In a class I was taking online, we were discussing grammar and how much it matters in a writing assignment. One student pointed out that the errors in grammar may be cultural, with the implication that this excused the student not using proper noun-verb agreement, etc.
It is true, to a certain extent. There are people who make bad grammar part of their dialect. It might be mixing noun-verb agreement, not adding -ly to adjectives to make adverbs, or using “ya’ll”, short for “you all”, when speaking to one person or multiple people. They may leave out articles or use the wrong ones. They may build contractions that aren’t really grammatical contractions at all or create new words from existing vocabulary to build new meaning or emphasis. Sometimes, these changes are dialect. Sometimes these are not dialect, but a product of new language acquisition or falling behind their peers in language learning. Sometimes it is a combination.
What does this mean for us as writers?
Know your audience. That doesn’t mean saying “My audience is young adult, so I will use a lot of slang and hip-talk”. It doesn’t mean saying “My audience is southern readers, so I’ll use ya’ll and mix and match southern colloquialisms.” It means understanding that your audience is reading a text. They expect that text to conform to certain conventions, namely the convention that the writer writes like they understand the rules of grammar. Don’t assume they will want to read something written in their own “dialect”. You may not actually know what that dialect really is.
It also means that if your own grammar skills are not up to par, practice them and learn the rules you don’t know. It means proof-reading your work and making sure your grammar is correct and that you’re communicating your ideas clearly and concisely. It also means that you make sure your spelling is correct and that you’re using the correct homophone for the meaning you are conveying. This is important because poor grammar and poor spelling makes writing seem sloppy and the author sound lazy.
I wish I could express more just how important good grammar is, because it really gets overlooked. It gets overlooked in emails, in blogs, and, though I shudder to say this, even in news articles. There is nothing quite like receiving an email from a superior at work and thinking to yourself “this person doesn’t really know how to write.” It is important because your ability to follow the rules of grammar is the first and most important way that you will create ethos. If you want your reader to listen to what you have to say, no matter your reason, you have to sound like you know what you are writing about. If your grammar is poor, no argument will be convincing; no story will feel true or authentic.
But Lynn, you say, I need my story to have a certain flavor. I need to be able to have my readers hear farm life, the inner city, or the voice of someone who is struggling to learn English as part of their effort to fit into a new world.
Okay, yes. There are times that you’ll break the conventions of grammar. However, when you do that, it is measured for effect. You might pepper dialogue with it or slip colloquialisms into your narration. It will not fill your writing or dominate it. It will not make your writing seem lazy or unreadable. If you do it correctly, though, your reader will hear the dialect that you want them to hear. It will sound authentic and not condescending.
Just how to do it is another story, and not part of this post. I will say this: if you want to learn how to add dialect to your writing without those glaring grammatical errors that ruin prose, read. Determine the kind of flavor or dialect you need and research. Find authors who are known for writing in that dialect and complimented by critics for writing well. Read the work, multiple times, and look for how they follow grammar rules and where they pepper in the exceptions that indicate dialect changes. Then practice it, and ask someone else to read it. Ask them to be frank with you about how your writing works.
When you are writing and looking at grammatical construction, you should keep these things in mind, no matter how you choose to bend the rules:
1. Be clear. Your reader should know exactly what you are talking about at all times
2. Don’t be lazy. If your writing seems sloppy or lazy to the person proof-reading, tighten it up. It is okay if a character sounds sloppy or lazy, but you should not.
3. Be authentic. If you aren’t sure how a person should talk, don’t try to mimic it. If you need to, go out and talk to people, read other work, or listen. Do not just assume that “ain’t” and “ya’ll” will make your writing sound southern or that “yous” and “yo dog” will make your writing sound gritty or inner city.
4. Proof read. Don’t let an over-looked error ruin your peppering.