraph about her daughter and see what I can do with it.To be honest, I don't know how I'd fix it either. Each spot individually sounds okay, but juxtaposed, they sound wrong.

Bufty
12-12-2006, 12:00 AM
Southerngirl, the piece you've written is nowhere near what I had imagined from your original post. Apart from the wee point Roger mentioned, there's nothing in the piece that would cause me to question the grammar.

Roger J Carlson
12-12-2006, 12:09 AM
Southerngirl, the piece you've written is nowhere near what I had imagined from your original post. Apart from the wee point Roger mentioned, there's nothing in the piece that would cause me to question the grammar.I agree, and I should have said so from the beginning. I think Momma has a strong voice, and I could "see" everybody in the room. That's not easy in such a short section.

Southern_girl29
12-12-2006, 12:20 AM
Thanks. This has been a huge discussion in my writing group about using bad grammar. I just read over the piece again to see if I could figure out what he was talking about, and honestly, I couldn't. I also read the other person's piece, and she captured the voice of a teenage girl perfectly. I think I'm just going to let it go because he feels very strongly about this.

Roger J Carlson
12-12-2006, 12:23 AM
I once had a publisher (well, POD micro-publisher) tell me that you should never have contractions in the narrative. So I took them all out. It sounded so odd and stilted that I had to put them back in.

Never take anyone's advice without a grain of salt -- unless they're offering cash.

Bufty
12-12-2006, 12:31 AM
This one of the dangers of critique groups, especially where someone has strong feelings and is also able to 'speak' with an authoritative sounding voice. One of the benefits of a Board like AW is that such folk are usually pounced on fairly quickly if the point cannot be justified.

In this case it looks as though the critter has shown he either doesn't know what he's talking about or didn't make it clear he was talking generally as opposed to in relation to your specific submission.


Thanks. This has been a huge discussion in my writing group about using bad grammar. I just read over the piece again to see if I could figure out what he was talking about, and honestly, I couldn't. I also read the other person's piece, and she captured the voice of a teenage girl perfectly. I think I'm just going to let it go because he feels very strongly about this.

ChaosTitan
12-12-2006, 04:28 AM
But don't over do it. A whole book of sentence fragments will be nearly unreadable.


You don't read a lot of James Ellroy, do you? ;)

I'll just add this: what Roger and Bufty said.

Also, I love sentence fragments. :LilLove: In moderation, of course.

tlblack
12-12-2006, 04:49 AM
Ah'moan say the'us strait frum whut I grew upa heerin.

I am from the DEEP South and I hear people talking that way every day that passes. I too use "some" of the Southern English in my writing, but if I were to use it in every sentence or every conversation between characters, nobody could read it. I understand your wanting to use it and as long as it is limited to only just one character and not too overrun with "southern", it could work. One of the most common phrases that we southerners butcher on a daily basis is: Can I help you? It comes out... "Coulda hep ya?" It really distracts from the flow of the writing if you suddenly have to stop and say... read that first sentence I posted.

FennelGiraffe
12-13-2006, 11:38 PM
Uncle Jim (http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?t=6710) says dialog is privileged and first-person narration is dialog.

But we don't write dialog the way people really speak. We write dialog the way people think they speak. We tidy it up enough to be readable. We leave out most of the uhh's and umm's and false starts and repetition.

For a character who has non-standard grammar, I would pick one or two constructions, use those consistently, and keep everything else standard. I think that would read much more smoothly, while maintaining the flavor of the vernacular.

janetbellinger
12-13-2006, 11:49 PM
I don't have a password to access the forum but from what was posted here, I don't have a problem with the language you've used. I had imagined it might all be phonetic spelling or something.

Bufty
12-14-2006, 01:28 AM
Dialogue is 'tidied up' to be readable and meaningful.

Dialogue may be privileged, but that assumes it's on a level that deserves to be so. Sometimes it's so diabolical it gives up any claim to be privileged, but in those cases the acceptance of its being privileged is as good a reason as any to avoid stepping into the minefield.