Let’s Talk Register

A few days ago, I ran across “How the Grinch Stole Grammar.” I laughed through the entire thing, and laughed for about a day afterward. More laughter than warranted? Probably. But I’m a nerd like that.

Granted, I appreciate a properly placed apostrophe as much as the next person, and it makes me cringe when I’m forced to leave out my beloved Oxford comma. And yes, I’ve made it my life’s ambition to explain the difference between a hyphen, an en dash, and an em dash to the world. Editing is one of my greatest pleasures in life, and I love it when someone hands me a paper and says, “Edit this.”

But if I’m going along in the day and someone says, “That’s something I just won’t put up with,” never ever ever would I pull out my grammar stick and shout, “No! That is something up with which you will not put!” Why not? Well, first of all, I want people to like me. Correcting other people’s spoken grammar is one of the quickest ways to get people to stop talking to you. But second of all, I would sound like a total twit. Seriously, who goes around saying “up with which I will not put”?

Take a look at your characters. Does your poor, uneducated peasant go around speaking like a lawyer? Is your cast of modern-day high schoolers using Victorian English? If they are, you’d better darn well have a reason for it. One of the best aspects of character development is a unique voice, which can often come from figuring out exactly how a character breaks the rules of the language. Do they use slang? Do they use words that “don’t exist,” like “ain’t” or “irregardless”? Is their speech full of hysterical malaprops, like good old Dogberry?

Of course, abusing prescriptive grammar should never come at the cost of readability. And you may well have a character who never forgets a “whom” or splits an infinitive. But if your nineteenth-century American dockworker is strutting around speaking the Queen’s English, you may have a problem. Listen to the world around you, how people (and not your English teacher) really talk. You just might be surprised at how much it changes your dialogue.