Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Posted by Laurel Garver on Tuesday, November 29, 2011 11 comments
Dear Editor-on-call,

Recently I wrote, "He must have been thirteen at the time, as he was about a year older than I was" on the first page I presented at a SCBWI critique session. I was told it should read: "He must have been thirteen at the time, as he was a year older than me."

I think the editor is wrong. What do you say?

Sincerely,
Woe am I
(aka Carmen Ferreiro Esteban)


Dear Woesome,

This is a two-pronged issue. First, we have to consider the grammar rules for comparisons. Second, we should discuss the issue of audience and diction.

Comparisons using "than"
For the record, your instincts are right. Using the objective case--me, her or him--in "than" comparisons is grammatically incorrect.

The rule to remember is that the two things being compared must have parallel grammatical form, tense, voice, case.

Examples:
Incorrect - She is taller than him. (Noun cases don't match: one's subjective, the other objective.)

Correct - She is taller than he is. (Note the verb is repeated for clarity. )


Incorrect - I like Mona more than him. (Both unparallel and ambiguous.)

Correct - I like Mona more than I like him. ("Mona" and "him" are both direct objects.)

Alternate - I like Mona more than he does. (This is a shorthand for saying "I like Mona more than he likes Mona.")


Incorrect- It will be faster to go this way than going that way. (Verb forms don't match: one's an infinitive, the other, a participle.)

Correct: It will be faster to go this way than to go that way.

Voice and diction
When is it preferable to break grammar rules to keep character voices authentic and unstuffy? That depends on a number of things including genre, audience and character voice.

If you write for emerging readers (the under-9 set), consider how teachers will perceive your work. From their perspective, it's more important that proper grammar be continually reinforced so that their students internalize it. They will curse your rule breaking.

As readers age, their grasp of language becomes more sophisticated and fluid. They can better discern a fictional character's voice from, say, a textbook narrator voice. They become aware of dialect and can point to how Huck Finn sounds different from Harry Potter.

In my opinion, the most compelling reason to make a character speak ungrammatically is to convey their lower social class and lack of education or sophistication, or to create contrasts.
A kid raised in the slum is more likely to botch grammar than who attends a posh boarding school. But either kid might assume the speech of the other as an affectation, a mask, to fit in or stand out in a particular environment. Rule breaking for this purpose can be an effective characterization tool.

There certainly are some forms of grammatical correctness that have almost entirely disappeared from speech. Taking the high road means your character's voice will be perceived as uptight and stuffy. You're unlikely to hear a teen use "whom" much anymore. And following the bogus rule that you can't end a sentence with a preposition (which is a Latin grammar rule, not a genuinely English one) will similarly nerdify character voice.

I'd rather spend 300 pages with someone who asks me, "Who should I send this letter to?" than one who asks, "To whom should I send this letter?"

Your example sentence ("He must have been thirteen at the time, as he was about a year older than I was") reads naturally enough. It doesn't seem to me to fall into the "uptight grammatical prig" category. Keep it as you wrote it.

So, readers, what do you think?

11 comments:

  1. Oooo, good post. I love that you pointed out voice and diction. This can make a huge difference to how the sentence it written.

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  2. Hooray for defenders of grammar! :) I agree about voice, but if you must break a grammar rule, it had better be broken deliberately.

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  3. I think it depends on the story, the character, and if it's plausible they would talk like that. Many characters would not use proper grammar when talking.

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  4. Holly: thanks. I hope I gave a balanced view. It's easy to draw lines in the sand on topics like this.

    Faith: I think it's a matter of hitting the sweet spot of fluid, readable writing that makes sense and feels authentic to your audience. It's an art more than a rules-driven science.

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  5. Laura: I agree that voice matters, but disagree that "many characters would not use proper grammar". This is a major sore spot for me. It hints at an anti-intellectual bias I see everywhere in our culture. Writers cave into it at the peril of making reading obsolete. Subliteracy is becoming a huge problem--you should see how poorly many college students write today--fifth and sixth grade level.

    There has to be a middle ground between extreme formality and sloppy, no rules subliteracy that we are willing to defend. Okay, I'll get off my soapbox now... :-)

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  6. I agree with your assessment. The sentence sounded fine the way it was. It sounds good the other way, too. So I suppose it could be written either way. And, this post actually helped me decide how to write a certain sentence of my own. Thank you!

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  7. I agree. The voice was lost in the critter's version.

    I love how you broke this down, Laurel.

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  8. I like the voice in the first version, but the second version is somewhat easier on the reading eyes. I'm on the fence!

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  9. I need to brush up on the rules because there were a couple 'incorrect' sentences that I've written and would have defended.

    Dagnabit, I hate it when I'm wrong.

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  10. Susan: Genre is the real clincher in Carmen's case. She writes fantasy, and it makes no sense for a historic character to speak like a contemporary one, with contemporary grammar errors.

    Stina: Thanks. I tried to strike a balance here. Good grammar is worth defending, but there are exceptions.

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  11. Lydia: It's possible the grammar rules for comparisons will shift in the next decade, but Carmen writes fantasy, and historic characters should sound a little more formal.

    Vicki: There's a difference between breaking the rules for the sake of voice and simply not knowing them. I hope this helped you get a better sense of how comparisons work so you make informed decisions. Knowledge is power. :-)

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