How to Escape the Claws of the Grammar Police
If superfluous commas, misplaced apostrophes (looking at you, it’s/its, they’re/their!), and sentence-ending prepositions make you flinch in horror, you’re in the right place. We take grammar seriously at The Daily Post; my fellow editors and I can often be found quibbling and nitpicking over tenses, modes, and — you guessed it — punctuation. Good writing, though, isn’t merely about adhering to rules. It’s also about knowing how and when to break them. Today, let’s talk about grammar — and the kinds of liberties you might consider taking with it.
Know your grammar
We’d all like to think we’re the Lifetime Presidents of the Global Union of Universally Accepted Grammar. (Wait, you don’t?!) In reality, English is spoken by billions. Everywhere it’s spoken, its grammar depends, to a certain extent, on the community that uses it. One person’s aberration can be another’s standard — so we should all relax just a bit before jumping on every imagined grammatical offense (except for my pet peeves, please; those are clearly unacceptable).
It follows that breaking grammar rules means breaking your grammar rules — those that your community of friends, relatives, colleagues, and readers deems acceptable.
Infuse your writing with human voices
Spoken language is inherently forgiving of grammatical oddities, from up-talk (raising your voice as if you’re asking a question, even though your sentence isn’t one) to incomplete sentences and false starts. Incorporating bits of conversation into your writing will liven it up — and allow you to show a more playful side to your grammar. You could replicate actual exchanges, come up with imaginary ones, or just tone down your usual written voice to a more oral-sounding one.
Like our scars and other imperfections, the errors we make when we speak are an important part of how the world sees us: they make us unique. If you have a verbal tic that really conveys a sense of how you sound, embrace it — even if it’s not 100% correct.
Tip: Engaging speakers often make the kinds of mistakes your composition teachers would really hate (for example, using run-on sentences to convey a sense of urgency). Who’s the best storyteller in your family? Listen to that person talk, and try to nail a couple of verbal tics that might be “incorrect,” but help engage the listener.
Internet grammar is broken. Why fix it?
There’s a whole array of expressions that would make any gruff editor’s blood curdle, yet are indispensable for anyone commenting on and participating in online discourse. Phrases like “I can’t even” and “all the things” are everywhere. So is the grammatically incomplete fragment “Because X” (“I went for a jog. Because health.”). Some choose to avoid these phrases altogether. Others don’t even realize they aren’t, strictly speaking, correct. What about aiming for a more pragamtic middle ground?
While meme-talk isn’t necessarily the most advanced form of rhetoric, these expressions are part of contemporary culture, along with their imperfect grammar. It feels silly not to use them (and other internet-generated phrases du jour), at least in some contexts (not to mention ironically!).
Give your writing a taste of the foreign
Many of us live in international communities, with people speaking English with a whole variety of accents and dialects. It’s often through listening to others that we come to terms with the strangeness of our own language, and incorporating some of this insight into your writing can make it more interesting.
The effects can range from the comical to the poignant. Think, for example, of how Russian speakers often omit the definite article in English (“Can I have pencil, please?”), imbuing specific objects with a touch of universality. Or how speakers of languages with gendered nouns — German, French, Hebrew, Spanish, etc. — will often refer to an inanimate object as a he or a she (try deciding whether your desk, or your eyes, are male or female: it can be hilarious. And/or touching).
Tip: When channeling speakers who use grammar differently, whether they’re foreign or belong to a different community, you might want to take extra care making sure what you’re writing doesn’t come off as parody.
It’s all in the dosage
Imagine a 1000-word blog post written entirely in lolspeak (moar nightmarez, pleaze!). If you survived that thought, imagine, now, a sharply-written piece on electoral reform, into which you drop, mid-way, a sentence with awful feline grammar (“we can haz moar votes,” for example). Context is always key, but so is dosage: whether you use bad grammar for comic effect or otherwise, keeping it limited to specific moments will only make it more powerful.
There might not be a ready-made formula for how much grammatical idiosyncrasy is too much of a good (bad) thing. As a general rule, though, if your reader can no longer know whether you’re making errors intentionally or not, it might be a good idea to dial it down a bit. No one has ever complained about too much clean, clear prose.
What’s your take on grammar? Are there cases where it’s fine to relax the rules a bit? Have you used (or seen) any creative uses of alternative grammar? We’d love to hear your input.