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Lirila's Brief Guide to Fudging Grammar


by craftygrrl

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So, you're reading an absolutely amazing novel. Your eyes skitter back and forth across the page like little petpetpets, lightning quick. Pages are flipped, faster and faster, as the glorious reveal looms nearer; you just have to know how they'll get out of this one.

Wait a second! Was that... That's wrong! How could that be wrong? You blink, rub your reading-fatigued eyes, and look again. Nope, that punctuation is definitely not right. This amazing author somehow doesn't know the basic rules of grammar? How can this be?

Hold on a second. Hi, I'm Lirila. I read as much as I can, whenever I can, and whatever I can, so I've gotten a pretty good look at a whole lot of writing. Now I'm here to tell you a secret, guarded carefully by authors throughout the ages: when writing fiction, you don't always have to follow grammar rules.

Whoa, hold on again – don't throw your grammar book out that window just yet. (Sheesh. You're so jumpy.) This doesn't mean you can write your next novel all lower-case in the form of a run-on sentence. (Though that might be cool.) You don't get to toss out everything your English teacher told you. But guess what? Once you become old enough and experienced enough to know the proper way to do things, it's okay to maybe fudge a few things. For the sake of art, you know.

Confused? Fear not! Read the slightly lengthy title. I'm here to help you. Here are a few observations I've made over the course of my career as a serial reader. Keep in mind this is not, in fact, the definitive guide on all grammar, and I'm not, in fact, an English teacher... but I read novels. Trust me; I know this stuff. Whether you're reading the great Neopian novel or planning to write it, everyone can use a bit of fudge.

Fudging

What exactly is fudging? When I use this term, first off, it's a verb. I use "fudging" to mean making a grammar mistake on purpose to make a piece of writing sound better. To be truly be fudging something, the author must know the rule and be aware they are bending the rule a bit when they write in the mistake. So, you still need to learn to use correct grammar (sorry); you just don't necessarily have to use it all the time. Let's look at a few do-fudges and don't-fudges, shall we?

Fragments

Since you are clearly a person of fine taste, to be reading this article in this publication, you know how to make a complete sentence: subject, predicate, that stuff. Now, here's the kicker: complete sentences are not necessarily a must when writing a story. Watch.

As it fell from the table, she was sure she could hear the heartrending thrum of violins in the distance, the sound of screaming and sobbing. The muffled thump as it hit the carpet was louder than a clap of thunder.

Lirila stared at the book. Her book. On the ground.

Those last two are obviously not complete sentences. But don't they make that bit sound way more dramatic? (The correct answer is "yes.") I've noticed writers often use fragments to put dramatic pauses in their writing. This could be to indicate disjointed or slow thinking, to show the character is shocked or appalled (like when I saw my poor, innocent book on the floor). Pauses can also show irritation – a "clipped" tone. Have you ever noticed owners sound like that when we annoy them?

"Lirila," spat Gabi, fire practically shooting out of her eyes. "Pick up. Your toys. Now!"

That's what we in my house call the "cover voice". When she sounds like that, you run for cover – ASAP. But I digress.

If your story is told in first-person point of view, you might include a few fragments just to make it sound right. How many people do you know who speak with perfect grammar, all the time? Yeah, that's what I thought. Since a first-person work should sound like the narrator is telling you a story, adding realistic imperfections can help. (For reference, see this whole article.)

Colons and Semicolons

We all know what the colon and semicolon are. The rules regarding their use are an example of rules I would not advise fudging.

Seriously. It's not that colons and semicolons have some sort of fudge-shield; I've seen people fudge them. The trouble is, because few people I have met actually know how to use the darn things properly, I will automatically assume any mistake is not a fudge but an actual mistake. I'm pretty sure other readers would jump to the same conclusion. But you all know how to use them correctly, yes?

Of course. But, just in case, I'll do a quick refresher.

A colon must always have a complete sentence in front of it, but the clause following it can be complete or incomplete. Remember that – you are always sticking the colon on the back of a sentence that could stand alone. You can think of a colon as replacing the word "specifically;" it clarifies what you were talking about in that first sentence. Observe.

Correct:

I went to the store to buy many things: books, books, and a piece of cake.

I could see it now: a beautiful, glorious library, absolutely full of books of all descriptions.

Incorrect:

I went to the store to get: books, books, and cake.

(There's nothing wrong with books and cake, obviously, but "I went to the store to get" is definitely not a complete sentence.)

I could see it now: my sisters did not see it.

(This technically follows the rules, since the colon is preceded and followed by complete sentences... but look at the content. Let's assume the thing she is seeing, perhaps imagining, is that library mentioned earlier; mentioning her sisters does not clarify the first sentence. A different type of punctuation would be far better here. Getting rid of or moving the "sisters" bit altogether might work, too, depending)

Now that we've done colons, half a colon should be easy, right? Semicolons are actually not too similar to colons. They can function in two basic ways: as "super commas" or as sentence-linkers. You use them as "super commas" when the list you are writing already has at least one comma in it (not counting the separating ones. Instead of putting a comma after each term in a list, as you usually would, you use a semicolon there. This prevents a confusing comma overload and clarifies where one item in the list begins and another one ends.

Do you want to buy a cheese, pepperoni, and mud; cheese, peanut butter, and mushroom; or flower and frosting pizza?

Note the commas all over the place in this list. In cases like this, a semicolon makes the distinction between individual items clearer.

When using the semicolon to link sentences, there must be a complete sentence before and after the semicolon. (Clearly. Since, you know, you're using it to link two sentences.) Don't just stick it between any two sentences, though; use it between sentences with closely related content. (Like that. The way I just used it.) You can use the semicolon to add some variety to your sentence structure.

I bought many cookbooks at the store; only later did I realize I had spent all my lunch money.

Prepositions

Ending a sentence with a preposition was long considered incorrect. Instead of saying, "This is the book I've been dreaming of," one was supposed to say, "This is the book of which I've been dreaming." But guess what? I checked my grammar textbook, and both of them are, in fact, correct! Imagine that. However, there is some truth to the "can't end a sentence with a preposition" rumor.

I can't see you. Where are you at?

That, right there! You do not need that little "at" on the end of that sentence. It's unnecessary and it sounds pretty weird (in my semi-humble opinion). Fudging this rule is another thing people rarely do on purpose, since it doesn't really make the sentence sound any better, and it would probably be mistaken for an accident. You might break the rule in dialogue, though, if that fits a character. (By the way, you can get away with a bunch of grammar problems if your character says it, not you. Like I mentioned earlier, no one speaks with perfect grammar.)

And

Ah, this word. It is essential for linking sentences, ending lists, you name it. Its proper uses are pretty much known by everyone... which makes it a prime candidate for fudging. But did you know you can sometimes play with the "and"s for a better effect? Look.

The battle was a blur of shields, of swords, of lasers. Slingshots sent acorns and stones and snowballs through the air until the sky swarmed with missiles of all shapes and sizes.

See? In the first sentence, you leave out the "and" that generally comes before the last item in a list, the one that would have come before "of lasers." This makes the listing sound more... elegant, I think. More poetic. In the second sentence, an "and" is added after every item. This slightly redundant technique emphasizes the large number of projectiles – this and this and this and this and... it just makes it sound like more.

There is one particular case where messing with the "and" ends badly: the case of the comma splice. In a comma splice (which is a bad thing, in case I wasn't clear), the conjunction between two complete clauses is left out. Basically, it means two sentences are smashed together with only a comma to connect them.

I was cold, I got a blanket.

Again, this is wrong. This doesn't fall into fudging territory because it doesn't necessarily make the sentence sound any better; it just makes it grammatically incorrect.

Fin

Well, we're out of time for today! Well, anyway, I'm out of patience, which amounts to the same thing. The next time you're reading a novel, or perhaps even a copy of the Times, remember that mistakes aren't always mistakes. When next you write, feel free to mess around, play a little, and have fun with your prose. Grammar isn't some big, scary barrier; it's more like a guideline. Language is made for communication; words and punctuation are just tools to help you tell your tale. So go nuts! You choose what you put on the page, what you follow, and what you fudge. Why not give it a shot?

This is Lirila, your friendly neighborhood reader, saying goodbye and go fudge.

 
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