Grammar Taming For Novelists

The grammar you may have learnt at school should have prepared you nicely for writing letters to the Queen or filling out your curriculum vitae but will not help you much when writing a novel. Different rules apply, most notably in the way dialogue is handled when your characters start talking to each other.

Whereas you may have had to spend the afternoon on the Naughty Step for daring to put a contraction in your essay your characters can do it all the time. But of course not all the time as with overuse it gets tired. And as authors we are allowed to start sentences with conjunctions. But again don’t overdo it. We can even risk putting a comma before a conjunction, but it’s not generally considered good form.

However, there are areas that need tight control or intended meaning goes for a wander into the fields of misunderstanding.

“Let’s eat Grandma,” said the little girl. Which turned out to be a tragic error of grammar, especially for Grandma. But behold, with the judicious placement of a simple comma; “Let’s eat, Grandma,” said the little girl and Grandma’s life was spared.

Within speech we need to know whether a character is being referred to, as in the first example or whether they are being addressed directly as in the second. It’s the job of the comma before the name that tells us which is which. And to spare lives. “Now pass the orange Jane.”

“Speech tags? We all know how to use speech tags,” he snorted defiantly. If you are unsure whether that is a valid speech tag try snorting those words defiantly. If you are unable to do that then it is probably not valid and you will need a full stop (‘period’ for the colonials) not a comma. You might get away with “Oh dear,” he laughed, as it is almost possible to laugh those words but try laughing anything longer or more complicated and the result is likely to be unintelligible to anyone other than the Welsh. “But surely not,” he smiled. No, most definitely not. One cannot smile words no matter hard one tries, smiles just don’t make coherent sounds. Nor do grins, winks or nods.

A speech tag is part of the sentence containing the speech therefore needs a comma before the final quotes, a lower case speech tag and a full stop at the end of the speech tag.

“I see what you mean now,” she said.

“Are you sure?” he asked.

Now normally a question mark can only go at the end of a sentence and therefore assumes the identity of a full stop, But within speech remember the speech tag is part of the sentence therefore the question mark here assumes the identity of a comma. Devious things question marks but then so are exclamation marks!

“Really!” he exclaimed.

Note how the punctuation lives within the quote marks as the person speaking wants to be punctuated. Do not let your commas escape.

“Now I get it! That’s so exciting I am going to put a triple exclamation mark to show how exciting it is!!!”

There are no grammar rules when it comes to exclamation marks but there really should be. These are probably the most overworked of all the punctuation marks. If your dialogue isn’t exciting enough, no amount of exclamation marks is going to help. Excite the reader by your dialogue, not by telling them to be excited. Try limiting yourself to just five per 100,000 words. That’s a challenge!

“I accept your challenge,” he countered.

Many writers fear readers may become bored with mundane speech tags such as ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ and start experimenting with ‘retorted’ and ‘interjected’ or ‘announced’ and ‘stated’. Some authors even try to keep their readers entertained with ‘blurted’ and ‘rejoined’. Judicious use of these adventurous tags is advised however. Readers are blind to the simple ‘he said’ and will not notice them, so contrary to the new author’s fears their reader will not become bored. But if your protagonist insists on blurting and snorting his every word this will soon begin to jar. Usually by paragraph two.

If you wish to move away from simple speech tags you can identify the speaker by adding action.

“I think I see what you mean.” He settled into the chair to continue listening to this very interesting man.

You will see here that the sentence terminates within the speech so a full stop is required. The action is a separate sentence. Action, although used as one, is not actually a speech tag so cannot be part of the same sentence.

“Are you sure?” The supper plates clinked as I placed them on the table.

Absolutely sure, unless the plates contain alphabetti spaghetti arranged in the words, “Are you sure?”

Do not overcrowd your paragraphs with people. Paragraphs are small places and they only have room for one person speaking at a time. Think of them as a telephone box.

“Well, I suppose that makes sense.” Peter put the phone down and left the phone box.

“Ah, now I have room to make my call,” Sue said, as she entered the box.

Nice and clear so we readers can understand who’s talking. Just think of the chaos if all your characters tried to get in the phone box at the same time?

“Sometimes when I’m talking people interrupt me in–.”

John interrupted her and slipped an emdash on the end of her words to ensure she stopped talking. Complete with full stop within the quotes of course as the emdash ends the sentence. An emdash should be written as a double minus sign although sometimes your clever computer may decide to convert it for you.

“Is it just me? Or do your characters sometimes forget what they were…” I tailed off as I forgot what I was going to say and replaced my forgotten words with an ellipsis. Now here is a problem The grammarians are divided and dictionaries are poised for battle. To punctuate or not? Is it nobler to terminate an ellipsis with a comma when followed by a speech tag? In this instance one can break the rules, mainly because there are no definitive rules on this subject. So be brave, take your ellipsis and punctuate as you see fit! But only if you keep it within the quotes of course and your publisher may well change them all anyway to suit something called House Style.

Possessives and plurals and possessive plurals often confuse and it’s not surprising when its rules are obtuse. A very common mistake for new authors is the over enthusiastic sprinkling of apostrophes everywhere. ‘It’s’ is always an abbreviation of ‘it is’. It’s simple and it’s clear. The car’s door may be open but its door is open too. How many apostrophes can one jam into one small sentence? I’ll show you. The possessive version of ‘it’, is ‘its’ not ‘it’s’. There, it’s simple. It’s the rules of grammar and grammar is the king and its rules must not be broken.

“I still find this possessive stuff confusing.” My father rolled his eyes. I gathered them up and gave them back to him. My father’s eyes. Complete with their own possessive apostrophe. But what if I come from a Modern Family and I have two fathers? What if they both rolled their eyes? Well, apart from the difficulty in establishing whose eyes belong to whom they would need to share an apostrophe and an ‘s’. Two fathers, one apostrophe, one ‘s’. The eyes of my fathers becomes my fathers’ eyes.

“Yes, Sir!” I shouted in my best capital letters. “I think I understand. But is grammar the king or The King?”

Again here we step into the murky areas of the grammatically undefined. In speech you may refer to “My Lord.” when Lord is an honorific title. but my father,( or my fathers) is not. Unless I’m using it as a replacement for his name. “Yes, Father.” The queen is the queen unless of course she is The Queen, the one and only and to whom I would refer as “My Queen.” My boss is “Okay, Boss.” if I use it as his name but he is the boss at other times and is unlikely to ever be The Boss unless I belong to a Chicago crime family. However, as with the ellipsis this is a source of much consternation and anguish among the grammarians as the rules appear to be as nebulous as a politician’s election promises. So take your pick but be consistent.

I could see this was making sense and could understand and thought I could use this. Could you see what’s wrong there? ‘Could’ is a passive word, what does it mean in prose? I could feel the wind. Great, so you could feel the wind but what did you actually feel. To engage a reader narrative needs to be active. Tell the reader what is actually happening not what could be happening. I felt that made sense.

“Well, kind Sir, I think I now have all I need,” he said enthusiastically.

“I think not,” I retorted argumentatively.

“Why is that?” he asked querulously.

“Because you keep trying to use adjectives as speech tags,” I interjected emphatically.

“Is that a problem then?” he came back crestfallenly.

“It shows weak writing. Your dialogue should show the emotion, Don’t leave it down to the speech tag to fix weak dialogue.” I commented with an air of finality and authority coupled with a touch of self-satisfied smugness.

“Oh dear,” he sighed.


2 thoughts on “Grammar Taming For Novelists

  1. I loved this informative article. It was so happily written that I think I may remember almost all of it though I shall print it out to keep.

    However, as a serious proof reader, I have to point out an error which almost but not quite ruined my enjoyment.

    I should have been ” to continue” not “continues” in the sentence below.

    “I think I see what you mean.” He settled into the chair to continues listening to this very interesting man.

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