Ain’t Got No Time for Good Grammar–When It’s Okay to Use Poor Grammar

Believe it or not, there are times in your writing when you should use poor grammar.

Yes, really!

South Park Hillbilly BrigadeIn what situations? Usually, you might use poor grammar in order to better convey a character. For example, let’s say your character is a backwards, uneducated slob named Rollo. Rollo is visiting an alien planet for the first time—perhaps a cosmopolitan pleasure planet. He’s shocked and frightened by the forwardness of the aliens on this planet, and he doesn’t know what to make of them. Which bit of dialogue would better convey Rollo’s character?

Then the tall, blue-skinned alien set down a frosty glass of Uxorian ale. “Why don’t you try this?” the alien said to Rollo. “It might help you see things on our planet differently.”

”Did you drug that drink?” Rollo asked, narrowing his eyes. “I won’t understand you savages simply because I had a glass of ale. Nothing about this planet makes sense to me—I doubt a drink will change that.”

Or:

Then the tall, blue-skinned alien set down a frosty glass of Uxorian ale. “Why don’t you try this?” the alien said to Rollo. “It might help you see things on our planet differently.”

”You slip some kinda roofie in that?” Rollo asked, narrowing his eyes. “I ain’t gonna understand you savages just ‘cause I had one of your fancy drinks. Ain’t nothing about this planet makes sense to me, and no drink is gonna change that.”

In the first example, in which I put good grammar in Rollo’s mouth, he sounds educated, urbane. Perhaps still too conservative, but certainly not the backwards slob we were hoping to convey.

In the second example, in which I put poor grammar in Rollo’s mouth, he sounds utterly sheltered, more suspicious of the Uxorians, more prone to paranoia, even more close-minded.

In your writing, do not strive for good grammar over the sake of effect. If a character is uneducated, then let his grammar reflect that. This does not mean to make him sound stupid–indeed, a lack of education and intelligence aren’t really correlated. But on the other hand, he should not sound as if he went to Oxford. Likewise, if a character is an Oxford graduate who uses pretentiously good grammar, with an inappropriately vast vocabulary, then let her sound ridiculous. Don’t tie yourself so tightly to good grammar that your characters can never have a personality of their own-—as with children, you must allow them to fly the nest.

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