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Grammar, Real Language, Books, and the Movies: An Editor’s Dilemma

A copy editor’s job is to correct the grammar in a novel. But what if the grammar is wrong, yet authentic?

An author whose first language isn’t English caught a mistake in his novel and asked me what the correct grammar was. I told him the translator he hired had used authentic dialogue in the scene. His question did bring up a dilemma for editors, however. What is more important: proper grammar or real language?

When writers craft a scene with dialogue, they want their characters to sound as tangible and real to life as possible. Realistic characters should use realistic language, including imperfect grammar. But what impact does the incorrect grammar have on people who want to learn proper English, such as children and English as a second language speakers?

As an editor, I find myself pondering this dilemma. It’s my job to correct grammar in manuscripts. It’s also my job to let the author know if the characters aren’t speaking authentically. Often, my solution becomes one simple (yet not so simple) rule: correct all grammar mistakes unless a grammar edit results in inauthentic speech.

What I’m about to share are some cases in which authentic language won out over proper grammar. If you had been the editor, and you encountered grammar mistakes like the following, what would you have done?

Point of View

How often have you caught yourself saying, “It’s between you and I”? How often have you heard people around you saying that phrase? Those words are in the movies, books, and my friends’ conversations.

Writers who want to keep their characters in character say, “Let’s keep that between you and I.” We hear that phrase so often, it becomes ingrained in our minds as correct speech. However, we don’t hear people saying, “between you and we” or “between you and they.”

The correct expression is “between you and me.” Nouns that follow prepositions such as “between” are the object form, such as me, us and them.

The use of “me” gets confused in another common example.

A writer asked if it was okay to start a paragraph with “Me and my friend went to see the movie.” The writer said, “Isn’t ‘my friend and I,’ not ‘me and my friend’ the correct grammar?”

The correct grammar is “My friend and I went to see the movie.” However, changing the grammar changes the type of person you are writing about. The choice of spoken words is part of character development.

Character Development

“How are you doing?”

“I’m doing good.”

A character’s choice of words tells you so much about their education, where they are from, family, and personality. A talented writer chooses each word that a character speaks with care.

What can you deduce about a character who says, “I’m doing good at math”? And what conclusions do you draw about a character who says, “She got a real nice raise at her job last year”?

If you love your grammar, or if you’re an editor, you’ll be tempted to correct the grammar to “I’m doing WELL at math” and “She got a REALLY nice raise.”

However, changing one word could change a lot about the character. You could be changing their education level, whether they speak casually or formally, or where they are from.

When an editor reviews a manuscript, there is more to consider than just what is and isn’t correct grammar. They have to know how people speak in different parts of the world! (Often, as an editor, I use this as a very justified excuse to watch movies with dialogue. It’s not wasting time; it has educational value.)

Everyday Speech

Is each of us guilty of making certain grammar mistakes over and over again whenever we speak or write? Probably. I’ve heard educated people who can write reports and essays with proper grammar make simple mistakes when speaking.

For example, I’ve heard people say, “There are LESS cars on the road this year than last year.” This error occurs more often than we may realize. People use “less” as a one size fits all modifier to describe all nouns, whether they are countable or not.

You can have less money, less water, less luck, or less air because these items are not countable. But you have FEWER cars, fewer people, and fewer goals because these nouns are countable.

Grammar also dictates that the present continuous tense is formed with a two-part verb. For example, we say, “ARE you GOING home now?” And we say, “She IS EATING dinner now.” We don’t say, “She EATING now.” That sounds very strange.

But we can drop one of the verbs and say, “You GOING home now?” instead of “ARE you going home now?” and still sound like we are from this planet. In fact, a famous line from a movie drops one of the verbs with this line: “You talking to me?”

In everyday English, it’s possible to drop a word here and there and still sound authentic and correct. As long as your character is mimicking realistic speech, grammar rules may not apply.

Should Movies and Stories Teach Grammar?

What we have is a chicken and egg situation. If movies and stories imitate real life, then could (or should) movies and books change bad habits?

We can already censor sensitive content on social media and movies by blocking or silencing swear words. If characters start speaking with correct grammar, will people follow by example and correct their grammar as well?

Would this approach be met with enthusiasm or rejection by moviegoers and readers?

Several expressions have become a part of the culture of English speakers. For example, “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.” Consider also the expression, “I could care less.”

You’ve likely heard these expressions before if you watch a lot of movies or read a lot of books… or Google searched these sayings because you read this blog. Do you know what the correct expression would be if you corrected the grammar mistakes?

For the first one, you can fix the fragment by adding a verb. It may sound unfamiliar, but the proper grammar would be, “Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer.” It’s not as catchy, however.

For the second expression, you could question the logic behind it. If a person could care less, then at the moment, they are caring a bit more. To really make their point, they should simply say, “I couldn’t care less.”

Key Takeaways

An editor’s job isn’t just about correcting the grammar in manuscripts for books and movies. Editors also want characters who speak authentically, even if they mimic the errors that real people make when they speak.

Should art continue to mimic life? Or is there an opportunity for art to change the way we speak? What do you think?

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