1. Seroci
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    Seroci New Member

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    Using bad grammar intentionally?

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by Seroci, Jul 22, 2010.

    I'm currently working on a story (aren't we all!) narrated in the first person. The narrator is uneducated and I'm planning on writing her voice that way, with poor grammar, and I'm considering including spelling mistakes as well.

    My problem is I find writing with intentionally poor grammar to be incredibly difficult. Does anyone have any experience in this, or, if not, can anyone direct me to a good example of bad grammar being used successfully to tell a story? I'm also uncertain how to approach the process - would writing the story correctly and then rewriting it with all the intended mistakes be too tedious?

    And then, I guess I'm wondering what people think about the intentional use of bad grammar, not just in dialogue but throughout the body of the story itself. How much is too distracting, how much sounds natural, etc.

    Thanks for any input!
     
  2. w176
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    w176 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Less is more. Using bad grammar can archive great effects but as a spice not as one of the big ingredients. Using one sentence with bad grammar per page at exactly the right place is probably more effective then if 30% of your sentences had poor grammar making things hard to read.

    A way to complement occasional pinch of bad grammar is to use simple and straightforward grammar in many cases. Simple grammar isn't taxing to read, and don't confuse things.

    Don't leave the spelling mistakes. It just make all dyslectics cry in frustration. The only place I seen this done well is Flowers for Algernon, which is written as a diary of a man who mentally disabled and with an IQ of 80 which is given a drug to increase his intelligence. There it was an absolutely central to the story and well done and still an easy read.
     
  3. Aconite
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    Aconite Senior Member

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    Along with the above advice, which I'll echo: Keep your bad grammar consistent. Using English as an example, a New Yorker with bad grammar wouldn't make the same mistakes as a South African with bad grammar, who wouldn't make the same mistakes as an Irishman with bad grammar. Some things might be closer in different countries, but never the same. For instance, your American Southerner might say 'ain't' (leaving aside whether that's an acceptable word), but wouldn't likely say 'youse guys.'

    Two fictional recommendations where I've seen bad grammar used effectively: Larry Brown's Dirty Work, about the Vietnam War, and Jack Kerouac's short novel, Pic. Poetry uses this technique perhaps more often--try Gwendolyn Brooks' 'We Real Cool' for the classic, now almost cliched, example.
     
  4. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I would advise against the spelling mistakes - they would quickly start to annoy me.

    In fact, it seems to me that you'd be flirting with breaking the suspension of disbelief. Most first person stories don't quibble about how the narration became a book - when you read the story, you either _are_ the narrator, or you hear the narrator's voice in your ear. The actual book in your hands generally isn't part of the story.

    I know that there are exceptions - for example, the Amelia Peabody books by Elizabeth Peters are very specific about the manuscripts that were found and put together into the books, and in fact they use this device to switch between first person and third person, and different narrative voices. But that's not the usual practice.

    By including misspellings, you put a burden on yourself to explain how this misspelled manuscript became a book without, apparently, ever having gone through an editor's hands. That seems like an unnecessary distraction and an unnecessary tangling of the fiction of the story and the reality of the book in the reader's hands. If you feel an urgent need to explain the correct spelling, you could follow the example of the Peabody books and throw in a fictional foreward from a more educated friend who transcribed Jane's spoken narration - with, of course, correct spelling, because people don't speak with incorrect spelling.

    Moving on to grammar:

    You want your book's language to be interesting and engaging, even if it's not standard. Therefore, I would recommend that you assume that your narrator may not have much skill at the _written_ word, but that she is nevertheless a good oral storyteller. Oral storytellers generally have a very fine command of language, even if they don't have much formal education, and even if they don't follow the standard rules of formal written English.

    But I think that you're going to need to do research that goes beyond inserting grammar mistakes. You'd need to figure out where your character was raised, and learn a lot about the dialect of that place. A storyteller from rural west Tennessee will sound very different from one from rural Maine, who will sound very different from one from urban Chicago. You're not depicting an inferior command of language, you're depicting one that's _different_.

    So, for example, you don't write the fairly conventional sentence:

    "John and I are going to the store. Would the two of you like to come with us?"

    and 'break' it to say:

    "Me and John are going to the store. Wanna come?"

    Instead, depending on your dialect, it might be:

    "I'm fixing to go to the store with John. Y'all want to ride with us?"

    I don't know if those pieces ('fixing', 'y'all', and 'ride with us', the last of which I may have made up) belong together or not. That's why I'm saying that there's likely to be a lot of work involved, in studying dialects.

    ChickenFreak
     
  5. BlueWolf
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    BlueWolf Banned

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    In my book, I have two characters who do not speak particularly well. It works because one speaks total and utter gibberish, which is then translated by someone who drops all his 'haiches' and such like, as in " 'it it with an' 'ammer ". They are not in it for too long, but it fits the situation they live in.

    As for narrating in this way, it may get too much for the reader. But I echo Aconite, in that you must keep it consistent - which isn't easy.
     
  6. zaffy
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    zaffy Contributing Member

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    I took an adult creative writing summer course. The pupils were told to partner up and feed each other a couple of lines about something that happened to them. We were then to embroider on those lines. My partner's lines began like this.
    I went to Yorkshire with my boyfriend
    I created a story sprinkled with what I thought was Yorkshire dialect. My teacher, unfortunately for me, came from Yorkshire. He said, "We don't talk like that."
     
  7. Islander
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    Islander Contributing Member Contributor

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    Poor grammar in dialogue: Yes, it can make the dialogue sound more natural, but don't use so much that it becomes cumbersome or annoying to the reader.
    Poor grammar in narration: No, for the reasons ChickenFreak outline above.

    Spelling mistakes in dialogue: No, since spoken words don't have any spelling.
    Spelling mistakes in narration: No, for the reasons ChickenFreak outline above.

    I'm no expert, but writing a "normal" sentence first and then giving it dialect/bad grammar, might make it sound unnatural, for the same reason that writing a sentence in one language and then translating it into another often makes it sound unnatural. Different languages, as well as different dialects, have different idioms, and someone who spoke the language/dialect natively might choose a completely different wording.
     
  8. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I'm surprised nobody has mentioned Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in this thread yet. It's probably the most famous example in American literature of sustained deliberate bad grammar. I notice, though, that there are very few misspellings, and just with words that Huck himself doesn't know how to spell. For example, he says "The Widow Douglas she took me for her son and allowed she would sivilize me".

    This kind of writing is very tough - you have to have a wonderful ear for the dialect you're trying to imitate. Good luck!
     
  9. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    uh... no, we're not!

    not all writers write fiction, y'know... and not all fiction writers write only fiction... ;-)

    anyway, as to the topic of discussion, i have to agree with all who say to not go overboard on the bad grammar bit and to not use spelling mistakes, unless you're writing an epistolary work similar to 'charlie'...
     
  10. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    Lewis Grassic Gibbon and the Scot Quair (Sunset Song, Cloud Howe etc) comes to mind he uses very few fullstops. His main punctuation is the comma. Personally I loved the stories but his very Scots Dialect and the commas don't make it the easiest of readings.
     
  11. zaffy
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    zaffy Contributing Member

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    My story requires a touch of Italian/English dialogue. I fear, if ever an Italian reads it they will say, "We'a donna talk like that."

    And it doesn't only happen in books. Dick Van Dyke had the same problem when he tried to speak Cockney in Mary Poppins. Still, however appalling, it did him and the film no harm.
     
  12. JamesL
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    JamesL New Member

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    Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes has some bad grammar in the beginning. If your unaware with the story, the narrator (the story is told through journal entries) is really unintelligent and participates in an experiment to increase his intelligence. When he is still dumb his bad grammar and misspellings is pretty apparent, so that should help you.
     
  13. Fantasy of You
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    Fantasy of You Banned

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    You can give a sense of stupidity by confusing syntax and word definitions. Using horrible grammar is too easily mistaken as horrible grammar.
     
  14. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    what do you mean by 'italian/english dialog'?...i'm sicilian/italian-american and had many [too many!] italian relatives [new yorkers all], plus have lived in and traveled extensively in italy, so have personal knowledge of how such folks really talk/sound, if you need help with this...

    but again, a little goes a very long way, so don't go overboard with it...

    abracci e bacci, maia
     
  15. JTheGreat
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    JTheGreat Contributing Member

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    Sapphire used this type of writing in Push, the base plot for the movie Precious. She pulled it off rather well.

    For example, the book started very grammatically weird. Well, it followed an African American dialect. It would read like this:

    "I got suspended from school 'cause I'm pregnant which I don't think is fair. I ain' did nothin'!"

    But as the book progressed and Claireece continued to learn from her literacy program, the grammar got better and the vocabulary expanded.
     
  16. zaffy
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    zaffy Contributing Member

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    My story requires a touch of Italian/English dialogue. I fear, if ever an Italian reads it they will say, "We'a donna talk like that."

    Below are two of my baddies talking in a mix of English and Italian, although I think you may say a mix of English and rubbish'

    “Are you mad! But if my’a film flops maybe - per adesso leave the bischero. Capire?”

    “Si, ho capito.”
     
  17. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    sorry, but that doesn't look, read, or sound right...

    'my'a' makes no sense at all, the english wording isn't anything like what someone with minimal english would say, and the italian bits don't ring true, either...

    are you aware that 'bischero' is regional slang for 'p*ick' or 'c*ck'?... the less uncouth meaning is a pin, or tuning peg, as on a violin... so what did you want it to mean?...

    'capire' is the infinitive of 'to comprehend/understand'... when asking if one 'gets' something, the word is 'capisce?'... pronounced 'capeesh'...

    and one wouldn't bother with 'ho' but simply reply 'capito!' [gotcha!']...

    finally, what's that hyphen doing in there?...
     
  18. zaffy
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    zaffy Contributing Member

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    Okay, I'll have another go at it.

    I was trying to show they were speaking with an accent, hence 'eh' and 'a'.

    Should I, if two Italians are speaking, use standard English and pepper it with the odd Italian word?

    But now I think about it, why, if two Italians are having a conversation, would they speak English at all. This poses a problem. Even if I could write fluent Italian, non-Italian readers would not understand it.

    There goes another page up in flames.

    I am pleased the this post was started, it's made me think.
     
  19. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    If you don't know any Italian, and don't know how real Italian Americans speak, don't try it! At best, it will sound ridiculous. At worst, it will be downright offensive.
     
  20. OvershadowedGuy
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    OvershadowedGuy Member

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    "In the writing world you can only get away with breaking the rules, if it is obvious you are doing it on purpose."

    Brandon Sanderson
     
  21. zaffy
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    zaffy Contributing Member

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    I understand the above. Agree with it 100%

    So how can a storyteller write from other perspectives? Will my story be flat if the only characters in it are duplicates of me?

    I can't see how me talking as a movie director will work, that is why I chose an Italian. By the way the Italian parts are minor.

    Please do not limit me to 'write about what you know' or it will a be **** short story.
     
  22. Aconite
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    Aconite Senior Member

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    Movie directors come from all over the world; it's absurd and stereotypical to both Italians and the film industry to assume they only come from Italy. They talk in many, many different ways, too. Tarantino is twitchy and kinetic. Spielberg is pretty folksy, from what I've seen. Nicholas Roeg is on another planet somewhere. Hitchcock was the epitome of the word 'plummy.' However, if you feel like you're writing yourself as a film director, ask yourself:

    1) How would a film director's experiences/life be different than mine has been thus far?
    2) How would that different experience/life change him, and thereby make him a different person than I am?

    Simply falling for the easy stereotype cheapens your writing.

    From my own experience: I am a female, but I tend to write from male perspectives more than female perspectives, and always have, since a kid. I write a lot of action/thriller/scifi stuff and it can be an occasional genre demand. I have been told I don't 'read' feminine in that way. I don't think about it more than 'This first-person narrator should be male, because that's what the story needs,' when it requires a male narrator. Everything else --sexual orientation (if he's straight or otherwise interested in girls, since I'm a straight female), military service (something I've never been through), size difference (as I'm 4'10" and under 100 lbs.) -- all comes out of that narrative, not as a consideration of the narrative. Write in the voice that feels the most authentic for your film director and everything else will follow suit. If you need to ask strangers on the internet if your character seems forced or unbelievable, it is forced and unbelievable.
     
  23. zaffy
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    zaffy Contributing Member

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    Quote from Aconite.

    Movie directors come from all over the world; it's absurd and stereotypical to both Italians and the film industry to assume they only come from Italy. They talk in many, many different ways, too. Tarantino is twitchy and kinetic. Spielberg is pretty folksy, from what I've seen. Nicholas Roeg is on another planet somewhere. Hitchcock was the epitome of the word 'plummy.' However, if you feel like you're writing yourself as a film director, ask yourself:

    My response.
    Yes film directors come from all over the world. I happen to have chosen Italian. If I had chosen American would that have been stereotypical? If I had chosen English would that have been steroptypical? I have a friend who works in the film industry who says a lot of films are now coming out of eastern europe because it is cheap are they stereotypical? And French directors? I watch a lot of French films. Where shall I go
    to find non-stereotypical? Wherever I go, it is not little old me.
    And you are writing from a male perspective, which is not you. I refer you to Cogito's comment.
     
  24. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Rule 1: Write what you know. Those matters you are most comfortable with will give your writing the most life. Your interests, your personal experiences, your soul.

    Rule 2: Know what you write. When you stretch yourself beyond your direct experiences, and you will, research. Get to know your subject at least as well as most of your readers, or they will see through you.
     
  25. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think that choosing a native speaker of another language, to avoid figuring out how a person in a given profession would speak, is choosing a harder task to replace a simpler one. Especially since the first problem doesn't go away - you need to figure out how a native speaker of that language, _in that profession_, would speak. :)

    I'd say that the solution to all of this is research. If you want someone with a different manner of speech, that's probably going to involve a whole lot of research. In the case of the Italian American, research into how Italian Americans who are new to speaking English, speak it. In the case of the movie director, research into professional jargon and customs and speech.

    However, I don't see any reason to phonetically duplicate an accent - it's annoying to read, and it's likely to be offensive. And, IMO, accents don't dominate one's consciousness for that long. After just a few minutes of listening to a person with a thick accent, I usually start just hearing their words, not their accent. So using the phonetic accent would not just be annoying, but an unrealistic expression of the experience of the folks listening to the person with the accent.

    Word choices, on the other hand, do need to be handled. So there's still plenty of research.

    While you may not know any Italian Americans new to English, or any movie directors, you surely know somebody who has a manner of speech different from your own? People from the American South, for example, or from the North if you're in the South? Teenagers? Kids? Computer geeks? You won't know their dialects as well as they do, but it would at least give you a start.

    ChickenFreak
     

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