RAZORED ZEN: <a href=http://charlesgramlich.blogspot.com/2013/01/those-of-you-who-have-been-hanging-with.html>Grammar and Gardening</a>

Monday, January 21, 2013

Grammar and Gardening

Those of you who have been hanging with me for a long time may know that I have a deep "disrespect" for the book Requiem for a Dream, by Hubert Selby.  All telling, no showing, and characters who I just wanted to die long before the story's end. In addition to these issues, Selby added extra problems for the reader by cramming multiple speakers into the same paragraph and by refusing to use quotation marks. The writing in the book is so pretentious that Selby even refused to use the apostrophe in such phrases as "I'm" and "You're," using Im and youre instead.

My review of "Requiem" on Goodreads still garners a stray comment once in a while. Recently someone else had chimed in that the grammar and punctuation issues made it hard for them to read the book as well. Another person responded that:, essentially, it has to be remembered that grammar and punctuation have "absolutely no implications on the actual story."

Wow, how wrong could that second commentator be?  No implications? I'm definitely not a grammar NAZI and my own grammar isn't top of the line. I make plenty of errors and have to do a lot of careful proofreading on those elements of my stories. But, grammar and punctuation have many implications for story because they provide the framework by which we access story. Imagine a wonderful museum without any kind of handicapped access. A person in a wheelchair isn't going to be able to enjoy that wonder, at least not without a lot of extra effort and inconvenience.

Here's another analogy that occurred to me. Flowers can be very beautiful growing wild,  but landscapers have long known that "arranging" flowers in certain ways increases their impact. The careful use of trellises and beds can enhance the viewer's experience. In the same way, proper grammar and punctuation can be used to better display a good story to its best effect. Grammar errors or problems with punctuation detract from that display. A few errors here and there aren't going to detract too much from a good story, but a lot of them will really throw the reader out of the story. At least they do me.

How about you?

33 Comments:

At 10:17 AM, Blogger Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I've only seen the movie, but the lack of quotations would make it a difficult read. I've heard No Country for Old Men is like that as well.

 
At 10:21 AM, Blogger Greg said...

Much agreed. Grammar, spelling, and punctuation absolutely impact the story. Some writers use incorrect spelling or grammar, or lack of punctuation, to provide a certain perspective or voice to their story. Sometimes it works, or at least you can see what they're trying to do, but it sounds like in this book he failed miserably.

 
At 10:39 AM, Blogger Keith said...

I agree completely. Where a comma is placed, for example, can entirely change the meaning if a sentence, especially in dialogue.

 
At 10:40 AM, Blogger Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Charles, I am with you. Bad grammar and punctuation puts me off anything I might be reading, even newspaper and magazine reports. However, I have been noticing a new trend: a sentence that is, obviously, grammatically wrong is accepted as correct and becomes a part of everyday usage. Ditto for words. To put it mildly, the increasing use of the internet, social networking, and mobile smses is probably corrupting the way we speak and write.

 
At 12:06 PM, Blogger Chris said...

Pretentious is indeed the word. I find that futzing around with grammar and punctuation distracts from the story, and I hate it when I see it. That kind of "experimental" writing I can do without.

 
At 12:07 PM, Blogger pattinase (abbott) said...

Although I know people who take it too far, for the most part grammar makes writing accessible and anything that does that, we need to support. I hate guessing things like who is speaking for instance.

 
At 1:20 PM, Blogger Charles Gramlich said...

Alex, Cormac McCarthy doesn't use quotation marks but he separates speakers into their own paragraphs and you can tell who is talking. His grammar is good as well. I liked No country for Old men.

Greg, sometimes to catch dialect one needs to do that, but less is more in those cases. It's a delicate line. Selby just threw the line away.

Keith, absolutely. I stress that for my writing group at times without making it clear it seems.

Prashant, very true. And much of the problem is caused by simple laziness.

Chris, absolutely. the "experimental" in experimental writing should be about content, not style without substance.

Patti, exactly, and when it is so easy to make it clear. Why not?

 
At 4:53 PM, Blogger Riot Kitty said...

Totally agree. And I HATE the new "tell us everything, show us nothing" trend.

 
At 5:09 PM, Blogger Ron Scheer said...

I'm not big on rules, just readability. Like your wheelchair analogy, I prefer writing that is accessible for most readers.

 
At 5:22 PM, Blogger G. B. Miller said...

To be honest, I tried reading No Country for Old Men, but seven pages in I felt I was reading a movie script (having seen the movie, which was dynamite) instead of a book.

I don't mind bad grammar, so long as it's limited to certain social media. But if I'm reading a book, a magazine or a newspaper, I need punctuation and good grammar to enjoy it.

I've been like this long before I became a writer.

 
At 5:49 PM, Blogger Cloudia said...

spelling, punct, and grammar are the road rules that keep the traffic of reader's attention flowing! badly written stuff reduces us all to the condition of the barely literate sounding out unfamiliar hieroglyphs.

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At 6:02 PM, Blogger Angie said...

I agree that grammar and punctuation (and spelling and usage and structure) are important in getting your ideas across. I suppose I could imagine a situation where a writer was deviating strongly from the conventions of English mechanics deliberately and for a reason. (Remember that essay about English spelling, where the writer proposed changes one at a time, adopting those changes into the essay as he went? That was awesome.) But the other 99% of the time, someone who trashes common mechanics rules as you describe above is just looking for attention.

Of course, all writers want attention -- it's why we publish. But I personally want attention for my story -- because the plot and characters and setting attract positive comment. Weird punctuation or whatever can only detract from the story itself, forcing the reader to use extra cognitive resources to read through what look like a swarm of errors, preventing them from sinking into the narrative flow. Why would you want to do that if you have confidence that the story itself is good and memorable?

I have to wonder about a writer who would apparently rather have readers saying, "Oh look, he doesn't use apostrophes -- how avant garde!" rather than, "Hey, did you read that story by X? Great stuff!"

Angie

 
At 6:05 PM, Blogger SQT said...

It always surprises me when I come across a feted author who is able to completely bypass normal rules of grammar. I'm not a grammar nazi either (heaven knows my writing tends to be choppy and inconsistent) but grammar, as you pointed out, is essentially to the flow and reason of a story. If I can't follow the basic structure of a story, I'm going to give up on it pretty quickly.

 
At 7:11 PM, Blogger Sarah Hina said...

I find that my patience for "difficult" authors is inversely proportional to my perceived hollowness of their purpose. "Requiem" sounds like a nightmare.

McCarthy is someone who carries it off well. There's something subdued and intimate about his lack of quotation marks to me. Like the characters are speaking inside one's own head. It's not distracting or confusing, as you stated above.

I also forgive a lot more in poetry. But then, that's a (shorter) medium where one expects a certain playfulness of form. In prose, the more radical the experimentation, the more tedious and grating it becomes. Which benefits nobody.

 
At 7:47 PM, Blogger Chris said...

See, I expect to be baffled by poetry. It's rare that I'm not.

 
At 8:31 PM, Blogger laughingwolf said...

some folk tend to be over-anal about those things, myself included...

i prefer my flowers wild, for the most part, instead of spoon fed....

 
At 8:13 AM, Blogger the walking man said...

Grammar as in punctuation actually sets the pacing of the dialog or poetry. I can understand misuse when trying to impart dialect but without ,:;.?! you really have someone who either types very poorly or is lazy as hell and thinks it a cute trick to sell with.

I do believe Jack Kerouac was one who used a similar trick with On The Road. Only his publisher wasn't buying into it. William Burroughs was another who used little tricks to write. The original cut and paste author.

 
At 11:21 AM, Blogger Bernard Lee DeLeo said...

Like you, I'm no grammar Nazi, but multiple errors do bother me in a story. I'm all for exceptions in dialogue, but I don't want to launch an investigation to find out who is speaking. Our friend Stacia Kane has an entire series with a totally created character slang-speak only used in her 'Downside' series. I'm a huge fan of the series, but I'm sure the dialogue would make a lot of folks mental. She pulls it off because there is very little telling, and a whole lot of showing.

 
At 12:55 PM, Blogger Charles Gramlich said...

Riot kitty, some folks seem to be forgetting the basic premise of storytelling.

Ron, I advocate as few rules as necessary but some you have to have to make the communication readable.

G.B, if I hadn't read other books by McCarthy first I might not have made it through "no country. I very much did like "The Road," though.

Cloudia, exactly.

Angie, Absolutely. Making a "choice" not to use apostraphes is a total waste of energy on the writer's part, energy that could be better used elsewhere in the story.

SQT, me too. I don't get the purpose behind it all other than it being a three year old yelling "look at me."

Sarah, poetry is definitely different. I almost want to be confused a little bit. I want to have to work through what is happening. But it's because what is happenening is often IN the lines, not between them as with a regular story.

Chris, I agree on poetry. And I think I prefer it. See my comment to Sarah above.

Laughingwolf, I like mine wild too, but if I'm going to look at human managed ones I like them to make use of that management.

Mark, I have very low tolerance for style over substance when it comes to writing. I can tolerate some Burroughs, but not a big fan of Kerouac.

Bernard, trying to do something like what Stacia does requires a lot more work on the writer's part as well. That's something folks like Selby seem to have forgotten.

 
At 1:07 PM, Blogger Richard R. said...

Okay, so e.e.cummings could get away with it, but short story and novelists shouldn't try. Sometimes it's hard enough to read something when all the elements are there, let alone when the writer tries to get artsy.

 
At 1:32 PM, Blogger Optimistic Existentialist said...

I have only seen the movie...I a interested to read the book out of curiousity.

 
At 2:28 PM, Blogger Charles Gramlich said...

Richard R., I think breaking the rules of normal grammar and punctuation is fine for poetry but in prose the rules should be followed as much as possible. Sometimes one might break the rules but there needs to be a good reason.

Optimistic Existentialist, I had a feeling from reviews that most people who reviewed the book positively had seen the movie first and judged the book by the movie. At least that was the feeling I got. I also saw the movie first but tried not to let it effect my evalulation of the book.

 
At 2:45 PM, Blogger Oscar said...

Why do they have rules if we're not supposed to follow them?

 
At 9:16 PM, Blogger Charles Gramlich said...

Oscar some folks think they're too good to follow the rules that mere mortals have.

 
At 8:43 PM, Blogger Rick said...

I like your last comment!

 
At 9:36 AM, Blogger Charles Gramlich said...

Rick, thankee, man.

 
At 1:27 PM, Blogger Neil Waring's - Western Rambling's said...

As an avid gardener, reading and some time writer-this was a great post. A few grammar, spelling and punctuation mistakes don't stop me, but too many makes a tough read, even out of a good story line.
I hate when I need to reread dialogue to see what it means.

 
At 5:55 PM, Blogger Richard Prosch said...

The rise of a civilization's history begins when the stories get written down in a standard fashion --whether it's Linear A or Cuniform. To go backwards, it seems to me, is to be making more of a political or philosophical statement than telling a good story.

 
At 6:23 PM, Blogger The Golden Eagle said...

Definitely. Structure helps bring things out--even if something is really good without it in the first place, it's worth paying attention to.

 
At 7:42 AM, Blogger Charles Gramlich said...

Neil, thanks for dropping by. Glad you enjoyed.

Richard, good point. Some people's purpose seems to be to confuse rather than enlighten.

Golden Eagle, like the way that clothing can be used to accentuate or not the body that lies beneath it.

 
At 3:17 PM, Blogger Gabby said...

You probably already know MY feelings on the subject! ^_^ But, I have to say that rarely do I come across a book that has horrible grammar. Typos though, can abound. AND, if you ever notice, they tend to run in packs. I can go awhile in a book with nothing wrong, and then within 2 or 3 pages, I can spot several errors.

I don't mind them much, even if I DO notice them. (Sometimes, though, I have seen quite a few and wonder if they got someone to look over it.)

But, bad writing is bad writing, and that's not something a good proofreader can fix.

 
At 7:08 PM, Blogger Travis Cody said...

Bad grammar completely distracts me. I don't mind the occassional idiosyncracy in writing style. But not using the proper punctuation for contractions makes me crazy because I pronounce the words in my head when I read. If I have to pause to figure out what the word is supposed to be, or how it impacts the context of what I'm reading, I'm thrown out of the story.

 
At 8:27 AM, Blogger Charles Gramlich said...

Gabby, I've seen some pretty bad self pubbed books as far as grammar is concerned. Most publishers do a decent job at getting that kind of stuff fixed.

Travis Cody, that's what happened to me in Requiem.

 

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