Six Rules of Grammar Fiction Writers  Can Challenge

Six Rules of Grammar Fiction Writers Can Challenge

By Tamsin de la Harpe
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1. Sentence Fragments.

Look, fiction writers use sentence fragments. Most of you should know this by now, because you read books and if they’re halfway decent books you’ll see sentence fragments. Like this.

Assuming, however, that your high school English teacher broke this habit out of you, along with the last spark of creativity and individuality still clinging to life in the recesses of your soul at the time, feel free to try sentence fragments out again. It’s a rhythm and emphasis thing. A frag creates emphasis and helps vary sentence length.

On the cautionary side, too many frags can make your prose choppy and disjointed. Like this. If I keep breaking. Sentences. It becomes. A pain in the ass. To read.

2. And there’s that rule about starting a sentence with ‘And’ (or any other coordinating conjunction).

Most prescriptive rules have their roots in the distant mists of time, because ‘we’ve always done it like that’, is always perfectly good reasoning for doing anything. Like taking a bit off a baby’s genitals. (topic for a different blog  I know, but seriously, what is that about?) But starting a sentence with a coordinating junction (ie. ‘and’, ’or’, ‘for’, ‘so’, ‘nor’, ‘yet’ and ‘but’) is found in Old English, back when ‘but’ was presumably pronounced ‘blerarrghtshe’.

I don’t know about you, but I prefer following a Saxon lord’s example than a grade school teacher’s.

3. Using the Passive voice

There are rules which I know objectively, Stephen King couldn’t have invented on his own, and yet when I hear them bandied around on writer’s forums like they’ve been engraved on a stone tablet on Mount Sinai and handed down to Strunke and White to give to the chosen people, I can’t help but picture his face and blame him.

Yes, the active voice is nearly always better and the passive voice is the domain of pettifogging human resource managers everywhere. However, this doesn’t mean the passive voice has no place in fiction. There are times when a writer may purposely want to draw the attention to the object, and not the subject, for example:

The body was dragged to the garden

In this case the writer may not want to give the information about who dragged the body into the garden, they just need you to know it was dragged. When it serves a purpose, there’s no reason you can’t use it when you need to.

Except, Stephen King might come get you.

No wait, that’s abverbs.

4. To boldly split the infinitive

I’m proud to say that despite twelve years of schooling, and the collective efforts many successive teachers, I successfully avoided ever learning what the hell an infinitive is. Or why I shouldn’t split it.

But now I have to for this article. Dammit.

Hold on while I google it.

Turns out an infinitive is a verb with ‘to’ in front of it, as in ‘to go’ or ‘to run’. The actual definition is more complex than that, but what the hell, this isn’t ENG 101. To split it is to put a word between ‘to’ and the verb, as in: ‘to fucking split the infinitive is perfectly reasonable thing to do.’

This rule came about, presumably, because some old British school masters decided English grammar should be more like Latin grammar because… who the hell knows. They’ve been beating it into the heads of children ever since. But, you know, English isn’t Latin, so suck it old school British teachers.

5. Dangle modifiers

I vaguely remember writing an exam in high school where I was given sentences like:

We’ll never be royals, it just doesn’t run in our blood, that kind of luxe just ain’t for us.

And I had to change it to something like:

We will never be royals because royalty doesn’t run in our blood and that sort of luxury is not traditionally allocated to us.

I liked the first one better. It’s sharper and smoother, and if it’s good enough for Lorde it’s damn well good enough for you.

Personally, I love to dangle modifiers, it creates a good flow and eliminates those pesky conjunctions which can clog prose faster than Cinnabun clogs up your arteries.

Presciptivists argue that dangling modifiers creates ambiguity, to which I say:


6. Increase your vocabulary

Alright, so this has technically nothing to do with grammar, but it ties in with the theme, so I figured I would shovel it in here at the end. Nobody will notice.


Somebody, somewhere, probably suggested that if you want to be a writer you need to learn three new words every day. You know, improve the old vocab, you cretinous, public-schooled, poster-child of a failing educational system.

(Apologies to Norway, that joke doesn’t apply to you).

The idea behind this is that by adding ‘imbrication’ and ‘palimpsest’ to your verbal arsenal, you’ll be able to nudge your manuscript from lowbrow plebian mediocrity and into a sempiternal cynosure of literary eloquence.

Firstly, Pulitzers aren’t handed out according to the average number of syllables per word in. (I don’t think). Secondly, it reads wrong.

It’s almost impossible to fake this sort of thing, most people can catch a whiff of pretension like a shark sensing blood and proceed to hunt you down and feast on your self-esteem and dignity.
Every time I read a book, of the See-Spot Run variety, I usually get caught on some word I know the author learnt last week Tuesday and has being dying to shoehorn into a sentence ever since. He probably created an entire plot twist just to accommodate it. It’s usually an esoteric and pretty-sounding word like ‘ephemeral’ or ‘bucolic’. It always reads wrong, it’s always out of place, it strikes a false note so quit it.

The simple truth is there are writers like Faulkner and McCartney who are brilliant, but will never use the word ‘tinkling’ when they can use ‘tintinnabulation.’ Then there are writers like Kurt Vonnegut who couldn’t be arsed with that kind of thing, and that works too.

2 Responses

  1. LOVE this! Got you up as a feature. Different and challenging point of view. Refreshing. We’ll be sharing:) Keep posting with us.

  2. This had me literally laughing so hard that I was watering my shirt. I love the way you put it together!

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