How Grammar “Goofs” Work in Creative Writing

"One way" sign pointing to the left above "another way" sign pointing to the right

I’ve used this space before to caution copyeditors against scrubbing voice and character out of fiction manuscripts by adhering too closely to a style manual.

Each novel or story is unique, of course. Some feature dialect and colloquialisms, and others pretty much stick to formal English as laid out in The Chicago Manual of Style. Many, many novels and stories mix it up, using formal English for the narrative while their characters speak in a more casual idiom. Keeping all those voices straight is one of the primary tasks of a writer; monitoring and protecting those distinctions is a primary task of an editor.

To make good writing and editing choices, it’s helpful to know what’s considered standard or formal in the first place, not in order to apply that knowledge indiscriminately, but to use it to create or edit narration and dialogue that’s consistently natural, real, and believable. That’s where a good dictionary and style guide come in. They help us determine what’s “grammatical” so we can choose when to reject it for the best effect.

To see how these intentional grammar “goofs” work in creative writing, let’s look at a few issues commonly faced by writers.

Less/fewer

CMOS 5.250 tells us to use “less” for singular mass nouns or amounts (less salt), and “fewer” for plural count nouns (fewer calories).

But “less” in place of “fewer” is well entrenched in common parlance. We all know someone who’s shocked and offended by signs like “10 items or less,” but the expression reflects the way people talk. From a quick Google search of the phrase “less votes”:

Less votes than there should be, not more”—Fox 17, West Michigan, December 8, 2020

“20,000 less votes than third party Senate candidates.”—K5 News, Seattle, November 12, 2020

“[A] difference of 2,000 votes or less.”—NBC News, November 5, 2020

Less votes than voters.”—Yahoo! Sports, December 8, 2020

In fact, the “less/fewer” difference is a relatively new invention in English grammar. As Merriam-Webster.com explains, after more than a thousand years of no such distinction, some guy named Robert Baker expressed a personal preference for using “fewer” for plural count nouns, and it stuck. (Yes, there were “influencers” two hundred years ago.)

Using “less” when “fewer” is strictly correct is exactly the kind of grammar that works in an informal narrative register or in the mouth of a speaking character.

None is/none are

Although you might have learned that “none” is always singular, it may, in fact, take either a singular or a plural verb (see CMOS 5.250). Here’s a little variety I found within a single novel:

None of them . . . question this valuation. None of them wonder what things might be like. (Susan Choi, Trust Exercise, 39)

None of these couplings was news. (Choi, 119)

Follow your ear when you come to a verb after “none.” CMOS notes that when a plural noun follows “none” (like “couplings” in the second example), a singular verb (like “was”) can sound stilted. If stilted is what you’re aiming for, that’s good. Either way, if your choice is later challenged by a reader or editor, reconsider that choice on its merits. Don’t fall for the “it’s a rule” argument.

Between/among

Writers and editors get into trouble with “between” and “among” if they were taught to use the former with relationships involving two objects (“a choice between death and dishonor”), and the latter with those involving more than two (“honor among thieves”). But that old rule is too often taught in an oversimplified way. CMOS 5.250 explains:

Between has long been recognized as being perfectly appropriate for more than two objects if multiple one-to-one relationships are understood from the context {trade between members of the European Union}.

So if “The pact among Jill, Nan, and Chris went sour” makes you squirm, your instincts are good: “between” works better. To pick the right phrase, you have to know the grammar and know your narrator and characters well enough to choose what’s right for them.

TIP
A related issue: “Between you and me” is technically correct, but the overcorrection “between you and I” has become popular. Which would your character say?

He or she/they

As a substitute for forms of the generic “he” or the awkward “he or she,” the singular “they, them, their” has a long and well-established pedigree over hundreds of years of classical English literature. Referring to pronouns like “anyone” and “everyone” (“Does anyone want their pizza reheated?”), this usage is so widely accepted that the alternatives are almost always worse. To think of this as a brand-new development in English or as a political issue is misguided.*

Who/whom

Perfect grammar that sounds hoity-toity is a problem when a narrator or speaker is meant to be more down-to-earth.

Who should I talk to about getting paid for the balance?”
“What balance? I’m sorry, who did you say you were?” (Laila Lalami, The Other Americans, 107)

In the first sentence above, formal grammar dictates “whom” as the object of the preposition “to” (“Whom should I talk to”; “I should talk to whom”). But how many of us ever use “whom” to begin a sentence? If we’re being precise, or snooty, or angry, we might. Otherwise, “who” is more natural, and that works best for this character.

In the second sentence, “who” is standard, formal English with a linking verb like “were” (“you did say you were who”). Overcorrecting to “whom” might have been a choice for this context if the writer wanted the speaker to sound huffy and overbearing.

Take care, however: “whom” isn’t always posh talk! Even in casual speech, there’s plenty of room for “whom,” most commonly as the object of a preposition:

“Hmara,” he called her, a word he reserved for the television anchors with whom he argued during the eight o’clock news. (Lalami, 18)

“Better for whom? It’s not better for me.” (Lalami, 115)

Conclusion: The choice of “who” or “whom” must take into account both the level of formality needed at the moment, and whether that particular use of “whom” is considered formal. (See CMOS 5.66.) The more a writer or editor knows about the nuances of English usage, the better equipped they are to create believable characters and a consistent narrative voice.

FUN FACT
Back in the heyday of Dan Rowan and Dick Martin’s sketch comedy show Laugh-In, Lily Tomlin’s signature line in her skits as Ernestine the telephone operator was “Is this the party to whom I am speaking?” The question is nonsensical, but the grammar is perfect.

As/like

Sticklers love to pounce on what they see as the misuse of “like” when “as” or “as if” is correct. CMOS 5.185 gives this example: “He ran like he was really scared.” CMOS’s verdict? “Increasingly today in ordinary speech, like displaces as or as if as a conjunction to connect clauses. . . . Although like as a conjunction has been considered nonstandard since the seventeenth century, today it is common in dialectal and colloquial usage.”

In other words, for a colloquial vibe, we like “like.”

Sneaked/snuck, pleaded/pled, hanged/hung, etc.

The “standard” past and past participle forms of many verbs have been regularly ignored in everyday conversation in favor of “nonstandard” alternatives: “They snuck out of the tent.” “They pled for their lives.” “They were to be hung at dawn.” Breaches are so common that style manuals and dictionaries increasingly accept the alternative forms as standard, if not formal.

But like most of grammar, nothing is set in stone. For instance, CMOS 5.250 says, “Reserve snuck for dialect and tongue-in-cheek usages,” while Merriam-Webster.com’s usage guide is more permissive: “The past and past participle snuck has risen to the status of standard and to approximate equality with sneaked.” The two authorities disagree similarly on the issue of “pleaded/pled” and “hanged/hung.”

This is good news! It confirms that English is fluid and changing, that there’s not always a single right way to say something, and that in most cases writers and editors can trust their instincts and not come to harm.

But to ensure that characters sound authentically and consistently grammatical or ungrammatical, keep a good dictionary and style guide at hand.

Sources

Choi, Susan. Trust Exercise: A Novel. New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2020.

Lalami, Laila. The Other Americans: A Novel. New York: Vintage Books, 2020.


* Pronoun use for individuals is a different subject entirely. For an excellent overview, read Katy Steinmetz, “People Have Invented More Than 200 Gender-Neutral Pronouns: Here’s Why ‘They’ Is Here to Stay,” Time.com, January 17, 2020.

Photo of signs by Gerd Altmann courtesy Pixabay; modified.

Fiction+ posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.

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Carol SallerCarol Saller, The Subversive Copy Editor, 2nd editionCarol Saller’s books include The Subversive Copy Editor and the young adult novel Eddie’s War. You can find Carol online at Twitter (@SubvCopyEd) and at www.carolsaller.com.

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