Let’s Eat, Grandma…

While we appear to be teetering on the edge of World War III (or at least that’s what you might be led to believe from certain online sources), I have been grappling with a far greater foe.

English grammar.

Now, I’ve always been somewhat a stickler for grammatical rules. And I’ve previously written in an academic setting, which has arguably reinforced my position

The problem I’ve now encountered is that there is now an established middle-ground between the formal and the informal.

Social Media and the Blogosphere. And that is the domain in which I write my books. I write as if I were speaking or recounting a story.

And that is where my dilemma begins.

When we speak, we use fragments of speech and flit from idea to idea, yet our words and thoughts still hit home. It is a wonder of language that we can still make ourselves plainly understood even if what we say is not strictly in accordance with the grammatical rules that we have learned (or not) in the course of our time in education.

Our brains do not depend on tight structure or order for us to receive the right messages from speech.

Yuo konw waht I maen, rghit?

So, when speech hops over to SMS, email, or blogs and becomes unstructured, our brains can effortlessly maintain effective lines of communication.

The transition from spoken to written, particularly if style is to be maintained, is the crux of the matter. And it’s all about the punctuation.

Now granted, sometimes a comma will have the greatest significance for meaning. Commas save lives, after all. Take the title above. Removing the comma will change an invitation to supper into a markedly more nefarious proposition for Grandma.

A set of standards – as a benchmark – is never a bad thing particularly when they assist comprehension. Full-stops matter, period, as do commas in order to break up text into meaningful and digestible pieces. They facilitate and contribute to meaning.

But should we frown upon less formal but slightly more permanent written forms, should authors elect to use punctuation in order to carry a meaning or a sense of their words? Who is to say that their role in facilitation cannot be expanded by an author, driven by what the author is seeking to achieve?

See in this example, I placed a comma after author in order to ensure that I was clear that it was not the author who was driven but their role in facilitation.

However, there are examples where punctuation has been largely omitted for creative effect.

Think of Joyce’s Ulysses and just two punctuation marks in a whole chapter and one sentence a mere 4,391 words. That’s longer than some of mine.

Joyce also referred to inverted commas (quotation marks) as “perverted commas” and frequently eschewed apostrophes with contractions, writing Ive and Id instead of I’ve and I’d respectively.

So, authors have been doing it for years. In more recent times, so has a newer generation of writers. Of course, they are frowned upon because they do not have a literary standing.

But whose language is it anyway? Surely it belongs to us all in order – first and foremost – to communicate.

This brings us back to the evolving understanding of commas. Many now hold them to represent a pause, as they often occur at a natural break in text. Yet in English grammar, their use is purely technical, or connected with meaning. While their position in text may often coincide with a pause, a pause will not necessitate a comma. Well not in formal writing anyway.

But in the informal, that is how they are often used. They are therefore developing a new identity. However, for new authors without the standing of a Joyce, how can they create their own signature style without attracting a sackful of negative critique for ‘errors’. What should authors who wish to transpose their discursive style to the written word make of all this? What is the best way forward?

One challenge is that their structures may not be particularly formal, simply because their use of English is in some senses ‘non-standard’. They might find that they would have to change their chosen building blocks and forms of expression in order to be able to punctuate formally.

I’ll go, however he’ll stay.

Sounds ok, but it is not correct. It cannot be, according to the rules, because however is an adverb not a conjunction. It can modify a verb but not join two clauses.

And this is because combining two independent clauses can only be done by a conjunction. There are seven on these (For, and, nor, but, or, yet & so). Therefore, you have to select the one that fits the bill. It’s one of the rules.

You can opt for I’ll go. However, he’ll stay. Or I’ll go; however he’ll stay. However, if you want to use a comma in writing, you will need to make this, I’ll go, but he’ll stay.

But nobody would blink at using however functioning as a ‘joining word’, and nobody would misunderstand. I see it written every day

But if you get to the point that you change structures and words just to squeeze your writing into a grammatical gimp suit, then individual style is subverted to standardised form. And at that point, creativity starts to wither.

And one of the great things about online is that it got people writing – and published – who might otherwise have not had a voice in that form. We should exercise caution with any activity that might stifle that.

I remember reading about what a short introduction to English Grammar had said, as early as 1791:

‘…the doctrine of Punctuation must needs by very imperfect: few precise rules can be given which will hold without exception in all cases; but much must be left to the judgment and taste of the writer.’


I wonder what changed along the way? Probably some sort of appropriation by a group of extremists who sought authority over others. That’s what usually drives fanaticism.

So, my advice for authors of any kind is to apply to your writing whatever works to support your message. As long as you are understood, it won’t be self-defeating. Look at the works of James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Marcel Proust, to name but a few. In the end, talent – namely the ability to communicate in this instance – trumps everything.

Ultimately, there will be a set of rules, or convention, that govern this not-formal, not-speech writing, possibly even a in the form of a new style guide. By that stage, it may even include emojis, and why not?

But make no mistake, it will happen because like words, if something continues to be used, it comes into existence in its own right. People scoff at ‘irregardless’, ‘impactful’ and ‘strategize’, but they are now included in the major dictionaries.

And will doubtless continue debating whether it’s grammar Nazi or grammar-Nazi.

unsplash-logoBrett Jordan

One comment

  1. […] However, rules are not straightforward, and when you have a flow between linguistic registers sometimes within the same piece, commas are infinitely tricky and controversial. Even that last sentence was, for several reasons. That one, too. And that […]


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