Voice vs. Grammar


A few weeks back I wrote an article about Writer’s Voice. I explained my thoughts and experiences and I gave a few examples. One thing that all of these examples had in common is that they took some liberties with what’s normally considered proper grammar.

I thought about commenting on it, but decided against it. The question of whether or not it’s okay to favor voice over grammar – or the other way around – was just too big. I worried it would over shadow all the other things I wanted to say in the article.

Instead, I’ll write about it now.

First, I’ll briefly go over what voice is, and then I’ll talk a little about the purpose of grammar. Finally, I’ll describe my thoughts on what happens when there’s a conflict between voice and grammar.

What is Writer’s Voice?

This can be a big question, so I’ll try and sum it up neatly. Essentially, your writer’s voice is how you express yourself in writing. When you speak you may prefer to use some words over others, and you may use certain expressions a lot. It’s the same in writing, and that’s your writer’s voice.

You can also expand it to encompass the things you like to include in your prose – not necessarily the topics or concepts, but what you choose to describe about a scene or a character. If you have a distinct voice, it may be recognizable to readers across multiple works. There are even writers with a voice so distinct that readers can guess the author just by reading some of their prose, without knowing where it’s from.

A lot more can be said about it, but I think you get the point. Your writer’s voice is how you handle the words of your story.

Why do we need grammar?

Do we even need grammar at all? The way I see it, the main purpose of grammar is to support clarity and understanding. If your prose is written according to some set of rules that your readers are familiar with, it makes it easier for your reader to decipher what you are trying to tell them.

Those rules are called grammar.

I found this quote by professor David Crystal which I feel sums it up nicely.

Grammar is what gives sense to language …. sentences make words yield up their meaning. Sentences actively create sense in language. And the business of the study of sentences is grammar. (Source)

When telling a story, you’ll want your readers to immerse themselves in what you’re telling them. Getting hung up on peculiarities in the wording is a very easy way to break immersion. If you stick with currently accepted grammar rules it’s less likely to happen.

Do keep in mind that following the rules doesn’t guarantee your readers will understand you. Clarity is up to the writer, but grammar is a good tool for achieving it.

Chaos vs Order (Voice vs Grammar)

So, what do you do when your writer’s voice tells you to do one thing, but it goes against the rules of grammar as you know them?

Simple answer: use your own best judgement.

Incidentally, the more complex answer is the same. You have to review what you have written, and you have to decide whether you think the reader will understand you or not. That can be a difficult decision. Don’t just assume the reader will know what you’re thinking.

There is a school of thought that can be summed up with the following statement:

As long as it’s clear what I mean it doesn’t matter how it’s written.

In principle, I can agree with this. After all, the important thing is that the reader understands what you’re trying to tell them, right?

The thing with stories is that there is more to reading them than just understanding the words on the page. I want my reader to be immersed in the story – to get lost in it and get transported to another world. This means they have to understand my words the first time they read them – without pausing to think about what they’re reading.

I think for me as a writer a better expression would be:

As long as the reader can get immersed in the story it doesn’t matter how it’s written.

This puts a bit more responsibility on me as a writer. I have to understand how readers take in the words they’re reading. I have to gauge whether the way I’m expressing myself is easily understood or not.

One way to help gauging this is to know and understand the rules of the grammar you’re using (or abusing). Why do the grammar rules tell you to write in a certain way? If you’re breaking a grammar rule, does it change the meaning of what you’re writing? Does it introduce ambiguity? Does it create confusion?

Why are you doing it?

There are a lot of questions, and some of them can be difficult to answer. Sometimes, it’s enough to go with your gut feeling, and other times that won’t cut it. When it comes to these things, there are no easy answers.

Another thing to keep in mind is that just because you’re trying to maintain a distinct writer’s voice you don’t have to go breaking grammar rules. It’s perfectly doable to stay within the rules and still put your own personal twist on what you’re writing.

Your Opinion

In this article, I went over my definition of voice, and the reason I think it’s important to be aware of the rules for grammar. I also explained my thoughts about what to do when voice and grammar come into conflict with each other. Does this make sense to you? Do you have another opinion?

Some writers just throw the rulebook out the window and write whichever way they feel like. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. How do you feel about that? Have you tried it, and how did it work out?

There’s a common saying that goes somewhere along the lines of: You have to understand the rules before you can break them. Do you agree with this? If you’re not going to stick to the rules, why bother learning them in the first place?

Nils Ödlund

17 thoughts on “Voice vs. Grammar”

  1. I think you can have both. I do enjoy reading authors who write characters realistically – including the way they might talk. We all now people don’t always use proper grammar when talking in real life.

    • That’s a given. People don’t talk grammatically. If the did the dialogue would sound stilted and unnatural. But I still maintain that narrative needs to be written with correct grammar in order to be understood by most readers. Bad grammar causes distraction,irritation for the reader, stumbling blocks.

      • I think a lot of it is about intent. Are you intentionally breaking the rules in order to achieve a certain effect, or are you doing it unintentionally because you don’t know better?

        When researching the article I came across a few examples of stories written in ways that through conventional grammar rules out the window, did their own thing, and stuck to it. It sort of worked – once you got used to it.

        I think the key there is consistency. These stories didn’t follow the regular rules for grammar and spelling, but they stayed consistent and kept to their own rules. Someone who’s so inclined could get used to the style and be able to enjoy the story.

        Still, making up your own rules and sticking to them is one thing, writing sloppily and claiming it’s your artistic voice is a different thing entirely. Inconsistently breaking the rules does indeed create stumbling blocks for the reader and it pushes them out of the story.

  2. I often think that our writing can be compared to songwriting where the writer’s voice doesn’t always follow proper grammar. Sometimes the best way to write is to use your own judgement and consider the reader.

  3. Understanding the rules is one thing, but you have to follow them to have experience. I feel like after you understand them you can work with them rather than break them thus creating something bigger than a simple story. You make a piece of art that truly fascinates and moves your reader.

  4. I kind of disagree with the statement that one has to understand the rules before he can break them… How many rules have we already broken in a foreign country without realizing? It’s the audience’s understanding of the rules that matters. Some expects conversational grammar, some are grammar nazis. You should write in the way you want to. Even if it’s a little broken, it is your style. And only your own style conveys your story the best.

    • Thanks for your comment, even if I don’t agree with it. 🙂

      The way I see it, when breaking a grammar rule I’m altering the flow and feel of the text I’m writing. It may not be much, but it’s there, and it will affect the reader in some way. If I don’t understand what impact breaking the rule has, or that it has an impact, or even that I’m breaking a rule, chances are that much bigger my reader won’t experience my story in the way I want.

      Yes, my style will convey my story the best, but if my style doesn’t convey the story in the way that I believe it does, then it doesn’t convey my story as well as it could.

  5. I agree with the writer. It is said you’re allowed to break the rules as long as you know what rules you are breaking and why. That is fine, but I know the safer route is to hold on to them because that is what the reader will do, normally. And yet, at the same time, you need to do what is best for the story. You have to write in a way that best brings out the full flavour of the story, whatever that means or entails.

    I’m still learning. I’ll always be learning. When I write I pretty much puke out the words, and then once everything is out, I apply the rules of grammar. One of my weaknesses is using too many or too few commas, for instance. I write to a rhythm in my head, which means I have my own weird pauses in a sentence, almost like Walken. That doesn’t mean it makes my story readable, and that, I think, is the test to beat all tests. My humble two cents.

    • “You have to write in a way that best brings out the full flavour of the story, whatever that means or entails.”

      I like this part.

      It sums it up well, but it’s also really difficult. I think this is why we’re all still learning and trying to improve, and why we probably never will learn everything.

      Figuring out what the story needs isn’t easy, and it changes from story to story. However, it does involve you considering the way you express yourself, and that’s a good place to start.

  6. One of my favorite sayings is, don’t let your writing get in the way of your story. Having said that, quite a few writers seem to break the rules out of sheer ignorance – not because of conscious choice. Which is fine, as long as the reader remains immersed in the story,as you rightly point out.

  7. I agree wholeheartedly with this statement: You have to understand the rules before you can break them.
    The problem I frequently encounter when reading the work of indie writers is that they don’t know the rules at all. This makes it very hard to read their prose. Every time I encounter a grammatical error, the misuse of a word, or the mismatch between subject and pronoun, I stop reading abruptly and sink into a silent rant. It’s like smacking up against a wall. After a few smacks in the face, I discard the story. The bad grammar is too painful, no matter how compelling the plot.
    I’m sure many readers find this acceptable because this is the way most of them talk, but I think written narrative needs more care, otherwise the language will descend into a chaotic free-for-all in which all meaning will be lost.
    The rules may differ slightly in dialogue, however.

    • I think there’s a difference between making the decision of breaking the rules, and just doing it without even knowing. One is a stylistic choice and it will hopefully improve the reading experience. The other is ignorance and it can completely ruin the reading experience.

      That said, languages are evolving things, they change all the time, and people find new ways of expressing themselves that others frown upon.

      On the one hand, I’m not too worried that the language will deteriorate, but on the other hand I see a lot of confusion caused by people who can’t express themselves in writing.

  8. I feel this conflict in my characters’ dialogue all the time. I feel their dialogue sparkles when they speak like people speak (without strict grammar–any taped conversation will demonstrate that people speak in broken, often interrupted, sometimes incomplete sentences). My first draft is usually guided by my ear, that is, the dialogue is more or less like the speech I hear. As I revise, I usually give in to grammar to some degree not because I want to follow the rules as because I want the dialogue to communicate precise meaning to the reader and that often doesn’t happen with natural sounding dialogue. (Same is true for people speaking: The casual, mildly ungrammatical nature of speaking often leads to misunderstanding.)

    So for me, natural dialogue vs grammatical dialogue is a constant creative tension. Sometime I lean more one way and other times more the other way.

    • My case is similar-ish. I don’t normally have issues with the dialogue, and I stick to the proper rules though. Where it gets muddled is with the internal monologue between the words the characters say.

      It often gets fragmented and choppy, and it’s not uncommon that I end up with fragmented sentences or just stand-alone words to express the character’s thoughts and emotions.

      It’s a bit of a balance act to determine how far it’s okay to go before it gets bothersome, but I hope that by at least being consistent in how I use it, the reader will still be able to keep up.

  9. Personally, I have a hard time with writing that breaks (or stretches) the rules of grammar. I find it somewhat grating and distracting, like nails on a chalkboard.

    This fact may be due to my upbringing, however. I had correct grammar drilled into me in school, and anything that deviates from that sets off an internal alarm.


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