Spelling, grammar, punctuation, syntax. For a lot of would-be writers, they seem to be love ‘em or leave ‘em – which is to say, many of the folks I talk to have either an absolute slavish devotion to formal grammar, punctuation, or else a firm conviction that such things exist only to give copyeditors something to do (and writers something to fight with them over). As usual, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
The most important thing for writers about the standard rules of English is that if you don’t know what they are and how to apply them, you are the equivalent of a surgeon attempting to operate on someone’s brain with a rusty Bowie knife and a longsword. If you don’t have the right tools for the job, the job is going to be a whole lot harder to do. And if you don’t know that the right tools even exist, you are unlikely to go looking for them.
The folks who think grammar and syntax are the copyeditor’s job are missing two important points: first, if you don’t know what standard English is and how it works, you won’t know when you are breaking those rules by mistake and, equally, you won’t be able to break them on purpose to achieve a specific effect. (And there are a lot of useful specific effects you can get from “breaking” certain specific rules of grammar.) Second, a writer who “leaves all that to the copyeditor” is giving the copyeditor the power to determine those effects, which can significantly change the meaning that the writer intended. The classic example is the unpunctuated sentence “Woman without her man is nothing” which can come out either “Woman, without her man, is nothing” or “Woman! Without her, man is nothing.” Punctuation is power…
The folks who insist on applying every rule of standard English grammar and syntax, regardless of any other consideration – indeed, some of them insist that there are no other considerations. They are the equivalent of a carpenter who insists on using his hammer for everything, including trying to saw a board in half. English is an enormously flexible language, and that flexibility can be enormously useful to writers if they understand it and use it correctly.
At this point, some earnest person nearly always asks me when and how they should abandon their formal grammar and syntax – essentially, asking for rules about breaking the rules.
What I always want to say is, “Sir or madam, there aren’t any.” Because the middle of the spectrum that starts with the rules-bound on one end and ends with the rules-averse on the other is a wide, fuzzy gray area scribbled with arrows and circles labeled “style” and “conversation” and “viewpoint” and “context” and innumerable other things. But saying “there aren’t any rules” isn’t going to help any, so instead I talk about context and feel and style and give some examples of places where a strict reliance on the rules for formal and/or standard English is likely to be detrimental to a piece of fiction.
First among these is dialog. I put it first because dialog occurs in almost every piece of fiction, and because it is one of the most common places for people to get hung up on whether or not to apply the rules of grammar and syntax. It’s also a place where it is pretty easy to illustrate why one can’t come up with a set of rules for when to apply those other rules. The first thing is, people don’t speak in the sort of formal essay-writing English to which most of the standard rules of English apply. Any writer who wants to write dialog that actually sounds like someone would say that is not going to be able to stick strictly to standard grammar, punctuation, and syntax at all times.
The second thing is, individual people don’t speak exactly like each other. There are differences in speech patterns that depend on each individual’s background and personality. Since most stories are not about identical twins or clones, this means that most characters will have different speech patterns from one another, and those patterns will be more marked the greater the differences in the characters’ backgrounds is. And if you get right down into it, a lot of the differences in speech patterns comes from different ways of “breaking the rules” of standard English, or rather, from using a slightly different, non-standard set of rules of grammar and syntax, along with a sprinkling of local idioms and turns of phrase.
First-person viewpoint is only second on my list of examples because not all stories are written in first-person. It is, however, a more comprehensive example, in that in a first-person narrative, all the sentences (not just the dialog) have to sound like something the viewpoint character would say or write. Frequently, this means that neither the narrative nor the dialog will follow standard English particularly strictly; occasionally, it may mean the writer will have to write even more formally than usual (say, if the viewpoint character is an extremely fussy English professor who makes a point of being more correct than anyone else even in his/her private journal). Huck Finn says things like “I ain’t seen nothin’ like it,” and for him to say anything else, in dialog or in narrative, would be to destroy the character’s voice. Archie Goodwin (Nero Wolfe’s sidekick and the narrator of most of those mysteries) would never say “I ain’t seen nothin’ like it” unless he was undercover or being sarcastic, and probably not even then.
In third-person narrative, the use, misuse, and overuse of standard English is much harder to pin down. Ultimately, it comes down to the writer’s preferences in style and voice – some prefer a more formal narrative, others want a conversational voice, or something that’s over-the-top like The Worm Ouroboros. The handling of dialog remains dependent on the voices of the different characters and the conversational tone, which nearly always means that the writer is applying two different criteria for “breaking the rules” (one set in the narrative, and a different set for the dialog).
The best (and possibly only) way I know to get a handle on all this begins with knowing what the rules of grammar, punctuation, spelling, and syntax are; after that, one reads widely, notices what other authors do, and does one’s best to figure out why they did it and why one thinks it does or doesn’t work. And after all, coming up with a set of rules for when you can break the rules is silly.