Grammar vs. truth in telling

Ronda Rich's picture

Someone wrote to complain about my grammar. This isn’t new, though it doesn’t particularly irritate me. This gentleman was especially kind in his admonishments, noting first and foremost how much he enjoys my writings.

“I would never presume to edit your excellent work,” he wrote. “But I would like to recommend a book for you.” It was a book on proper grammar.

He was so gentle in his suggestion that I took the time to write back and explain that, basically, I know better than I do. I just choose not to do better.

It’s a lot like 3-year-old Tyla who was staying with me one morning because her mama was absolutely out of anywhere else to leave her. I am always the last choice for babysitter so when any of the kids come to my house then you know that the parents have scrapped the bottom of the barrel.

Anyway, being the naive babysitter that I am, I was sitting on the step from the kitchen down into the living room and was talking to a friend on the phone. I watched as Tyla contented herself with piling pillows onto a new, butter yellow love seat. She hauled a poker over from the fireplace and it never occurred to me there was anything wrong with that. Until that is, I saw all the black smut ground into my lovely sofa.

“Oh no, Tyla!” I exclaimed. After an emergency call to my sister, I began frantically cleaning as Tyla, wide-eyed, watched. Later when the crisis had passed, she said with a big smile, “Ronda, I didn’t know it was dirty or I would not do that.”

That’s when I realized that those kids usually know better than they do. Same with me. I could do better. If only I would.

As I explained to the kind gentleman, I decided when I began this journey of stringing words into sentences and stories that I would write authentically in the voice of the South and I would not make it stiff by making it grammatically correct. For I know few Southerners who speak properly 100 percent of the time. Even the most educated enjoy lapsing into words and expressions that are uniquely our own. One friend, who has an advanced college degree, often says, “Now, I ain’t for believin’ that.”

Many of the great works of literature — Mark Twain, Harper Lee for example — are written in similar fashion since perfect grammar is rather boring and so infrequently used. It is my desire to write in a more compelling fashion and even reach back to pull out somewhat imperfect Southern phrases and words such as “fixin’ to” and “drekkly.” I want to write genuinely in the language of the common man - those who are my people - and not an Oxford scholar who probably never heard of Yazoo City, MS, Lebanon, Tenn., or Ellijay, Ga.

Since he had been so kind to suggest a book for me, I offered one in return. I had recently read a review of “The Glamour of Grammar” in the New York Times and thought he might enjoy it. Being the sport that he obviously is, he promptly bought the book, read it and wrote to give his opinion.

“I enjoyed it tremendously,” he wrote. “There was one section I fear applies to me: ‘Politely ignore the language crochets of others. Otherwise, one may get crotchety, or perversely stubborn and judgmental.’ I reread that section a couple of times!”

The author, he pointed out, had talked about how many successful writers, especially Southern authors use dialect to add flavor to their work, thus making their work so enjoyable to read.

I have a copy of that book. Somewhere. As you might suspect, I have not read it. But I’m gonna find it and share that passage with anyone else who complains about my grammar.

Now, where did I put that book?

[Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of “What Southern Women Know (That Every Woman Should).” Visit www.rondarich.com to sign up for her free weekly newsletter.]