The Great Debate: Style Versus Grammar

Are grammar and style mutually exclusive? As a reviewer, I say “no,” and that doesn’t mean a writer’s style should comprise perfect grammar. Good grammar and spelling make a book readable; style is what makes the reader want to continue reading, or—more importantly—read everything an author has written. There are a variety of style books that guide writers through the intricacies of “acceptable” formatting and grammar, but they do not allow for personal style.

The rules of grammar are more complex than the rules of war, and—for many good reasons—many can be ignored. As an essayist, I commonly break the rules. I delight in sentence fragments and often make up new words, transforming nouns into verbs, verbs into nouns, and everything into adjectives (Dr. Seuss was a major influence). While Strunk and White (and the even fussier Ambrose Bierce) would disapprove of my stylistic flights of fancy, these are the things that make a review I’ve written sound (or read) like it was written by me and not transposed from a press release.

The question a writer must ask him- or herself is, “Do I want to write a technically perfect book or do I want to write a popular book that will sell tons of copies and turn me into a citizen of leisure?”  The two options are not mutually exclusive, either, but there are times when style trumps grammar.

Manuals and reference books are two examples of books that should be technically perfect. There is no excuse for these works, as well as most non-fiction, to be written in Manglish (mangled English). However, a novel written in the first person allows leeway (but not bad spelling), so that the character of the narrator can be expressed. If the narrator is a fussy perfectionist, one would expect the text to be technically perfect, but if the narrator is sharing a story with a friend (the reader), the language should be natural, reflecting the narrator’s feelings and personality.

Nearly every sentence I read that ends with a preposition is rewritten in my head (“He didn’t know who to give the spiders to,” becomes “He didn’t know to whom to give the spiders”). “Thou shalt not end a sentence with a preposition” is a bad commandment. With dialogue, authors can make their characters as illiterate or ungrammatical as they wish, although comprehensibility is essential. Some phrases become clunky (“to whom to give the spiders”) and distracting when technically correct. When I review a book, the distractions (usually bad formatting, spelling, and/or grammar) are the things that lower my estimation, and the result is a less-than-glowing review. Enough distractions and the reader is alienated. What writers don’t want readers thinking is, “I could have done better than this” (a thought that is generally accompanied by a lemon-sucking expression).

The irony is that sometimes poor grammar is a better read than good grammar. The grammatical breeches themselves are part of the flow of the literary work, and as such contribute as much as the narrative. Injunctions against split infinitives, adverbs, slang, clichés, and jargon cannot be applied to all writing. Grammatical transgressions may add nuance to a manuscript, providing richer context and individuality. And, of course, breaking the rules has rules of its own: 1) be ungrammatical in moderation; 2) bend the rules of grammar when it will improve or expand upon a passage; and 3) never edit yourself out of your novel.

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  • Kathryn, great post. As I see it, the function of the rules of grammar is to make writing clear. If an author breaks the rules, he shouldn’t do so in such a way as to make things less clear. Therein lies the true test of style.

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