Can You Break Grammar and Punctuation Rules and Still be a Good Writer?

Can you break the rules that your English teachers have spent years of sweat and tears reinforcing and still be a good writer? As much as I hate to say yes… It’s possible. And when it works, it works very, very well. Here are three examples of authors who have broken the rules of grammar and punctuation and been very successful. You can use the links and Amazon’s “look inside” feature to read excerpts from the books. As you read, think about what the authors achieve by choosing to break these rules.

Angela’s Ashes
by Frank McCourt
(Pulitzer Prize Winner and New York Times #1 bestseller)
Book description: This is a memoir of the author’s self-described “miserable Irish childhood,” with a focus on his mother, Angela.
Click here to view the book on Amazon and read the first few pages using the “look inside” feature.
The excerpt we discussed in class begins with these words:
Malachy, at the far end of the bar, turned pale, gave the great-breasted ones a sickly smile, offered them a drink. They resisted the smile and spurned the offer. Delia said, We don’t know what class of a tribe you come from in the North of Ireland.
Philomena said, There is a suspicion that you might have Presbyterians in your family, which would explain what you did to our cousin.
Broken rule:
There is quite a bit of non-standard grammar in here, and there are no quotations around any of the dialogue in the entire book.
What the author achieves by breaking this rule: We discussed this in more detail in class, but three things we discussed are worth mentioning here: All students in class agreed that they felt like they “heard” an Irish accent as they read, and one student said she could hear the speed and noise of the argument in the bar between Angela’s sisters, their husbands, and Malachy.

The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
By Junot Diaz
(Pulitzer Prize Winner and Macarthur Genius Grant Winner)
Background for the excerpt: We began with the first chapter after the prologue, “Ghetto Nerd at the End of the World.” In this, we meet our main character, a nerdy Dominican kid named Oscar De Leon who lives in New Jersey. The narrator is his older sister’s boyfriend, who is also Dominican, and also from New Jersey. But he’s the type of guy who has much more luck with the ladies than Oscar.
Click here to view the book on Amazon and read the first few pages using the “look inside” feature.
The excerpt we discussed begins with these words:
Our hero was not one of those Dominican cats everyone’s always going on about- he wasn’t no home-run hitter or a fly bachatero, not a playboy with a million hots on his jock. 
And except for one period early in his life, dude never much luck with the females (how very un-Dominican of him).
He was seven then.
Broken rule: The narrator uses slang and non-standard grammar throughout the book.
What the author achieves by breaking this rule: Authentic voice and personality of the narrator. Even though the narrator isn’t a huge character in most of the story, we always know the story is being filtered through his perspective, and that he brings his own personality to it.

Happy Are the Happy
Yasmina Reza
(Internationally acclaimed novelist and playwright)
Background of excerpt: This book (translated from the French original) features chapters from points of view of about 15 different characters, but the couple that begins the book and links everyone together are Robert and Odile Toscano, featured here on the first page.
Click here to view the book on Amazon and read the first few pages using the “look inside” feature.
The excerpt we discussed begins with these words:
We were at the supermarket, shopping for the weekend. At some point she said, you go stand in the cheese line while I get the rest of the groceries. When I came back, the shopping cart was half filled with boxes of cereal and bags of cookies and packets of powdered food and other deserts. I said, what’s all this for? – What do you mean, what’s all this for? I said, what’s the point of buying all this?
Broken Rules: No paragraph structure. No quotation marks around dialogue.
What the author achieves by breaking this rule: Captures the energy of the conversation. You feel like you can here these people arguing in front of you in line at the supermarket.

As we discussed all three of these excerpts, we were able to identify three main reasons authors sometimes break the rules of mechanics on purpose:
Memory – Memoir-writers in particular are conscious that they might not remember things exactly as they happened. Leaving out quotations is a way of saying, hey, I might not have this dialogue exactly right, but here’s the way I remember the conversation happening. (If you want to hear a great interview about this, here’s a link to memoirist Mary Carr discussing this on NPR.)
Energy – When conversations involve multiple people interrupting each other, or when a scene has a lot of static and background noise, playing with punctuation can help the writer stay true to the energy level of the situation they hope to capture.
Authenticity – In our daily lives, most of us don’t use perfect sentence structure while speaking. This is even more true for people who learned English as a second language or have a strong regional accent or use a lot of slang. To truly capture a character’s voice and personality, the author has to capture their rhythm, word choice, and grammar – which often means breaking grammar rules. Many authors do this when writing dialogue, but if the narrator has a personality of his or her own, as in Junot Diaz’s book, it can also make sense to write the whole book the way the narrator would say it aloud.

***WRITING EXERCISES***

Playing with memory: Think back to the last conversation you had that lasted more than five minutes. Start with the words, I’m not sure if I remember this exactly right… Then try to recreate the conversation on the page, but don’t put quotation marks around any of the dialogue.

Channeling energy: List a few moments in your memory that seemed like they went much more quickly than they actually did. Then list a few moments that seemed to happen much more slowly than they actually did. Pick a moment from one of the lists* and describe it – aim to capture the speed that the moment felt like it happened rather than the speed of the actual moment.
*If you like this exercise, try it again with a moment from the opposite list.

Capturing authenticity: Think of a person you know pretty well who has a distinctive way of speaking. What is something this person likes to talk about? Pick up your pen (or keyboard) and let them talk through you.

Tip: Try not to spell out accents phonetically. This can be confusing to readers. Word choice, word order, and sometimes punctuation can do a much better job of helping readers “hear” an accent in their heads. (See example above from Frank McCourt.)

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