The Craft of Writing

Grammar for Gremlins: The Only Rule Novelists Need

May 27, 2017

The only grammar rule novelists need to know: It's only wrong if you can't pull it off.

My brother-in-law Nick likes to pick arguments with me.

We spent last Christmas at his house. While I was half asleep by the fire, he asked, “What’s your opinion on the Oxford comma?”

“I don’t have one.” (This was not as clever an evasion as I thought it was.)

“Well, you should.”

In Nick’s defense, that’s just how he shows affection. He’s a lawyer.

In my defense, novelists have greater grammatical leeway than his corporate clients.

Grammar still matters in a science-fiction novel. But readers who will tear you apart for misusing technical terminology won’t even notice a misplaced punctuation mark every 40 pages or so.

Hell, if you consistently misplace that punctuation mark, they’ll probably just assume it’s artistic license, or whatever.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say the only grammar rule genre novelists need to know is this:

It’s only wrong if you can’t pull it off.

You’re most likely to run into this rule when prescriptivists (read: people who think language is, or at least should be, static) try to grapple with famous authors who trample all over their beloved grammar rules.

“Yeah, Cormac McCarthy can get away with writing like 99% of punctuation marks are missing from his keyboard,” they say, “but you aren’t Cormac McCarthy.”

In other words, that guy can pull it off, but you can’t. Why? Because you’re not that guy.

So what? Cormac McCarthy wasn’t always Cormac McCarthy. At one point, he was just some asshole who didn’t know how to use a goddamn quotation mark.

You can be that asshole.

There’s no guarantee you’ll be able to pull it off, get famous, and be anointed into the ranks of writers allowed to break the rules. But maybe you will.

N. K. Jemisin did.

Screenshot of N. K. Jemisin's Facebook post: "An observation in passing - reviews of THE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS back when it came out often commented negatively on the breaks & asides. I remember one review, from a fairly respectable venue although I don't remember which one, spending nearly half its length ranting about "asterisms." But when I look at reviews of 100K that are more recent -- got a whole new influx of readers thanks to THE FIFTH SEASON -- there are almost no comments on the breaks. I wonder if that means readers trust me more to know what I'm doing, when I do something vaguely experimental? Or are they just tired of ranting about it?"

You probably haven’t won a bunch of accolades for a genre-shattering science fantasy novel lately, but that doesn’t mean you can’t pull off ~experimental grammar~ too.

You just need to find your way.

Here are some suggestions.

Be rich and famous.

It’s a useful shortcut to convincing readers you know what the hell you’re doing.

Barring that, you can always …

Be cautious.

Do not attempt to break every rule at the same time.

This:

The first shot missed, it hit the wall behind her.

… is superior to this:

the first Shot ….. “missed,” it—hit the Wall—behind Her.

Readers will more readily join your crusade against the question mark if you put periods, quotation marks, and commas in their proper places. Otherwise, you risk making it impossible for them to see past your method to your message.

Remember: Readability comes before style.

Be flexible.

When in doubt, ask a friend to read an excerpt of your manuscript.

Remain open to feedback. Negative feedback may mean the reader just doesn’t get what you’re trying to do, but it may also mean that you aren’t doing it successfully.

Seek out feedback after your second draft and again before you publish. Get multiple opinions from genre fans. Get opinions from strangers, who aren’t afraid to hurt your feelings, and from people whose writing skills you admire.

If you’re still not sure you can trust the feedback you’re getting, try this:

Ask a teenager to read an excerpt of your manuscript. Have them summarize it back to you.

If they can’t, revise.

Be deliberate.

There’s a difference between deliberately breaking the rules and not knowing what the rules are in the first place.

The first one can reinforce the tone of your story, help forge a connection with your reader, or flesh out your narrator.

The second is just sloppy.

You’ll be in the best position to evaluate feedback and ultimately get away with breaking the rules if you know:

  • What rules you’re breaking
  • Why you’re breaking them

Keep your purpose in mind. Each time you break a rule, ask yourself, “Does this further my purpose, or is it just a distraction?”

Be consistent.

The first comma splice is a mistake. The thirtieth is just the way you write.

If you do nothing else, be consistent.

Consistency can convince readers almost anything is deliberate. They may not like it, but at least you won’t get thousands of reviews saying, “This book is so full of typos, god, just invest in an editor. What are you doing, living on a novelist’s income? Why would you want to do that?


Grammar for Gremlins is a new recurring feature that covers the pirate code of grammar as it applies to science fiction, fantasy, and horror writers.

Are you struggling with some element of grammar? Tell me in the comments, and I’ll help you out.

The only grammar rule novelists need: It's only wrong if you can't pull it off.

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3 Comments

  • Reply financial advice for young people May 31, 2017 at 10:14 pm

    Very energetic blog, I liked that bit. Will there be a part 2?

    • Reply Jazzi May 31, 2017 at 10:39 pm

      Not for this post, but there are more Grammar for Gremlins posts in the pipeline. :)

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