Sunday, September 27, 2020

My Canadian Style

Do you find that proper grammar and structure sometimes interfere with style and tone? What liberties do you take with language for the sake of style?

Brenda Chapman writing today.

I worked for many years in government communications. We followed the Canadian Style Guide religiously with many levels of approval to ensure messaging and grammar were on point. Before the government job, I was a special education teacher and several times helped high school students learn grammar. This meant I poured over grammar books to figure out the concepts and terminology, most of this forgotten from my own high school days.

So when I began writing books, I had a solid grasp of what constituted a sentence, the ability to match up the verb with the subject, and the knowledge that one shouldn't end a sentence with a preposition. Initially, I stuck to the rules quite religiously (as far as I could tell anyway) but as time has gone by, and with all the different editors I've worked with, I don't get as worked up about punctuation or capital letters -- and believe me, no two editors are exactly the same. Other grammar usage still bothers me if I don't get it right.

I adhere to the rules of proper grammar and structure for the most part because these are the building blocks of good writing. However, I'm fine taking some liberties, particularly when it comes to dialogue where people are known to say a sentence that ends with a preposition. Split infinitives don't bother me too much either :-)

I've broken small rules that don't always make sense to me. I remember in school being told never to start a sentence with 'and'. Yet how many of us when speaking begin a sentence with 'and'? Especially if we're arguing points with our spouse ... "And I hate it when you always have to be right. And what do you mean my dress looks like your grandmother's table cloth?" ... And so on. I've begun the odd sentence with 'and' if it sounds right.

Sometimes, I'll write a phrase instead of a complete sentence if this fits with the flow of the paragraph. Quite often however, I turn the phrase into a complete sentence when I'm editing. My rule of thumb is that the words used shouldn't be jarring or detract from the story. 

I've been surprised at the simplicity of the sentence structure in some best-selling fiction. Short, simple sentences and lots of quick dialogue. The language choice can also be quite simple. Newspapers were once written at a grade eight level (not sure if they still are) and novels in and around this same reading level might be the ones that reach the widest audience. 

Quite a long time ago, an acquaintance asked a couple of us to read a manuscript she'd written. I realized after a page or two that she didn't know the difference between a complete sentence and a phrase or incomplete sentence, for starters. My friend who'd also give the manuscript a read said, "There's a difference between using an incomplete sentence because you know the rules and you're playing with sentence structure, and using an incomplete sentence because you have no idea that there even are grammar rules."

I've waffled a bit on my response to this week's question even as I'm writing. Truth be told, I never deviate that far from the writing rules. Even when I do, I usually go back and edit out the rogue bits. (I like a painting to look like a picture rather than blobs of colour on a page so I'm probably more of a traditionalist than a modernist.) I can appreciate and enjoy writing, particularly poetry, that's innovative and plays with the rules. Writers develop their own style throughout their career so I won't say that I'll never play around with the grammar rules, but to me the key is to have the finished product be cohesive and ring true.


Twitter: brendaAchapman

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Dietrich Kalteis said...

Very interesting viewpoint, Brenda. I think I'm more modernist than traditionalist, but I get what you're saying.

Brenda Chapman said...

Thanks Dietrich - variety in subject-matter and writing style is at the heart of the book business.

Terry said...

We'll be a contrast in my post tomorrow!

Brenda Chapman said...

That's great Terry - I look forward to your post.

Susan C Shea said...

Brenda, what about beginning sentences with "But," something I do often because it feels more natural? I know it's technically wrong, but like "And," it flows naturally at times. Different styles work for different storytellers. However, Terry knows we once worked with a writer whose stories were terrific, but who never understood what a run on sentence was, and it ruined her manuscript. Good post.

Brenda Chapman said...

Thanks Susan - I believe it's grammatically wrong to start a sentence with a conjunction, such as 'and' or 'but'. I agree though that it sometimes feels right for the flow. I tend to use "and' to start a sentence in a blog post or dialogue but not too often. I've never started a sentence with 'but'. I'll use 'yet' or 'however' instead.