I hate grammar. I have been putting off this post, because I hate grammar. I used to be good at it. Now I’ve forgotten everything except the occasional comma rule. And capitalization, I’m pretty good at that. And incomplete sentences. (I’m really good at those.) And run-on sentences. And subjective vs objective pronouns. Okay, so I guess I remember more than I thought. But I can never remember the quotation mark rules. Or what the heck a semicolon is for (other than making a smirk – I’m also good at that.) Or what pluperfect is. And the people who know those things – the writers who know those things – they intimidate me. There I said it. Because writers need impeccable grammar. Right? I mean, that’s what I always thought.
Since I wanted to be a writer, I worked hard to be a whiz at grammar. And I learned from the best. Lillian Spears instilled terror in the hearts of every student at Beaufort Academy. She graded our papers with a red pen in hand. At three grammar errors she stopped grading and gave you a big fat F. And you didn’t graduate without passing her class. (FYI, just about anyone who ever took her class will tell you she is one of their favorite teachers.) We diagrammed the Pledge of Allegiance. We had a contest where we recited as many prepositions as we could in one minute. (I won. My Yankee pace completely overwhelmed my Southern classmates.) And you will never find a homophone error in a Facebook posting from one of my high school friends.
And then I spent 20 years in advertising. Where breaking grammar rules was not just a rite of passage, it was an Olympic event. (I have a couple of Gold medals.) And then I became a playwright.
As a playwright knowing your grammar is both a blessing and a curse.
The Blessing: Because I know how to effectively break the rules, I can use punctuation to tell an actor how to read a line. Let’s take this line from my farce Word War.
“Maybe they had this really big decoration – like a weather balloon – yeah, that’s it – and it fell off the ceiling and landed on the floor right in front of her and it was filled with . . . filled with . . . red food coloring and it splashed all over her dress.”
Okay, first of all, it’s a run-on sentence. It’s missing at least 3 commas (probably more) – but the lack of commas tells the actors that there is no stop or break or pause in the thought. Then we have a couple of dashes. These mean there’s a change in thought – sort of a parenthetical, but not. The ellipsis – my favorite punctuation mark by the way – (it is weird that I have a favorite punctuation mark?) means you just kind of trail off. Usually the character is thinking or perhaps they have just run out of words, I mean, you know . . .
They’re. Not. Real.
This is a line earlier in the play. Here the periods act like little tiny stop signs. It’s still one thought, one sentence. But you pause after Each. Individual. Word.
So those are the blessings. Knowing how punctuation works means I can manipulate the punctuation to communicate delivery.
The Curse: Once you know good grammar, bad grammar can never slip by. For me, bad grammar is like the sound of the dentist’s drill when it first makes contact with your teeth. I wince. I cringe. I want to throw my hands over my ears. “Her and me are going to the store.” “I got my nails did yesterday.” “She’s more smarter than anyone in the class.”
But people talk like this. Especially in my neck of the woods. So to write effective grammar, I sometimes have to use bad subject pronoun agreement, the wrong tense, double negatives. And I can’t. I mean, I can – obviously there are times I have to – but it feels so . . . I don’t know . . . like when people try to imitate the Kennedy accents. I’m always afraid that although the intentionally bad grammar in my dialogue sounds authentic to my ears, to someone who’s used to a real Boston accent, it just comes across as fake. Or I worry that people will think I am making fun of someone.
So, yes, using bad grammar can sometimes be smart. When it is confined to the dialogue. Write something like “Their are two chairs in the room.” in the setting or “Her and Joe exit.” in the stage directions and the reader will toss your script aside and pick up the next in the large stack on the desk.
But does grammar matter outside the worlds of writing or academia? A few years ago when I married my high school sweetheart – a fellow survivor of Lillian’s English class – I wrote a flash non-fiction piece for the wedding announcement. And I sent it to Lillian. When her response arrived, I opened the envelope with great trepidation half-expecting a myriad of red slashes across the page. Instead, her very sweet note included the comment: “Your well-written story deserves an A+.” With incredible pride I posted her comment on Facebook. And the congratulations flowed in from my high school classmates. Not for the marriage – but for the A+. So yes, several decades years removed from high school, people still care about grammar. Yes, they does. (Ouch!)