Ungrammatical Voices Writing Tip 


Ungrammatical voices (tip 8)

Here one rule quickly crashes against another. What should you do if you choose to write in a colorful voice but capturing that voice requires writing in ungrammatical English? Can writing according to the strict rules of grammar produce anything but bland, boring prose? Huckleberry Finn is a good example of a book written in an ungrammatical voice that in fact succeeds very well despite Huck's lack of formal English. Mark Twain took a risk writing that book, but such risk taking is part of the challenge of writing. Students often complain that I challenge them to be different, to take risks, but that I then give them grief for getting it wrong. And they are right.

A no-person's-land exists between the civilized town and the wilderness. This frontier is where the excitement erupts. No one ever crossed that frontier without the risk of being shot full of arrows by the possessors of that disputed turf. What those students were asking me for were risk-free risks. But good writing takes risks, real ones, and good writers have to get used to that. When you take your pen in hand, or when you load up your word-processor program, you are lighting out for the territory with Huck.

A good example of risky writing would be the use of a distinctive regional voice. To write or to speak correctly all too often means to adopt the standardized WASPy style associated with rural Connecticut or perhaps the Pacific Northwest. The speech patterns of Mississippi , white and black, are practically another language. Do we all have to blend into a bland WASP soup? By no means! Diversity and multiculturalism call us to celebrate the cacophony of voices that make up America. Even if the Mississippi voice is ungrammatical, try it and take the risk.

In one of my composition classes, a disgruntled group of students from the South finally found the nerve one day to rebel against my Bostonian convictions. Not long after insisting that they had graduated "from" high school, not "graduated high school," and that if anything, the high school had graduated them, I had to correct a student for describing someone who was awaiting the arrival of a friend as "waiting on the train." The only person "waiting on a train," I insisted, was the waiter in the dining car. The others were waiting "for" the train. The Southerners fought back, insisting that my wording was as much a regional colloquialism as theirs and that theirs had at least as much legitimacy. I didn't like it, but fearing secession and another Civil War, I conceded the point. After all, people in most of the United States wait "in line," but people in New York wait "on line." In the rest of the country, only AOL users wait "on-line." The Brits "queue up," another good reason for celebrating the Fourth.

That Huck Finn's language was to the ladies of the Concord Library "the veriest trash" demonstrates that some good words do exist over the border of respectability. One such word is "ain't." This much-despised word has done much good work in American letters and does not deserve its uncouth reputation. "It ain't necessarily so" was a great song. "It don't mean a thing/ If it ain't got that swing" is true of writing as well as jazz. Sometimes you have to take a risk. When I was in Slovakia, my departmental chair wrote to tell me that my job had been eliminated. It was a very proper letter, as befits the chairman of an English department, but he could not resist a human touch as well. In parentheses, right after the bad news, he wrote "(ain't I the bearer of good news?)." I showed the letter to my students as a good example of the American ambivalence, the desire for both formal structure and informal personality, liberty and union at the same time. Even the most correct grammarians and language snobs go slumming on occasion. The New Yorker, the most exactly edited magazine on earth, once ran an article on a debate that raged at the New York Times "with passion and exegetical precision" over the correct spelling of Homer Simpson's favorite expletive. "D'oh" won out over "Duh."

A word I have become quite fond of made front-page headlines in the Washington Post when it moved out of the black community and began to echo in the corridors of power. After several young black males got themselves quoted in the paper as having shot people who "dissed" them, this short, sharp substitute for the clumsy "disrespect" gained wide popularity. At first, writers used it in quotation marks to indicate its ambivalent status, but it is now a fairly common word.

Another curiosity is the movement of the word "suck" from clearly obscene to almost acceptable speech. Bart Simpson uses the word on prime time almost any night of the week. But Bart is America 's bad boy, our latest incarnation of Huck Finn, and thus is expected to misbehave and use bad English. Recently, the very conservative majority leader of the U.S. Senate, Republican Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi, talking to reporters about a piece of legislation, said, "I told them it sucks but we ought to pass it." The Washington Post quoted him verbatim and wrote an editorial suggesting that another s-word, "stinks," might have been a better choice. I agree. "Sucks" was obscene when people hearing it had a picture in their minds of the action it referred to. I suspect neither Bart nor Trent did but threw it out as a pejorative without considering the action the word describes. I prefer language to mean it.

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