Can Grammar Errors Be Good?
by Chris Hugh
Common grammar errors can help make your characters into recognizable individuals. A few select errors can give your characters unique voices—there’s nothing more boring than dialog where all the characters sound the same. Grammatical ticks can also highlight personality traits. Here are a few examples.
"People that" vs. "People who"
People who say “people that" are being ungrammatical. "Who" refers to people. "That" refers to things and animals. In real life, it's a common and harmless error. In fiction, you might use it as a subtle way to emphasize a character's coldness--he's so unfeeling, he speaks of people as if they were objects. Let your imagination guide you.
“None of them is" vs. “None of them are"
Technically, it should be “none of them is.” “None” means “not one” and is treated as singular. However, people have been writing “none of them are” since the 9th century and it is the more common usage, so it’s hard to call it wrong. In fact, “none of them is” sounds wrong to many people; it’s bound to be noticed. Perhaps an older character, a rigid one, a very educated one or a particularly precise one would be in the “none of them is” crowd? You decide.
“Different than" vs. “Different from"
The prevailing view is that “different than” is wrong in all but a few unusual constructions, but it is quite common. Perhaps a younger, more casual, less sophisticated character will say “different than”? Or maybe just the opposite: Some very good (if self-published, editor-free) authors write “different than.” If your character is British, consider “different to.”
Does your character wish he were a person who knew the subjunctive?
The subjunctive expresses what is imagined but which is not reality, for example: “Mary wishes her kids studied more (they don’t study enough)” or “Harold wishes he weighed less (he’s tubby).” The subjunctive uses the past tense with one exception: One always uses “were,” never “was.” For example: “I wish I were a millionaire” or “Little Jane wishes she were all grown up.”
Misusing the subjective is a distinctive speech pattern. The famous song from The Fiddler on the Roof is often performed as “If I Was a Rich Man”; the misused subjunctive underscores the character’s poverty and isolation.
Errors Give Personality
Everyone makes grammatical errors. They can annoy, charm, add uniqueness, add depth. In other words, they create personality. They’re great for characters, but if you want your authorial voice to be neutral--i.e. to disappear and let the story come through--then you'll want to limit them to dialogue!
Chris Hugh is an AuthorStand member who pitched us this article, and we bought it. If you have an idea for an article that you think other AuthorStand members need to read, feel free to pitch it to us!