I’m not exactly an English (or, as I prefer to call it, American) purist. Heck, I’m from Arkansas, where pretty much all our gerunds end with –in’ instead of –ing. For me to be a purist would be like Forrest Gump telling a nuclear physicist how to do his job. But I am a writer, as well, and I’m familiar with most of the rules of our language. I have to be. It’s part of my job. I’m not at all perfect. Don’t ask me to start naming all the parts of a sentence. I can’t even list them, much less identify them. Doesn’t stop me from knowing what order things should go in, though.
By the same token, as a fiction writer, I know we’re not authoring technical manuals. Creative writing has taken a turn to the informal that I like a lot. I refer you to any of Don Winslow’s later novels as perfect examples. His prose is full of slang, fragments, and all those other things that give English teachers hives. Given a choice between someone butchering the language this way and reading something that sounds like it was written by a computer, I’ll take the butcher any day. At least that kind of writing has life to it. (Just as an unabashed plug, though she doesn’t go to the extreme Don Winslow does, my daughter has a nice, informal writing voice.)
I bring this guy up a lot in my blog, mostly because he has been a major influence and inspiration on me, but I think Stephen King was the first author I read who used a more informal mode of writing. He addresses the reader sometimes (don’t try that at home, folks. He’s a professional and can get away with it. Unpublished writers can’t). But I’d have to say it was Don Winslow who showed me just how far that can go. It was his writing that made me reconsider my own voice the most.
Okay. Long wind up. Now here’s the pitch.
Taking all this informal business into consideration, I’m still seeing things lately that are disconcerting, to say the least. I’d have to say the first thing that irks me is this: there is no such word as alright. I don’t care how many times you see it in print, it’s not yet a word, unless something has changed in the last couple years. Folks, the proper way to write it is all right. Two words. Yes, already is one word that used to be two. It’s been one word for years and years, even though I can remember one of my middle school English teachers talking about it being changed. I think you can still go back and read old writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs and, as long as they haven’t edited for modernity, you’ll find anachronisms like all ready and to-morrow.
While I’ve seen purists who will argue with pretty much anything, I maintain that, in dialogue, anything goes. For instance, there was a discussion in writing group recently about beginning sentences with a number. To be honest, that’s one rule I wasn’t aware of, and I’d begun a sentence with a number. The “discussion” came about because someone said that a sentence in dialogue wasn’t right because it began with a number. I argue that all rules are off when a character is talking simply because, unless you’re totally anal, most folks ignore the vast majority of English rules in everyday speech. That’s just how we are. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people say “We was…” when we all know it should be “We were….” And there are variations on all right: aw right or awright along with a’ight. Any of these is fine in dialogue, as far as I’m concerned, including starting sentences improperly. People do it all the time. So unless you want all your characters sounding like lecturing professors, use ’em, I say.
But there’s a dialogue style I hear lately that drives me bananas, and that’s the use of the word so. I haven’t seen it much in books yet, but it’s gotta be on its way. I’ve used it for a minor character in Spree because it fit (along with the irritating tendency people have these days of making everything sound like a question. But that’s a whole ’nother discussion entirely). I hear people doing it who should know better. You know, you’re listening to the news and they’re interviewing the head of some group. This person has enough degrees to wallpaper a room, but you get this when they’re asked something:
“As head of PETA, what are you doing to protest people petting animals?”
“So we went out on the street with signs made from paper that was processed from dead trees and…” This so-called statement will likely be phrased as a question, as in “So we went out on the street with signs made from paper that was processed from dead trees and held a protest in front of the Capitol against people petting animals?”
Lop the word so off the beginning of your statement and make a definitive statement instead of turning everything into a question. Put your foot down. If you believe that animals shouldn’t even be pets (and PETA does. They think it puts the animal in a subservient position, which tells me they’ve never been a human feline attendant, er, cat owner), the say so! That’s a proper use of the word so, and it’s not a friggin’ question.
Yes, I’m contradicting myself. Except that you have to remember I write about everyday people who use words like ain’t and phrases like we was. I’m probably turning into some kind of crusty old curmudgeon who can’t see outside his own prejudices. Well, that’s life. When I heard some twenty-year-old expressing regret that she felt relief as Osama bin Laden’s death and asking for a moment of silence, I gave up. We won’t have space travel because people are becoming too timid and too engrossed in the Internet and tweeting to bother with doing something so barbaric as exploring space. The meek will inherit the Earth and the rest of us will be stuck with them because we won’t be allowed to leave the planet. It might offend somebody, after all.
Yeah, you should use the word so the way a lot of folks use it in everyday speech now, even if offends you like it does me. I know I have plenty of shortcomings in my own speech, and I’m darn proud of a lot of them. I just had trouble coming up with something to blog about this week and decided to rant about something.
So there’s your rant (that’s another proper way to use it, by the way. I looked it up in my unabridged dictionary). It probably does no one any good, not even me. People will keep doing things the way they want to because, after all, the important thing is to conform and sound like everyone else.
I’ll shut up now.