It’s a perilous process. Last week I got some more feedback from my mentor on my novel-in-progress. He tried to correct the grammar coming out of my character’s mouth. Trouble is, I intended for that character to make a grammatical error. Newbie writers are always being told to show not tell, and errors in grammar are one way of showing the reader a number of things: social class, aspirations, education, where they grew up, etc. etc. True, it was a fairly subtle error, but I had hoped that he had read enough by now to have trusted that if I make a stupid error of grammar I did it on purpose. Obviously not. Which is frustrating.
Thing is, nobody speaks in standard English. We all routinely split infinitives. Many people say lend when they mean borrow (and vice versa). Cockneys use double negatives all the time (ain’t done nothing). It’s an important marker of social class, and it’s a lot easier to give a character substance with dialogue sprinkled with grammatical errors than trying to capture the elisions and glottal stops in their language with dropped letters and punctuation. Very few writers write regional dialogue well. The obvious thing to do is put mistakes in our characters’ mouths.
How far can we go? I’m wondering about that. I grew up in suburban North London. The accent at school was overwhelmingly what is now called cockney, but even among the kids in my class there were differences in usage which were striking. So, for example, the kids with solid working class backgrounds (some of them at least) used quite an archaic form for the genitive case: they would say yourn, instead of yours, and sometimes hern, for hers. Though it’s no longer standard English, it used to be quite normal (my’n = mine is the only survivor in modern English of this form). Some of us picked this up and used it at school sometimes (to fit in to the group). I did, but I never used the form at home. I couldn’t have told you why at the time, but probably I somehow sensed it was the wrong context.
Linguists will probably tell me that it was impossible for that form to have survived into the 1960s in North London. All I can say is they didn’t go to St. Mary’s School in Hornsey. I imagine that form has been swept away by now, and no longer comes out of the mouths of the babes and sucklings spawned by my old classmates. So if I put that dialogue into the mouths of my characters (the book is set in North London, largely in the 1960s) will the reader get it? Or will it go right over a reader’s head. My guess is the latter, which makes it pointless. That’s my current position at least. I could change my mind tomorrow.
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Life is an adventure, but publishing is a GIANT adventure. I'm obsessed with books and stories, and my obsessions spill out here, from time to time.