When Grammar Doesn’t Matter

My name is Rebekah, and I’m a grammar nazi.

There, I admitted it.

I love language. I love when it’s used properly, and with elegance. Grammar is primarily intended to add clarity to words, and clarity is always a good thing. But… though it pains me to say it… sometimes good grammar isn’t necessary, or even the best choice.

This doesn’t mean you can run amok with comma splices, misused apostrophes, and dangling modifiers. Those, in particular, never look intentional, and I’ll just assume you don’t know what you’re doing. Nor does it mean that grammar is optional while doing business or technical writing. You’ll look ignorant.

But creative writing is a whole other creature. Creative writing, at its best, is all about style. It is wielded, sometimes in uncommon ways, to create a picture, an atmosphere, or a feeling. That gives you a lot more freedom to bend the rules. Before you embrace this freedom with abandon, though, you need to understand why the rules are there in the first place. Again, for the most part, grammar exists to provide clarity–and while style can trump grammar, clarity always trumps style.

Clarity > Style > Grammar

Here are a few of the rules that are definitely bendable if not outright breakable in creative writing:

Sentence fragments. 

Beginning a sentence with a conjunction.

Ending a sentence with a preposition.

In general, that last one is a good idea… except when it makes your sentence sound clunky and awkward. Like this:

That is a rule up with which I will not put. Yeah… no.

And then, the biggie:

Any grammatical errors spoken in dialogue by a character.

I’m not talking about the punctuation that frames the dialogue. If you’re struggling with that, I break it down here. What I’m talking about are the actual words spoken by your characters. Dialogue needs to sound natural, and even the most fastidious English teachers toss grammar out the window when speaking.

There’s one more flexible rule that I’m going to toss out there that is probably going to bring down the wrath of all of my fellow grammar nazis…

Faulty pronoun references.

This one is actually a biggie, because misusing your pronoun references can create a lot of confusion, so it’s usually a good idea to keep it. That’s why I call this one flexible, rather than breakable. Example:

When John saw the man walk through the door, he screamed.

So, who screamed? John, or the man? Now, granted, a reasonably intelligent person can usually use their context clues, but you also don’t want your reader to have to stop and figure it out. So, when can you bend it? In my opinion, you can bend this rule when it’s reasonably clear through immediate context, and restructuring the sentence makes it ugly. Examples:

“Wrong”: Suri stormed into Tim’s room to complain about the gift. This made him angry.
“Right”: Suri stormed into Tim’s room to complain about the gift. Suri’s complaints made Tim angry.

Okay, granted, neither of them is exceptionally pretty, but the “right” way is a huge no for me. The repetition of their names in the following sentence feels, well, repetitive… and in context, it’s pretty clear what’s making him angry.

Here’s a quick check to make sure your prose is as clear as possible. Follow the rule if style allows, and the meaning is evident through context. As a quick-and-dirty fudge-it rule, make sure each pronoun refers to the last noun mentioned. And, when in doubt, run it by someone–or multiple someones. The point is for the average reader to understand what you’re saying, not to impress grammar nazis. Even when they’re me 😉

Remember… Clarity > Style > Grammar.

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