Monday, January 14, 2013

Grammar: Know the Rules Before You Break Them

Guest Post by Terry Ambrose, @suspense_writer

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I admit it; I do get some sort of perverse satisfaction from driving the Grammar Cops (GCs) crazy. It’s not that I’m a rebel by nature, but more that, as Polonius said to Hamlet, there’s a method in my madness.

Know the situation
Before I go any further, I want to point out that I am definitely not advocating throwing out the grammar books completely. In fact, I’ll probably stop reading a book with frequent typos, spelling errors, and bad grammar. However, I like writers who are flexible enough to break the rules when the situation demands it. The GCs in my critique group are fond of reminding me about the importance of proper grammar every time I stray from the righteous path. And I’ll be the first to admit that once in a while they catch me in a mistake. However, often the grammar they’re criticizing is in dialog. My response in those cases is that people don’t necessarily speak in grammatically correct sentences and my primary concern when writing dialog is first, last, and always, character voice.

Differentiating characters with voice
In my current WIP, I have two characters who are at opposite ends of the spectrum. One is a staid Englishwoman striving to maintain appearances, the other, a 12-year-old street kid. Obviously, Mrs. Montgomery, with her perfect grammar and diction, never has a problem with the GCs. The street kid, whose name is Lily, is always in trouble because she says “duh” and “like” far too often, uses street slang, and doesn’t take grammar seriously. The point is that no matter which of these characters are speaking, their voice always comes through.

Using voice to cut attribution
As writers, we have a variety of tools available to help readers easily identify our characters. How will word choices reflect the character’s background and culture? How will their grammar distinguish them? For me, breaking the rules is another tool in my writing tool belt; it’s definitely not akin to cutting off an appendage. And as a reader, if I can easily distinguish between characters based on voice alone, I’ll need less attribution and will enjoy the story more.

Voice makes dialog interesting
When I read a novel where all of the characters begin to sound alike, I get bored very quickly. I find myself starting to skim not only the unimportant descriptions and backstory, but also the dialog. At that point, I start wondering why I’m bothering to read that particular book. The real problem is that if I give up on the book, I may also be giving up on that author. Like many writers, I get very little time to read. When I do, it will either be a new author I haven’t read before or one I know will deliver. Part of that delivery is a good plot, but much revolves around the characters and their dialog. Make those character conversations sharp and snappy and I’ll be hooked and turning the pages to see what happens next.

About the author
Terry-bio-2012-mediumTerry Ambrose started out skip tracing and collecting money from deadbeats and quickly learned that liars come from all walks of life. He never actually stole a car, but sometimes hired big guys with tow trucks and a penchant for working in the dark when “negotiations” failed.

In Terry’s new release, License to Lie, a criminologist and a con artist learn that with $5 million and their lives on the line, you can never trust a soul…even your own. T. Jefferson Parker, author of The Jaguar and The Border Lords called License to Lie “fast and well written, almost sure to satisfy discerning readers of thrillers.”

Learn more about Terry on his website at or on his Facebook author page at