Speech doesn’t need to be grammatical because people don’t speak grammatically. The say things the wrong way round, use the wrong words, misuse phrases, punctuate places that defy ‘the rules’ and do all sorts of different things that you wouldn’t expect. There can be a point where arguably it’s possible to go too far, however, this point wouldn’t necessarily be how ungrammatical the speech is but rather when it ceases to sound like the character.

Although people are ungrammatical, aside from misspeaking, they tend to be ungrammatical consistently or if they’re not there’s a reason for it. An old cliché in Britain is the person with the very colloquial speech speaking less colloquially in a moment when they feel class pressure to sound less colloquial. While this is something that does happen it’s often been played in a caricatured and rarely are we expected to be laughing with the speaker. This cliché does have a reverse where the speaker is upper-class and trying to speak more colloquially, usually to try and make themselves sound tougher or to pretend they aren’t upper-class. However, despite this appearing to be inconsistent the circumstances that affect the change are consistent.

Consistency is also important because it helps people to understand characters with very ungrammatical speech. The general principle of standard grammar is to make language more easily understood, supposedly, so it may be easier to think of the character’s ungrammatical speech as their standard grammar. If we establish that they speak in a particular way, even if the reader struggles with it at first, they can adapt because they can begin to associate the grammar with the meaning. A basic example might be someone who speaks in very short sentences when they’re stressed, at first this might confuse the reader but the reader will begin to associate this with the character’s mental state. A famous example might be Terry Pratchett’s Death who always speaks in capital letters, disconcerting at first but we adapt and it seems to imply an unearthly voice which is fitting. Eventually it’s difficult to imagine Death speaking any other way.

As I mentioned earlier ungrammatical, or even grammatical, speech only becomes problematic when it doesn’t fit the character and what fits the character depends on their background, their decisions and who they are so two characters with similar background could speak in completely different ways.

We don’t have to worry about getting a character’s way of speaking right to begin with because their voice will develop as we write and we learn more about them. Anything that doesn’t feel right can easily be edited later on.

For more writing advice see my Advice Page. For more on dialogue see Finding The Characters.

NOTE: Each article series comes in five parts published between Monday and Friday. Check back tomorrow for the next part.


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