My books and myself? My books and I? Are you finding this difficult to read? And now I’ve started a sentence with ‘and’, which is okay in literary prose isn’t it? Although children are taught that you absolutely mustn’t start a sentence with ‘and’; it’s not deemed to be an acceptable sentence opener.
Seriously though, how much does it bother you? I read a LOT of books. Or a great many books! So many of them contain grammatical errors, particularly when I read them on the kindle, although admittedly many of the ebook errors are typos, which leaves me wondering if the digitisation was just a tad slapdash. Are we making more grammatical errors because our language is evolving and we deem it to be okay to finish a sentence with a preposition, split an infinitive, or use that instead of which, or are we just not taught grammar correctly anymore? Are there less copyeditors (yes, I know it’s fewer) with a good grammatical grounding?
Does it matter more if the grammar is correct in children’s books? Some children’s books are supposed to contain grammatical errors. The funniest book in our house at the moment is The Super Amazing Adventures of Me Pig by Emer Stamp. It starts like this:
Me I is Pig. I is 562 sunsets old. Well, I is guessing that is how old I is. I is not brilliant at counting. I got a bit confused around 487.”
The grammar here is not annoying because it’s supposed to be terrible – the author is writing as if he is a rather stupid pig, so the grammar reflects this, and it makes the book funny. The children testers for this book found it hilarious because they knew instinctively that it was grammatically very badly written. However, in order for them to find the style funny, they have to know the correct grammar to start with. But what about if the author is writing from a young child’s point of view, but in the third person narrative voice:
“He did, however, out of the corner of his eye, catch them doing that sarcastic thing they did, where one of them – Barry didn’t like separating TSE into two, as that was kind of recognising that they existed, but if he had to, he would refer to them as Sisterly Entities One and Two – would pretend to write down something he said, as if it was really important. Which of course was their way of saying that it wasn’t important at all. Barry really hated it when they did that.”
The Parent Agency, David Baddiel, illustrated by Jim Field
What’s the difference between the book containing grammatical errors or just being badly written? Would a book flow better if the grammar was correct? Take an extract from Heidi by Johanna Spyri. Some might argue that the language is too ‘heavy’ and the style of writing too old-fashioned, and therefore it becomes prohibitive as a modern child needs something lighter. I don’t necessarily agree with that:
“Heidi looked at the jug that was steaming away invitingly, and ran quickly back to the cupboard. At first she could only see a small bowl left on the shelf, but she was not long in perplexity, for a moment later she caught sight of two glasses further back, and without an instant’s loss of time she returned with these and the bowl and put them down on the table.”
Narrative voice should also make a difference. If we can’t excuse David Baddiel for the writing above, would we be more willing to excuse it if he had written the book in the first person instead of the third person? The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain is acceptable because it’s written in a colloquial way in the narrative first person.
“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.”
However, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is as much about accent and social commentary as it is about grammar. Do we always need to be grammatically incorrect to talk in a child’s voice? The following books all use grammar incorrectly for effect – to create the child’s personality and they’re all in the first person. Are the grammar mistakes immediately apparent to the average child?
“This is completely a bad start and I am just thinking I need to change the subject quick because she is on an ‘eco-roll’ when it is too late and she says the terrible words.”
Emily Sparkes and the Friendship Fiasco by Ruth Fitzgerald
“I go home in a very downcast-ish mood and even my older brother Kurt says, “What’s the matter with you?”
Which is unusual because usually he doesn’t notice other people’s gloom, he is too busy feeling gloom himself.”
Clarice Bean Spells Trouble by Lauren Child
But then surely, if Clarice is quoting her mother, as she does in the next extract, would her mother, as the adult, speak slightly better than she does here:
“When I ask Mum why he’s so cheerful, she says, “He’s just got himself this weekend job at Eggplant and it has really put him in a good mood.” To me, this still sounds like Clarice Bean – or is Clarice not quoting her mother directly, but twisting it from her memory into ‘Clarice speak’. Is bad grammar excused if it’s in speech marks because it’s representative of how we speak, which is often grammatically different from written prose?
Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney is American, and so of course a reader should expect Americanisms, but the author also deploys a lack of good grammar for effect – it is a child’s diary after all.
“Us kids have pretty much figured Fregley out by now, but I don’t think the teachers have really caught on yet.”
However, if it’s being an ‘authentic’ kid’s diary – would the spelling all be correct, or should the editor be modifying that too to create ‘personality’? Tricky one, hey? What about apostrophes? They all seem to be correct in the Wimpy Kid books…should they not be? Do your children speak like this? Can readers/writers get inside the head of a youngster without resorting to bad grammar?
I have a child in my house who insists on saying “Me and my friend went swimming” instead of “My friend and I went swimming”. I correct her constantly, which must be ‘super irritating’! However, did she pick this up from reading, or from her other friends? One children’s book, which I read recently, made this one error all the way through, even though the rest of the book was grammatically correct. For effect or just an error? Has our language changed so much from the days of Johanna Spyri that it’s now acceptable for modern literature to have bad grammar littered throughout? Does the expanse of bad grammar in our midst mean that children’s authors have a responsibility to write with even more care for correct grammatical usage to teach our children what’s right in the first place? If our children pick up their language tools from reading, at what point do we think its okay to break the rules for effect? And one day will they even know the difference?
When does bad grammar become a literary style?
By the way, last Thursday I guest-blogged on another site, MG Strikes Back, about the role of animals in middle grade fiction. You can read it here. It mentions some of my recent favourite MG books too.