Advice Column: Grammatical License in Writing

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Hey there, guys. Looks like I’ve got some interest in this advice column thing! It’s fun, so we’re going to keep doing it.

As always, if you have a question about writing, self-publishing, or, well, whatever you feel like asking me, post an anonymous comment anywhere on The Blawg, or send me an email at efrussel@gmail.com. A note: I won’t moderate your comment as public where you post it, so if you’re worried about something connected to that, don’t be. The only place you’ll see it again will be in the post where I answer it.

This question comes from a reader who’s seen me around Goodreads:

Hey I saw on GoodReads that you’re doing an advice column. I’ve read your stuff and it seems descent so, I thought I’d ask your opinion.

I recently got involved in a group of authors that do review swaps (but carefully so Amazon won’t get all hot, and bothered). Anyway one of the other authors dinged me a star, on my review. She said I had too many copyedit errors. When I asked her to point out one or too, she sent back a reply listing five and said that was only for the first too pages of my novel! Many of her comments were around comma use (except for the ones about hyphens). I don’t agree with her entirely re. the use of commas, would think there is some licence here. After all what do readers know, about grammar? Tell me I’m right. I can’t wait to wave your column under her nose.

JC

Dear JC,

I hate to say it, but there might not be any column-waving this time. Readers frequently know just as much, if not more, about grammar as we do–especially readers who are also authors. 🙂

That being said, I don’t know your novel, I don’t know her, and I don’t know the errors, so for all I know, she’s wrong on all five counts.

But whether she is or isn’t–there actually ARE some hard and fast rules of comma usage, though you’d never know it to listen to a lot of grammatical conversations. You don’t just use a comma ‘whenever there’s a pause for a breath in the sentence’– one of those popular phrases that’s been getting under my skin for years. I mean, if you did that, a death scene would be nothing, but, commas. Ending in one long, neverending trail of commas.

So if you want to check up and see who has the upper hand gramatically, here’s a pretty good list of all those times you should use a comma (and some of the times you shouldn’t). I disagree with them on the subject of the Oxford comma–while it IS standard in Americanized English, this doesn’t mean it’s a hard and fast rule–but otherwise, the advice there is gold.

But here’s the thing. There are times when I’d say you have some license with grammar when writing a novel. But these are times when there’s a distinct purpose to using poor grammar–I always think of Kaye Gibbons’s Ellen Foster when I think about this, probably just because it’s the first book I ever read that did use grammar as a stylistic tool. Ellen Foster is the story of a child, told by that child, and expressed as a child with little education would express it. Therefore, Gibbons’s grammar isn’t always good.

So. A writer does have some grammatical license in a story–as long as that license is being used, knowingly, to fulfill a purpose. The sort of character who would say ‘ain’t’, in other words, should say ‘ain’t’, even though it isn’t technically correct. If a story is told first person by a nine year old girl, ‘whom’ probably isn’t going to appear very frequently in it, even when it should. So, if your story is of this sort–if your misplacement of commas (assuming it is misplacement in the first place) is done deliberately, for fairly obvious purposes of mood setting or character voice–then the point may well be yours.

Just for fun, here’s a list of some long-held grammatical rules that perhaps aren’t really hard and fast rules, and are now considered okay for a writer to break in fictional writing. The first thing she talks about is another answer to your comma question–though I actually disagree with her there (or think, at least, it’s a device that should be employed VERY carefully), it’s what you were looking for in print. Even if she uses that phrase I hate. Hope it helps!

Yours,
Emily

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My New Blog Feature: Writerly Advice Column!

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Photo by Klaus Post at freeimages.com, uglified by moi.

I received an anonymous comment a few post back, and dad GUM if it didn’t give me the best fricking idea EVER.

We’re going to do an advice column. Because…well, why the hell not? It’s super fun. My advice is occasionally good. And this tickled me to tears. So.

If you have any questions you’d like me to answer in a post, feel free to add an anonymous comment to any post, or send me an email at efrussel@gmail.com. I prefer writerly questions, but hell, I’ll take your day-to-day too. Do I have credentials? No. Aw, hell no. But I have opinions in spades.

Dear Emily,

A writer friend told me I could count on you for advice about a sticky writerly situation. I’m up a creek; I’m dancing in the frying pan contemplating the fire; I’m caught between the devil and the deep blue sea (not that I’m particularly religious). I’m… well… wordless!

When I named my lead, I gave him a common name anyone would recognize. But then I gave him a shortened nickname that he prefers to be called–and no one knows how to pronounce it! Not only do my beta readers get it wrong when they talk to me, someone posted a review on AMAZON with INCORRECT PHONETIC PRONUNCIATION!!! Now EVERYONE says it wrong! (Okay… at least the ten people who bought the book get it wrong.)

What should I do?? Slap my beta readers around? Send a pipe bomb to the reviewer? Add a pronunciation guide to the start of each book? (Ew, he’s the lead in a SERIES! On the other hand, now that Amazon pays for lends by the word…)

Could you please reply on your blog, maybe dedicate a column to the care and feeding of readers? (I wouldn’t want friends or family to see the mail in my account while they’re violating my privacy.)

Thanks,
Embarrassed in Edenton

Dear Embarrassed in Edenton, (Changed your location, in case of beloved close-to-home privacy violators. Hope that’s okay!)

There may be questions in life to which pipe bombs are not the answer. However–they’re questions I never want to ask.
Pipe bombs aside–after all, internet stalking an Amazon reviewer can get tricky and downright tiresome, once you’re over the initial gonna-get-you thrill–I’d say you have a few choices.

First off–if people you know are mispronouncing the name, kindly and politely correct them. They won’t mind–after all, how would they know? This way, you at least don’t have to hear it all the time. That’s probably the worst part of it–just hearing it. Trust me, I just wrote a story called The King’s Might, and the main character, Jalith–his name is pronounced Hay-LEETHE. Of course, no one other than me really knows that, so, you know. I walk around all day, EVERY day, with the heavy knowledge of that (doubtless global) mispronunciation, JAYlith, like the burden of Atlas on my shoulders.

But Jalith is how I see it.

So, Atlaslike, I wander the earth.

That’s the thing, though. After those inital few people you talk to have been slapped into sensibility, you have to decide: just how important is the correct pronunciation of this nickname to you?

Because, even if you put a giant bold note in the front of the book, people are still going to mispronounce it. It’s just one of the failures of written communication. I didn’t understand that the name Telemachus, the son of Odysseus in the Odyssey, wasn’t pronounced ‘telly-machus’ until I was about sixteen, and happened to hear the name pronounced for the first time in high school English. In SPITE of the fact that my copy of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology had a glossary (with phonetic pronunciations!) in the back. In SPITE of the fact (and this one is amazing, I know) that I took Greek. At least, I’m pretty sure I’d taken Greek by that point. But you get it, anyway.

If it bothers you deeply, check and see if there’s somewhere you could write in a scene in which the pronunciation of the character’s name matters. Maybe a barista calls his name to get a coffee and he has to correct her, someone makes up a rhyme about him, he’s picking up an order left under his name, something similar–I don’t know your story, so it’s hard to say exactly what this might be, but you get the idea. People are far more likely to notice something IN the actual story than a note or aside. People tend to skip those.

Of course, you should only do this if you can do it without forcing it too terribly. But if you can, it’s probably the best way.

If you can’t, and you want to at least stake a claim on the right pronunciation, a glossary or a forward note does sound like your only other option. Of course, it sounds like you’ve already published, so precisely how much work you’re willing to go through for this is up to you. It wouldn’t affect your novel negatively, I don’t think, so there’s no harm in adding it. After all, it didn’t ruin Tolkien.

My point is, though–in the long run, people will mispronounce. They’re just going to do it. And you’re right, probably more now that someone had laid the turds of mispronunciation all over your Amazon page (pipe bombs and a reply are both, sadly, not a recommended solution). But, if I were you, I wouldn’t let it keep me up too late at night–these folks still enjoyed your story. And, if they check out your blog or twitter or whatnot as well, you might have some side opportunities to school them on it as well.

Yours,
Emily