The Neutral Approach to Grammar Rules

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If you’re reading that title and scratching your head in confusion, allow me to explain. In roleplaying games, neutral is one of nine choices for a character’s alignment. The neutral character is neither good nor evil. Neither lawful nor chaotic. Neutral characters attempt to keep balance in the world through their actions and decisions. For them, laws are meant to be broken or followed depending on how it will balance out an equation. A real-world example of this could be that a person wouldn’t murder a corrupt politician, but he also might not stop someone else from doing it. Or, a person doesn’t mind going five miles per hour over the speed limit, but they always use their turn signal and wear their seatbelt. There is a give and take that balances everything out for them.

The same can be done when it comes to the rules that govern grammar and writing. If you’re anything like me, you loved English while you were in school. You loved learning about the parts of speech, and sentence structure, and how to diagram sentences, and learning how to properly use commas. When you write, you pay attention to how you write. How your characters speak and think. There is precision and perfection. That’s all well and good. There’s a place for that type of writing.

However, that type of writing can become boring and repetitive. It can lead people to feel disconnected from your characters and your writing style. The world is full of people who don’t follow grammar rules when they’re speaking, and it’s okay to have those same types of people in your writing. It adds spice and nuance to an otherwise overly perfect world that is unbelievable.

An example of this would be the character Epiphany from my novel Ride the Train. Epiphany doesn’t use contractions when she speaks. Her delivery is very blunt and almost deadpan at times. She could be considered the epitome of the droning speaker that bores you to tears. (Another example of this would be Ben Stein’s character in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Bueller... Bueller... Bueller...) The great thing about Epiphany, though, is that she is a no-nonsense woman, and she kicks some major ass. Her speaking style is used to convey the lessons she wants to impart to the people she has been charged with saving. There is an economy of words that matches her precise actions. She’s a force to be reckoned with, and everything about how she presents herself backs that up.

Then there are characters who can barely be counted on to form coherent thoughts. They speak as if they’ve never heard another person using the language or as if they’ve never been taught how to string words together. They end sentences with prepositions. They talk in run-on sentences. Their sentences have a subject but no verb. It’s a mess. But, it’s true to life. We all know people like this. Sometimes, if we’re honest, this person is us. Usually after we wake up and before we’ve had our coffee.

Let’s face it, English is one of the hardest languages to learn for a reason. There are so many—some would say too many—rules to learn. That’s not even taking into account the weird pronunciations and homophones, homonyms, and “ou” words that probably shouldn’t exist. Sometimes you don’t know whether you should use a comma, a semi-colon, or an m-dash. And when did they start getting called m-dashes and n-dashes anyway? I certainly wasn’t taught that in high school. It was a hyphen and a dash. That was it. It was good enough for us, and we were grateful! It’s those darned Millenials and their darned text speak that is destroying the English language as we know it!

Except, it’s not. English—like most languages, I would assume—is a living, breathing, growing, changing, evolving entity. Words are added and taken away from it every day. Rules that were rigid, required constructs one hundred years ago have died and been forgotten. Geoffrey Chaucer wouldn’t recognize the language today, just like most of us can’t read the untranslated Canterbury Tales without getting a headache... or summoning a demon.

Before you start wondering where I’m going with this meandering road map of strung-together words, I’ve said all of the above to say this—there really isn’t a wrong or right way to write. As long as the reader understands the meaning you are attempting to convey, the world—and grammar rules—are your oyster to do with as you please. The caveat with this, though, is the rules you break have to be broken consistently and similarly throughout a piece. You can’t constantly change it up. That way lies madness—and frustrated readers that are going to curse your existence and put down your book.

Then there are commas. (Insert ominous music here.) Now, if you have listened to the podcasts we do for A Murder of Storytellers, you know how I feel about commas. Woe unto they who don’t know how to use commas! Improper comma usage has led to me ranting and foaming at the mouth more than people who don’t know the difference between Star Trek and Star Wars. Or when it’s called Star Track. If you can’t use commas properly, please learn how to do so. Or do what another author I know does—learn how to write without them. That means varied sentence structure and length, which leads to a writing style that is interesting and unique.

The summation of this would be to consistently break any rules you want, but just know that comma misuse is the surest way to get me to go from neutral to chaotic evil in less time than it takes a Horta to dissolve a human.