After That It Was All Nouns & Verbs Till Lunchtime

"Whom not who, your Highness," said Doctor Cornelius.  "Perhaps it is time to turn from History to Grammar."

You have all heard, no doubt, that you need to learn the rules before you can break them.  In large measure that is true.  In my case, I simply buried the rules so deep inside my subconscious that I can no longer access them, and I went on my merry way.  If I happen to come across a particularly egregious piece of writing, I'll recognize that it is badly done up and I'll probably tell my husband and my cats how it ought to be done, because I have the rules deep down inside me; but on a day-to-day basis, if you made diagramming a sentence a matter of life or death, I would die.

"It is high time we turned to Grammar now," said Doctor Cornelius in a loud voice.  "Will your Royal Highness be pleased to open Pulverulentus Siccus at the fourth page of his Grammatical garden or the Arbour of Accidence pleasantlie open'd to Tender Wits?"

I was taught grammar.  And taught it and taught it and taught it.  I did not enjoy it, nor was I any good at it.  For some reason I have always been very behindhand in learning the mechanics of any language, including my own.  It is simply not in my nature to pick up on the concrete rules applied to the most mongrel of languages, English - and put that way, can one blame me...?  But I was taught it, and presumably something went in because people tell me that I speak more clearly than others (when I can adequately compose my thoughts), and that I am not a bad writer.  The foundation stones, although now invisible, were properly laid by my varying tutors in my youth, and they stand me in good stead today.

The face of the strange boy was very grubby.  It could hardly have been grubbier if he had first rubbed his hands in the earth, and then had a good cry, and then dried his face with his hands.  As a matter of fact, this was very nearly what he had been doing.

One advantage to the English language is that it is horrendously mongrel, and once you have got a basic handle on the few laws that seem to apply more often than not, your own voice and imagination may proceed to bend the rest of the pliable English tongue to your will.  And the deliciously vindictive part of it all is that English is so bent and twisted and mongrel and plays so readily with one's wits that anyone trying to squeeze you into a dubious parameter of grammar is likely to find you arguing your way out of the henhouse.  In fact, the better you are at the rules, the better you can argue your way out of them.

Take C.S. Lewis, for example.  The above quote, from The Magician's Nephew, was read aloud to me by my husband the other evening, as he had picked up the story again and was working through it.  I instantly pounced on those few sentences.  How many editors today would not be all over that passage ripping it to shreds?  Show, don't tell!  Why on earth are you posing a possible scenario and then in the next instant telling us that is very nearly what did happen?  Absolutely rubbish.  Terrible construction.  Off with its head.  But Lewis was an excellent grammarian, and knew exactly what he was doing.  That passage perfectly suits the tongue-in-cheek style of his Narnian fictions (in which he himself interjects on numerous occasions), and the reader finds it absolutely delightful.  It is good storytelling.  The grammar itself is perfectly sound, and in the context it actually transitions the reader's attention from the girl Polly to the boy Digory.  In breaking the rules (or at least bending them) Lewis contrives to build an even stronger narrative.
you can do anything, provided you do it well
The longer I live (and I'm only twenty-three and a half years old), the more this seems true.  I have not read any of The Hunger Games novels, but I understand them to be written in the first person present, which is unusual.  But I also understand it to work magnificently for the delivery of the plot: both Katniss and the reader have absolutely no idea what is coming, and the impact of the plot is doubled by that "living in the moment" feeling provided by writing in the first person present tense.  Now, I know this style has since become popular, but whenever I see it I often feel it is just a copycat trend.  It was necessary for The Hunger Games, but usually falls flat and hollow wherever else I meet it, because many other plots do not have the natural momentum of something like The Hunger Games to give it strength and dimension, the kind of strength and dimension silently provided by the past tense in most literature.  

But you can do just about anything, provided you know how to do it.  If you can make it work - and make it work magnificently - who is going to argue? 
master the English language, don't let it master you 

6 ripostes:

  1. At this moment in my life, I have neither mastered the English language nor has it mastered me. I'm not sure where that puts me, really. But I did love this post! One thing I'd like to interject: I have read The Hunger Games trilogy. I did not like the first person present style AT ALL. I was so swept up in the story that the threads of the stories' themes and the finer plot points were lost on me. I know that my opinion is hardly representative of the majority, but I like to be given a little more breathing room during the course of a story. I like the leisure of sitting back to contemplate where we've been and where we might be going and what it all means. These tendencies of mine do mean that I'm frequently unsurprised by the plot twist, but my respect for an author deepens when they give me the chance to meander at my own thoughtful pace and still surprise me with a perfectly timed, perfectly fitting twist of plot. Anyway, an author who's truly worth his salt will keep me enthralled, plot twist or no.
    So yup, that's my opinionated and lengthy comment. Thanks, as always, for a lovely post!

  2. Hi Jenny!
    I've been reading here for a long time, and really enjoy your thoughtful articles. Today's struck a chord with me, because I find grammar rather challenging, and I'm in the throes of the nuts-and-bolts editing draft where that's what I'm working with most. :) It's challenging, and definitely not as interesting. But the feeling of making deliberate choices on which words to use does bring a sense of confidence. Then when someone questions me on it, I can tell them exactly why I said it that way.

    I wrote a story in first person, present tense this year, just to give myself some practice with a different skill, and really enjoyed working with it. I found it added a whole new dimension to the plot, because the story was supposed to be a soul journey instead of a tangible goal. It offered pathos and intimate connection for the reader in a way that third person, present tense wouldn't have been able to do. But as a general rule, third person works much better.

    You're one of the first writing blogs I like to recommend to people, and I love the way your style is rich with dashes of poetry and magic. It's heart-throbbing and deeply satisfying. Can't wait to read Plenilune when it releases, and all success with the publication process! Thanks for sharing your writing journey with us. :)

    I hope to start commenting more in future, instead of lurking behind the scenes. ;)


  3. I love the fact that "Pulverulentus Siccus" means "dry as dust". Lewis he was clever alright!

  4. To Lilly: how funny of him. I love hidden humor.
    Jenny: I am so glad you mention our ironic right to twist the language how we will. I have always grimly wanted to do it but only in Anon, Sir, Anon have I given myself license to rearrange the bits to my liking. And how I like it. The example of Digory's tears made me smile. I often miss the omniscient author voice in modern fiction ... all my favorite books used it. Maybe I have a God complex. ;)

  5. "This is the type of errant pedantry up with which I will not put." - W. Churchill

    Language is like swordplay: orthodoxy will serve you well, as far as it goes, but improvisation will save your life when it doesn't.

  6. Excellent post! I agree with you totally there, Jenny! I love that bit of description and "telling" Lewis does about Digory even though it is officially not a very "acceptable" writing method in a modern sense.

    But like Janie said, I don't believe I have either mastered the English language or been mastered by it either yet :p. In fact, though I have not read the HG myself, I really echo Janie's full thoughtful comment. That is me all the way! Why can't books read like that anymore?! :'(