Friday, October 2, 2020

Breakin' the Law

 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?


By Abir Mukherjee



Morning. It’s Friday, and once again I find myself in the difficult position that my fellow bloggers have made all the salient points on the topic more eloquently, powerfully and humorously than I could hope to, including James’ point about Welsh and the pronunciation of Llanfairfechan!


If I have one request, it’s that on his next blog, James includes a voice recording of him pronouncing Wales’ longest place name: Llanfairpwll-gwyngyllgogerychwyrndrob-wllllantysiliogogogoch.


I was amused to read that Trainspotting had to be subtitled when it was released in North America. As we say in Glasgow, ‘It’s no’ ma accent tha’s the problem, it’s your ears!’


So I’ll keep it brief today. Proper grammar and structure are of course, important, but like anything else, they can’t be hard and fast and you’ve got to know when to break the rules.


Why are they important? Well language is a tool, and writing is a craft. Like any craft you need to practice to get better. On day one at carpentry school, they don’t just hand you a circular saw and say, ‘there you go, get on with it’. You learn slowly, you learn the rules, you learn to use the tools and then, once everyone is confident you’re not going to hack off any limbs, they give you that saw and leave the room for a cup of tea and you set to work, off-piste, the Michaelangelo of medium density fibreboard and plywood.


It’s the same with writing. You need to learn the rules, understand them and use them, before you can break them.


Again Id echo my colleagues from earlier in the week structure and grammar are important because otherwise reading long poorly punctuated passages proves tiring and well you cant be bothered reading it after a while and you just stop and go read something else instead innit


The exception, as has been pointed out, is probably direct speech. Nobody speaks the queen’s English – not you, not me, not Meghan Markle; the queen maybe, and prince Phillip, but he’s like a hundred years old and no one has really listened to him since the nineteen eighties.


Speech patterns don’t follow the rules, and speech and accents add authenticity to your characters. But even here it’s a fine line. It’s great if you know the dialect or accent inside out – then you can write with authenticity – but I’ve read passages by great authors, famous authors, who really don’t have the ear for the accents they’re writing and end up veering into stereotype. (For the record, no one in Scotland has ever actually said, ‘hoots mon, it’s a braw bricht nicht the nicht,’ and no, Scrooge McDuck doesn’t count.)


But even if you do have an ear for perfect dialogue in what might be considered an unusual accent, I’d ask whether there are limits to just how much authentic dialogue you’d want to use. The problem is, if I’m writing in Glaswegian (‘Weegie’ for short), readers sitting in San Francisco or Samoa might be able to decipher it, but if I’m doing it for page after page, it might affect their enjoyment of the story. 


So, I’d say – learn the rules, then break them, but like the British government - only in a specific and limited way, and only when it’s right to do so, like when James pronounces Llanfairpwll-gwyngyllgogerychwyrndrob-wllllantysiliogogogoch.


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