Breaking the Rules of Grammar in Fiction

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My 7th grade English teacher was notoriously strict, but she was also incredibly effective. She taught us the rules of grammar that I keep in my mind to this very day. I know I’m never to start a sentence with a coordinating conjunction. I know I need an independent clause paired with dependent clauses. I can even recite all of my prepositions. But…perfect grammar isn’t always the right choice for fiction. (Or, apparently, posts about writing!)

Sometimes you’ve got to break a few rules in order to not sound stilted or stiff. You also can use grammar at illustrate character or voice. However, you need to know when you can bend a rule and when you can’t. The best guideline is to only break a rule if you know it first.

Grammar Rules: Sentence Fragments

As you know, all sentences must contain a subject, a verb, and end with punctuation. However, there is a time and a place for sentence fragments. Sometimes they might be used in dialogue. Other times they can be used stylistically. Here is an example from Hilary Mantel’s 2009 Man Booker-award winning novel, Wolf Hall. In this excerpt, Anne Boleyn is talking to Thomas Cromwell.

“They say that Thomas More is in love with his own daughter.”

“I think they may be right.”

Anne’s sniggering laugh. “Is she a pretty girl?”

Technically the phrase “Anne’s sniggering laugh” is not a complete sentence as it doesn’t contain a verb. However, Mantel uses these small fragments both to create mood and to not compete with the flow of dialogue. It’s an effective way to convey the gossipy intimacy of the conversation without bogging down the narration with, well, narration.

It’s also a stylistic choice on the part of the author. Mantel created such an atmospheric story that I imagined it as a show on PBS, with bursts of dialogue overheard from behind closed doors or backlit by candles. Turns out, that’s exactly what somebody thought over at the BBC because they turned the book into a mini-series. My point is that when Mantel breaks the rules of grammar, she creates a style.

Grammar Rules: Punctuation

As with all grammar points, punctuation rules exist to make reading easier. They also exist to ensure that the meaning of the writer is communicated as clearly as possible to the reader. However, there is a time and a place to break these rules. Most often that will happen in dialogue or perhaps to illustrate the voice or state-of-mind of a character.

In this next example, also from Wolf Hall, Cromwell is mulling over the fact that his patron, the Archbishop Wolsey, has lost land and money after being unable to secure King Henry VIII a divorce from his first wife. King Henry’s mistress, Anne Boleyn, and her family have gotten some of the archbishop’s assets, which irritates Cromwell.  

He thinks, your brother George, Lord Rochford, your father, Thomas, Early of Wiltshire, haven’t they gotten rich from the cardinal’s fall? Look at what George is wearing these days, look at the money he spends on horses and girls; but I don’t see much sign of gratitude from the Boleyns.

In the second sentence, the first two clauses are separated by a comma, but not a comma and a coordinating conjunction. Technically, this is incorrect. Then she adds a semicolon, but it’s followed by a coordinating conjunction, which makes it incorrect. Sigh. Bored yet?

See, the point is that even if Mantel’s punctuation is not standard, it totally works. This is Cromwell’s train of thought. As such, it’s more important to get that across to the reader than it is to have perfect punctuation. By bending grammar rules, the author makes the reader feel closer to Cromwell. We’re reading his mind, after all. That trumps perfectionism. When it comes to the rules of grammar, the most important one is to write an interesting, believable story.

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About Author

Mary is a young adult writer and archaeologist. By day she teaches at a local college, and by night she writes about the adventures of adolescence.

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