Grammar Is (Not Really) For Wusses


– not very often –

but sometimes….

It is worth throwing out the conventional laws of grammar.

Let me add, a great deal of bad text has been written by people who have decided that they’re above the basic laws of language, and piddling details such as narrative, character or the meaning of words are for lesser people who don’t yet appreciate their genius.  Grammatical laws exist to propagate meaning, which is all we’re in the business of doing.

A lot of people over-use grammar, especially when they’re writing a speech or something academic.

“It is my opinion, that, in light of the information available, we here now must make the decision, to act for the betterment of ourselves, of others, while we still can, to make a better world, and free the puppies.”

“In 1848 the peoples of Europe experienced massive socio-cultural change; this change came in the form of rebellion; discourse; tyranny; eventually war.”

Ah the over-used semi-colon; just because you can use it, doesn’t mean what you’re saying as actually that smart.  Oh the abused-comma, thrown in every time you imagine you’re taking a long, deep, breath.  “And friends, I say, here tonight, we can go forth, making a better world, with our puppies.”

But in this over-use there is also a wonderful beauty.  For lo, in the addition or subtraction of a simple comma, a character emerges.

“And friends I say, here tonight we can go forth, making a better world with our puppies.”

Not only meaning is altered, but character is changed.  From a pompous old speechifier pausing to breathe every three words, emerges a slick protagonist with the gift of the gab, for whom the words flow swift and easy.  How delightful that a little tweak of punctuation can change the voice!  Go abuse that magic, say I.

What about ‘natural’ dialogue?  Very few characters in books talk naturally.  Natural dialogue is full of half-finished sentences, pauses and jumps in meaning, as well as a lot of gabble.  I remember writing the Extraordinary Adventures of Horatio Lyle, which was stuffed full of ellipses as people were too uncomfortable to finish their thoughts.  (This was set in the 1860s.)

“I say are those um….”

“My ankles?”

“Your uh…”

“You haven’t seen ankles before…?”

“Well isn’t the weather lovely?”

“Do we need to talk about the uh…?”

“No, no, not the ankles it’s very….”

“The weather is nice isn’t it?”

“Yes.  The weather is lovely.”

Years later, I’m a) feeling a bit more empowered by confidence to do better and b) have spent a lot of time in theatre.  And in a lot of modern playwriting – I look specifically at dudes like Moira Buffini and Carol Churchill – but probably also need to nod towards Pinter perhaps – there’s other ways of expressing and indeed writing all of this down.

BOB:  Could you pass the

JANE: Did you see where I put the

BOB: Yes you left it on the stand by the

JANE: I see it!

BOB: The salt actually I was

JANE: Forgetting my own head next

BOB: I’ll get it myself I’ll

JANE: Always loved this hat sorry you were saying

BOB: Too late now I’ve got the

JANE: Oh you want the salt

BOB: I’ve got

JANE: I’ll get it!

BOB: I’ve got it

JANE: You’ve got it why did you ask for it then?

In some forms actors overlapping on lines is written with a / to imply where one line cuts into another.  A lot of the time this stuff just emerges naturally.  One of the best Shakespearean directors I’ve ever seen managed to utterly destroy a readthrough on day 1 on rehearsals, when his actors started reading a Shakespearean text in their special Shakespeare Reading Voices, which all actors have, and which you are very unlikely to go to the theatre without one day having to endure.  It’s a bit like having a trombone declaim at you… for three hours.

“No no no no!  Stop stop stop!” the director exclaimed.  “What are you doing?”

“Um… reading my opening monologue.”

“Well stop, and start again!  And this time put in sneezes.”


“Struggle!  Have a hard time finding your words!  Go ‘um’.  Get distracted!  Behave like a human being!”

The poor bewildered actor took three more attempts to get through the opening monologue under this burden, and the rest of us technicians slunk away, suddenly aware that there wasn’t going to be a read-through this day after all.  The final performance was fantastic; people huffed and stumbled, cut into each other’s lines, listened with actual intention rather than just for their cues, and it all felt much more like a thing that was happening, and mattered, instead of a performance on the stage.

Sometimes writing beautiful dialogue can be exactly that, and the patterns and flow of it can be a joy in itself.  (I’m not going to attempt an example here; ‘beautiful’ is upping the stakes a little.)  There is nothing wrong with this; there is much that is delightful and one of the reasons to read a book instead of just earwig on everyone who passes you by.

But sometimes it pays to break the rules.

“She’s dead.  I didn’t want to tell you but”


“Marge was supposed to but she’s that’s how it happened you see that’s how it”

“How did she die?”

“How did she….”

“Die how did she she’s dead how did she why did how did she die?”

“Pecked to death by a flock of hypocritical flamingos.”

“Flamingos pecked to”

“By flamingos yes.”

“I don’t understand why would they when did this happen?”

“Last week.”

“And she’s dead?”

Sometimes, the rules of grammar fail us in our spoken lives, and as scribblers it may occasionally behove us to break the written rules too, to honour the fact that our thoughts do not always line themselves up in beautiful, ordered patterns and behaviours.

But I suspect that like all the best rules you break… you probably gotta be comfortable with what the rule is, means and does first.  Learn to paint in straight lines first; when you’ve got that down, then like an impressionist painter on a starry night, you can let rip.

One Comment:

  1. I like this post very much. I also like some of Dennis Kelly’s plays which do this sort of dialogue.

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