Author Messes With Grammar To Define Mood, Scene, Character

Man reading a book thinking about grammar maybeAuthors sometimes take license with grammar to create a mood, a scene or a character. I usually don’t object to storytelling that deviates from standard usage, as long as it serves a purpose. Songwriters do it all the time!

When I was invited to join a book club, I welcomed the opportunity to expand my horizons by reading things I might not otherwise have chosen to explore. I just finished The Dog Stars, a tale about a handful of individuals who have survived a flu pandemic that appears to have wiped out much of civilization. One review described it as “a post-apocalyptic adventure.”

Peter Heller, an experienced writer who has a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Iowa Writers Workshop in fiction and poetry, uses a writing style that suits the tale he tells. It mimics the sometimes random thoughts that float through all of our heads, ramblings that don’t require grammatically complete sentences or punctuation.

Here’s an example:

I have a neighbor. One. Just us at a small country airport a few miles from the mountains. A training field where they built a bunch of houses for people who couldn’t sleep without their little planes, the way golfers live on a golf course.

Heller’s writing is sparse, often without punctuation. There are no quotation marks anywhere to indicate dialog. He leaves a lot for the reader to surmise. Another excerpt:

Younger than. Or not. Leaner. White haired. Hard like shoe leather. Creases. Creased lines deep from cheeks down. Grimace lines. Spray of creases from corners of the eyes, outside corners. Gray eyes sparking. Used to sparking back at the naked sun. No bullshit at all. Every movement sure and swift.

Heller’s style reflects the characters’ dilemma: There is no room for anything extraneous when life is so basic, so rudimentary that survival is the only goal, the only aspiration.

I was able to decipher meaning without punctuation, but there are some places where I believe Heller’s editor could have served him better:

  • Redundancies such as retreating back and lower it down 
  • Using further when it should be farther: walked further into the green, went further back south from the house (further means to a greater degree, farther is distance)
  • And this structure — when we get sick of rabbits and sunfish from the pond — could be interpreted as both rabbits and sunfish coming from the pond. I would have chosen when we get sick of sunfish from the pond and rabbits. 

This last excerpt, with its customary-for-Heller abbreviated phrasing, interestingly uses a reference to punctuation to clarify his thought, to make his point:

We have the perimeter. But if someone hid. In the old farmsteads. In the sage. The willows along a creek. Arroyos, too, with undercut banks. He asked me that once: how do I know. How do I know someone is not inside our perimeter, in all that empty country, hiding, waiting to attack us? But thing is I can see a lot. Not like the back of the hand, too simple, but like a book I have read and reread too many times to count, maybe like the Bible for some folks of old. I would know. A sentence out of place. A gap. Two periods where there should be one. I know.

I don’t believe that redundancies or using a wrong word enhance storytelling, unless they might be in dialogue that helps to define a character. In this work, absent punctuation and sometimes-choppy phrase structure put readers inside Heller’s protagonist’s head, enabling them to see the world as the leading character sees — and feels — it.

I welcomed becoming part of a small group that meets monthly to discuss how each of us interprets a particular story. Because I of course am in constant ruthless editor mode, I enjoy seeing different writing styles and, yes, even diverse use of grammar. Straying from standard usage can work, as long as it doesn’t confuse readers.

After I adapted to Heller’s style, I found the story a good piece of fiction. Uplifting or inspirational? No. But it was interesting and held my attention.

Have you read something lately — fiction or nonfiction — by a writer who took license with grammar? Have you read a story that was a struggle at the start, but that turned into a captivating tale? If so, please share.

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Kathy Watson

Kathy Watson has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. A self-proclaimed ruthless editor, she prefers standard usage guidelines of The Associated Press Stylebook. Her easy-to-use Grammar for People Who Hate Rules helps people write and speak with authority and confidence. She encourages and welcomes questions and comments. (Email)