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Grammatically Correct or Culturally Acceptable Wording

July 27, 2013 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified July 27, 2013

A few weeks ago I wrote an article reminding writers to check their sentences to be sure the intended subject of a sentence was the actual subject. I’d borrowed a headline from an online news source that scrambled the sentence, attaching actions to the sentence’s subject that were unintended and impossible.

I’ve got another caution for you today, also from the media. This time, however, from a TV ad.

An insurance company twice uses the line There’s donuts in the conference room.

Like many others, I love donuts. But this sentence is not grammatically correct, and may lead those who see the ad and hear the wording to think that such language is correct and acceptable.

Is it acceptable?

There’s is a contraction for there is or there has, not there are. A sentence that combines there is with a plural is not correct.

Yet—and don’t we love those exceptions—we are talking fiction and if a character would say such a thing, then you can include the phrasing in dialogue. And that’s exactly what this commercial has done.

In that case, why write an article about it?

I mention this misuse of there’s because it’s one I often see in manuscripts. And not only in dialogue. While characters may say and think there’s when it should be there are (or there’re—and yes, that one is acceptable in fiction as well), that’s the only time the incorrect wording should be used in fiction. (Character thoughts and self-directed dialogue can reflect this same usage, if it’s what the character would think.) The narrator who is not obviously a character revealing his or her word choices and peculiarities should not use this incorrect wording.

So you wouldn’t want to start a chapter—

At five ten that afternoon, after the final customer races out and the doors are locked, the bank is cleaned out by bandits, and there’s half a dozen employees tied up in the manager’s office who’ll be grilled about the heist for weeks.

Yes, you could rewrite this to cut the use of there is or there are, but let me have my bad example for a moment.

There’s for there are is often accepted in speech because the speaker may change direction midthought. Yet writers have the opportunity to edit their words; the word there’s, combined with a plural,  should not show up in your stories unless a character is thinking or saying it on purpose. Don’t worry about it too much as you’re writing, but do check your use of there’s when you edit, especially if you tend to use there’s rather than there are. Or instead of changing there’s to there are, use an editing pass as an opportunity to rewrite and do away with there is and there are altogether.

Is this a prescriptive vs. descriptive issue, using there’s rather than there are? Maybe it will be one day. Today it simply comes off as wrong.

As a fiction writer, you have to consider the grammatically correct as well as the commonly used and find a way to make both work in the same piece of writing. I have no doubt that you can successfully blend the two. Just be on the lookout for occasions where one option would clearly be a better choice and when one option should be no choice at all.

Be mindful of what you see and hear and then repeat in your writing: the words used in the media and in other cultural or societal settings may be evolving but not yet fully accepted; words may be used incorrectly on purpose, to prove some point, and so only fit the immediate circumstances; or a particular usage may just be plain wrong, a mistake of a copywriter. Use what you know to be correct or use phrases as your character would use them.

A short and simple one today: be on the lookout for there’s.

If you’ve got a comment on the use of there’s for there are (or any other wording that might be caught up in the correct vs. acceptable dilemma), we’d love to hear it.



Tags: ,     Posted in: Editing Tips, Grammar & Punctuation, Writing Tips

21 Responses to “Grammatically Correct or Culturally Acceptable Wording”

  1. Claudia B. says:

    Thank you so much for shining a light on the “there’s” dilemma. I hear this contraction used incorrectly all the time: in TV commercials, on the radio, in formal speeches…you name it. I’m not a grammarian, and I was beginning to think it was an acceptable construction. I’m not crazy after all!

  2. Marilyn says:

    I totally agree with you on dialogue. Here is my funny blog about senseless language rules that we follow.

  3. Kent DuFault says:

    What struck me about this article was your statement that it is okay to use improper contractions when the incorrect usage is in a character’s speech, or internal dialog; if it is appropriate to that character’s background. (In other words, you probably shouldn’t write a sentence where the President of the United States of America misuses it.) But, you continued, the narrators voice should be written in a correct form. My question is, What if the story is written in 3rd person POV and the narrator is a character in the story – even if they are never identified by name or description?

    • Marilyn says:

      Kent, there are degrees of third person PoV from deep to distant. Deep PoV is relatively recent. In distant, we would have
      She got up from her chair. “What are they doing?” she thought. “I can’t leave them alone for an instant.”
      In deep, we would have
      She got up from her chair. What are they doing? I can’t leave them alone for an instant.
      The first time I saw deep PoV, I was startled, but I have gotten accustomed to it.
      Take a look at various works of fiction, and you may see the difference.

      • Ken Davies says:

        Kent, the President of the United States, when speaking impromptu, as he does, for example, at town meetings, does not always conform to grammatical and lexical correctness.

  4. Claudia, I hear it all the time as well. Other wording that grates are a whole nother (rather than another whole or a whole other) and her and her mother (rather than she and her mother) as a sentence subject.

    When a speaker clearly changes direction as he speaks, it’s easy for listeners to allow slack for sentences that aren’t grammatically correct. But it’s harder to not be bothered when words are repeatedly used incorrectly. It’s harder still when the errors are written. (I’m not referring to errors in email or comment boxes on websites; if readers had to slow down to write the perfect response, we’d miss out on a lot of passionate first responses.)

    But there’s certainly nothing wrong with trying to get it right. And no, you aren’t crazy.

  5. Marilyn, I read your post—it was great. We certainly do have to allow for the way our characters speak and think. Whatever works to make them real and fallible, like the rest of us, makes them better characters. Thanks for the link.

  6. Diane says:

    If it is part of the conversation I agree with everyone for the most part that it could give authenticity to the characters. Though I have noticed a lot of broken English continuing outside the conversations and I feel that if you are working your story into the English world, it is important to do it properly to be taken seriously.

  7. Kent, Marilyn was right on with her answer regarding distance. (Thanks, Marilyn.)

    You want to gear your wording to not only the character but to the narrative distance between character and reader. In deep POV, the narrator’s thoughts and the narration are often the same (sometimes you pull out of deep POV, so the narrative distance may not be uniform throughout a story)—the words are the thoughts of the viewpoint character, just as they would be in first-person narration. So you could use words, even grammatically incorrect ones, if they fit the character.

    If the narrative distance is greater and the viewpoint character is only lending his or her eyes to the scene—if readers aren’t getting thoughts and emotions directly from the character through the narration—it’s likely you want a more neutral and correct wording.

    And then there’s the sliding scale in between where you have to decide how close the narrative distance is and/or should be. If you want readers inside a character’s head, use words the character would use. If you want a bit of distance, go for neutral words. If you’re ever unsure, I’d suggest erring on the side of being grammatically correct.

  8. A good point, Diane. If the wording fits the character and the character is the one thinking or speaking it, unusual choices are appropriate for authenticity. If the narrator is someone other than the character, however, or the narrative distance, as we’ve discussed, needs to be greater, word choices should reflect proper grammar and usage. The differences lie in the need and effect and the purposes of the word choices.

  9. How about all of the automobile dealers that advertise “…with no money down.” Or people that order food “…with no onions.” The words “with” and “no” side by side is not correct, yet the two words are found together everywhere, in nearly every thing people write and say.

  10. Craig, I can see how someone could order food with no onions, especially if they changed course while they were speaking. For ads? I’m not sure if people don’t know what they’re saying or if they’re being funny. With no money down probably originated as a response to other ads—

    I can put you into this car with only $100 down.

    Well we can put you into a car with only $25 down.

    But our team can do it with no money down.

    What becomes difficult for writers is that we get used to hearing the incorrect and then use those words and phrases in our writing. As we’ve all said, the rules are different for dialogue, so almost anything goes there. It’s everything other than dialogue that needs to be monitored.

    But language does evolve. And if communication works, people will use new words and new constructions. In the case of with paired with no, it’s not likely that the listener would be confused. In a blog by the Oxford Dictionary folks, they said, “As you can see, subordinating conjunctions can be placed at the start of a sentence with no breach of grammatical ‘rules’.”

    Is there a big difference between saying “with no breach” and “without a breach”? I’d argue that the emphasis on the word no might be exactly what is called for in some situations. The beauty of language is that we can adapt our words and our rules to fit the needs of the moment. Need does sometimes trump rules. And sometimes creativity does.

    Thank you for adding to the discussion.

  11. Honey says:

    I’ll give the grew-up-not-knowing-any-better’s and the I-never-bothered-to-learn-it-in-school’s a break, but once you’re an adult iyou just have to take charge and learn proper grammar. After you do it, you’ll think “why didn’t I do this sooner!” It’s like having a super power almost that gives you credibility. Shoving lies down the necks of the educated, trying to convince them that improper grammar is “okay” because it is so rampant, will never make it ok.

    Despite claims that “people care about what you say, not how you say it,” there is significant evidence that proves otherwise. When I speak about presentation, I’m talking about all the things you do when selling yourself or your idea whether it be to a large group of people (ex: making a speech) or a small group of people (ex: 3 friends out drinking, talking to 1 girl in whom you’re interested. Proper presentation gives you polish, credibility, draws attention to your idea, and has increased impact on others, thereby creating a deeper and more impressive effect on your audience. And yes, proper presentation includes proper grammar in addition to looking the part, coming across with confidence, knowing your facts, having an elevator pitch, the keys to getting people connected.

    Once you’ve completed your education you should know grammar inside out and use it properly on a regular basis. As for the incorrect use of “there’s”, “they’re”, “their”, “you’re”, “your”, etc. you should know the difference by 4th grade. Improper use of it makes my back tighten. I think it’s simply just laziness. The use of it in TV commercials, scripted shows, by journalists, politicians, public figures, lawyers, speechmakers, or by any other individual with an ivy league or post-graduate degree, is simply unbearable.

    Bottom line – if someone tries to convince you that proper speech, proper grammar, and properly communicating your thoughts and ideas do not matter, they are full of sh!t, and if you listen to them, you won’t be able to ever make a living. Even if you work for yourself, you will never be able to get investors, business partners, or be able to even make a coherent business plan. Even more importantly, in everyday life, the validity of your ideas and thoughts will always be questioned – it’s not fair but it’s true.

    • ken Davies says:

      I couldn’t agree more. Language is a medium of communication that we have a responsibility to share wisely and kindly. Damaging it by misuse is an offence to good manners and an obstruction to communication between human beings.

  12. Honey, I love your imagery of proper grammar as a super power. It’s true that it can open doors that might otherwise be closed. But at the same time, people can and do thrive without knowing how to use words properly.

    Not knowing the rules and using words improperly can be impediments, but that’s not true in all fields. Not everyone who’s rich and successful (at least by some measures) is well educated. And some simply don’t care if they use the right words or not. Others do care and are willing to learn.

    Using words improperly is not necessarily a sign of low intelligence or a willing flouting of rules; it may simply be a sign of a poor education. Yes, most people can learn, and learning how to communicate correctly can help most of us advance in our chosen endeavors, but poor grammar is not an insurmountable handicap. You don’t have to know or use all the rules to be successful.

    And we can’t forget that rules do change. What was once considered improper may today be proper. Usage, whether right or wrong, does change our language and our rules. Holding on to rules we learned in school may not be a benefit in today’s world.

    I’m all for speaking and writing correctly, for learning the rules—the rules help us communicate without confusion—yet there are times when we don’t need a reminder of the rules and simply instead need to move on with what someone says to us, listening to and dealing with the meaning of their words, and not harp on them for the manner in which the message is presented.

    We all misspeak; it’s part of our humanity. And it’s not the only thing in life that we ever get wrong. So yes, we can learn the correct rules because it’s beneficial to do so. But while we’re learning, we still need to get along with others. Rigid adherence to rules can cause problems just as easily as letting them slide might do.

    A great contribution to the topic, Honey. Thanks for making us think.

    • Ken Davies says:

      Beth, You’re right to be tolerant of those who make mistakes because they have suffered bad (or no) teaching. The existence of website like this one attests to the willingness of people to improve their English. My own small contribution to this is a blog containing advice on correct usage; the response from the few users who have so far sent feedback is wholly positive, especially from learners of English as a second language. What I do not, however, appreciate or tolerate, is wilful abuse of the language by editors and writers who make a living from using it and care nothing for their bad influence on readers.

  13. Kent, I hope you don’t discover any of the subject within my book that you are reviewing at the present. Thank’s for the heads up on the word.
    Best regards,
    James M. Copeland

  14. Ken Davies says:

    Yes, there is an increasing tendency for speakers and writers to forget themselves halfway through a sentence, or even a phrase, so that they automatically use the singular form of a verb because the last item in the list which forms the subject is singular, even though the presence of several items in the list should signal to those with more than two brain cells that the subject is plural. This may be because of bad teaching, the encouragement of bad English on mass media and websites, substance abuse, or something else entirely. One of the hallmarks of good editing is the correction of this error.