Straying from Conventional Grammar Can Help Tell a Story

Straying from Conventional Grammar Can Help Tell a Story

by Kathleen Watson

Authors sometimes take license with grammar to create a mood, a scene, or a character. I usually don’t object to storytelling that deviates from standard usage, as long as it serves a purpose. Songwriters do it all the time!The-Dog-Stars

When I joined a book club, I welcomed the opportunity to expand my horizons by reading things I might not otherwise have chosen to explore. The Dog Stars was one of those works; it’s a tale about a handful of individuals who have survived a flu pandemic that appears to have wiped out much of civilization. One review described it as “a post-apocalyptic adventure.”

Peter Heller, an experienced author with a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Iowa Writers Workshop in fiction and poetry, uses a writing style that suits the story he weaves. It mimics the sometimes-random thoughts that float through all of our heads, ramblings that don’t require grammatically complete sentences or punctuation. Here’s an example:

I have a neighbor. One. Just us at a small country airport a few miles from the mountains. A training field where they built a bunch of houses for people who couldn’t sleep without their little planes, the way golfers live on a golf course.

Heller’s writing is sparse, often without punctuation. There are no quotation marks anywhere to indicate dialog. He leaves a lot for the reader to surmise.

Younger than. Or not. Leaner. White haired. Hard like shoe leather. Creases. Creased lines deep from cheeks down. Grimace lines. Spray of creases from corners of the eyes, outside corners. Gray eyes sparking. Used to sparking back at the naked sun. No bullshit at all. Every movement sure and swift.

Heller’s style reflects his characters’ dilemma: There is no room for anything extraneous when life is so basic, so rudimentary that survival is the only goal.

I was able to decipher meaning without punctuation, but there are some places where I believe Heller’s editor could have served him better:

  • Redundancies such as retreating back and lower it down
  • Using further rather than farther: went further back south from the house, walked further into the green (farther is a more literal distance, further implies symbolic distance or in greater degree or extent)
  • And this structure — when we get sick of rabbits and sunfish from the pond — could imply that rabbits and sunfish both come from the pond. I might have suggested: when we get sick of sunfish from the pond and of rabbits.

This excerpt, with its customary-for-Heller abbreviated phrasing, surprisingly uses a reference to punctuation to clarify his thought, to make his point:

We have the perimeter. But if someone hid. In the old farmsteads. In the sage. The willows along a creek. Arroyos, too, with undercut banks. He asked me that once: how do I know. How do I know someone is not inside our perimeter, in all that empty country, hiding, waiting to attack us? But thing is I can see a lot. Not like the back of the hand, too simple, but like a book I have read and reread too many times to count, maybe like the Bible for some folks of old. I would know. A sentence out of place. A gap. Two periods where there should be one. I know.

I don’t believe that redundancies or using a wrong word enhance storytelling, unless they might be in dialogue that helps define a character. The lack of punctuation and sometimes-choppy structure of phrasing in this work put readers inside Heller’s protagonist’s head, enabling them to see the world as the leading character sees — and feels — it.

Kathleen Watson
has nearly three decades of experience as an independent business writer, serving clients in both corporate and academic settings. Her weekly blog, Killer Tips from The Ruthless Editor, offers practical word and punctuation tips, as does her recently published book Grammar For People Who Hate Rules: Killer Tips From The Ruthless Editor. Contact her at:

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