Writing Style vs. Grammar

When I was in school and learning grammar (which I hated–I swore I’d misuse whom ’til the day I died just to spite certain grammar zealots like my friend’s mom), grammar was presented as some sort of absolute set of rules.  There is ONE WAY to do things.  One way to use commas, one past tense of that verb, one proper format for that sentence.

But that’s not really true.  Partially, because language is constantly changing.  A word usage that wasn’t mainstream twenty years ago works its way into the common lexicon (often through repeated misuse by people like me) and, before you know it, the dictionary is acknowledging it as acceptable usage.  And all those people who KNOW the rules are upset and shocked and whisper about it to one another.  (“What is the world coming to?”)

Also, there’s the issue of style.  How I craft a sentence is not how someone else would craft a sentence.  I seem to be partial to “-ing”ing my verbs.  (No, that is not a word…)  I also like to have my characters drift off in mid-sentence on occasion, so have a few sections of dialogue that end with “….” throughout my writing.

Now, if I’m writing for myself and sharing my story with friends, my style and quirks don’t really matter.  But when submitting to professionals it starts to.  If my style is something an agent or editor views as grammatically incorrect then I’m much more likely to either get rejected or have some very painful redlines to deal with.

At the same time, I think it’s important to stay as true to your natural style as possible, because otherwise, over the course of a career, your voice will shift too much.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot this week because I’m finally starting to work through the line edits I paid for on the first novel.  And some of the line edits are 100%, absolutely, indefatigably correct.  (I’m working on getting a new definition of indefatigable into the dictionary…)

I used “wretch” once when I should have used “retch.”  I used “then” once when I should have used “than.”  Those types of edits are easy to correct.  (And annoying to find after six drafts, but that would just be my perfectionist side having a hissy fit.)

Others aren’t so straight-forward.  For example:

“awoken” vs. “awakened”
“snuck” vs. “sneaked”
“sunk” vs. “sank”

A little research shows that in each of the above instances either usage is acceptable.  When that’s the case, I’m going to stick with my default usage, because it’s better to me to be consistent (and use the version that I use by instinct) than to align myself with a particular school of thought on usage.

Or, for example, I use the word “cuss” but the person who edited for me wanted to change that to “curse” or “swear.”  Which is right?  Any of them, really.  My default, in the context of this novel, was cuss, so that’s what I decided to stick with.

What’s trickier are those situations where I know the edit is more grammatically correct but it reads wrong to me.  There are a handful of edits I’ve seen so far eliminating “like” and replacing it with “as” constructions.  I’m sure there will be more.  Interestingly, I’d already gone through the novel and replaced a certain number of “like” usages with other constructions, but I hadn’t replaced them all.

And I know that Strunk and White would agree with this editor.  I have it starred on page 51 of my copy of S&W.  At the risk of quoting too much from that book, they have the following to say about “like” vs. “as”:

“The use of like for as has its defenders; they argue that any usage that achieves currency becomes valid automatically.  This, they say is the way the language is formed.  It is and it isn’t.  An expression sometimes merely enjoys a vogue, much as an article of apparel does.  Like has long been widely misused by the illiterate; lately it has been taken up by the knowing and the well-informed, who find it catchy or liberating, and who use it as though they were slumming….For the student, perhaps the most useful thing to know about like is that most carefully edited publications regard its use before phrases and clauses as simple error.”

So, according to S&W I am in error in my usage of like.  (And I would put myself in the illiterate category even though I’m quoting them.  I don’t use like as a way to slum it.  I lived in a trailer park once, I’m always going to be slumming to the S&W’s of the world.)

The reason I prefer like is because I’m a product of a certain generation.  I didn’t grow up in California, but “like” is part of my vocabulary.  Far more than “as.”  “As” seems stilted and awkward to me.  Stuffy.  And when I try to change my usage from “like” to “as” it throws me out of the story.  Now, I realize that not changing it probably throws others out of my story.  So, what to do?

(BTW, that comma after my “So”s also seems to be in error, but to me there’s a pause there, so I use it…)

I’m sticking with my likes.  I’m considering each “as” usage as I see it in the edits, but so far I think I’ve only taken one out of about ten suggestions.  That’s just not my “voice.”  (And you should see the second novel that’s more like this blog than my writer’s voice–talk about throwing grammar and proper usage out the window…but that’s mostly first person, so I can get away with it.  You can get away with anything in first person.)

Should be interesting if I ever actually sell the novel.  I suspect I may have to have a round of discussions on the conscious decisions I’ve made in my writing that are not someone else’s view of grammatically correct.  Should be fun!

About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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