How Bad Grammar Makes Your Story Look Oh So Good


Teachers and editors are usually quick to warn against bad grammar like run-on sentences and incomplete sentences. They’re no good, the professionals will say. They live on the wrong side of the grammatical tracks.

Stay away from them!

That’s good advice for the most part. Run-on sentences and incomplete sentences oftentimes confuse statements, facts or story details, working against writers’ efforts and bothering both grammar Nazi and non-grammar Nazi readers alike.

Plus, if you don’t learn the drawbacks of bad grammar, you’re probably destined to live life texting and tweeting stuff like, “Omg! Like, KK sooooo not right!”

That’s a bad thing, and not just from an editor’s perspective. It’s also a psychological fact. Or if it’s not, it should be.

You might – might! – be able to achieve fame and fortune with atrocious attention to grammatical detail. But you’re not going to ever truly be secure in yourself if that’s your M.O.

On the other hand, if you don’t learn how to break the rules when called for, your presentation will be about as stiff as a grammar Nazi’s spine. Which isn’t something to strive for either.

Having been in the editorial world for over a decade now, I’ve seen grammar Nazis at work. It ain’t pretty. They’re some of the most uptight, stressed-out individuals I’ve ever met.

You need a good balance between lame valley girl or guy and grammar Nazi, which is what Writing Rule #41 strives to show you.

Run-on sentences and incomplete sentences can work well. Sometimes.

When we first learn about sentences and structure, we’re typically warned against run-ons and fragments. They’re big no-nos when we’re little.

But we’re not little anymore. So it’s time to acknowledge how powerful a little bad grammar can be.

Bad grammar is noticeable. It makes us stop and react. Sometimes, that’s just to roll our eyes in editorial superiority at a writer’s carelessness. And sometimes it’s to squint at the text in confusion. However, there are often opportunities where bad grammar can emphasize points or emotions.

Take the following lines that make up the opening paragraph to Not So Human:

Sabrina Johnson was sitting across from a sociopath who was out for her blood. Or at least he belonged to a sociopathic organization with that particular goal.

Not that she had any clue about his evil intentions. She just thought it was a bad date.

A really, really bad date.

That right there is a collection of mostly incomplete sentences, a classification Illinois Valley Community College correctly identifies as a thought that’s “almost a sentence but lacks a subject, a finite verb, or a completed thought. Sentence fragments [i.e., incomplete sentences] are one of the three serious ‘sentence-boundary’ errors.”

Sounds so ominous that way, huh? Yet in the case of Not So Human, those very errors help set up a specific, intended mood in the previously pasted paragraph.

While the story’s opening line sounds very intense, the next few full and incomplete sentences help lighten things up, adding an aspect of wry humor that lets readers know there won’t be non-stop heart-pounding terror in the pages ahead. Lighter parts will exist as well.

Though I could use incomplete sentences to make things even more tense, such as in this snippet:

The realization didn’t make any sense whatsoever. But right then, she didn’t care about trying to rationalize it. Crazy as it was, the knowledge gave her reason to wrack her mind for a plan. Any plan. Two against four weren’t the best odds to play with, but it was either fight back or what? Be turned into faerie lab rats?

Thanks to those choppy, incomplete sentences, Sabrina’s negative thoughts and feelings get special attention. I could have just said “Sabrina was too scared to think straight.” But instead, I pulled an editorial trick and let bad grammar do the talking.

The same applies to a well-handled run-on sentence, which essentially incorporates too many thoughts tied together with a string of conjunctions. Typically, these overwhelm readers, leaving them trying to sort out the sentence’s main point.

But what if a character is overwhelmed? What if the writer wants to indicate that detail without being blatant?

In that case, a bit of run-on sentence dialogue could drive the point home. “I don’t know what I’m doing,” he yelled, “and I don’t know where I’m going, and all I want to do is go home but nobody will tell me how!”

Frustration established. Mission accomplished. Thank you, run-on sentence.

Admittedly, the more you apply these editorial errors, the less effective they become. So use them sparingly, and use them wisely.

When you do, bad grammar stops being the enemy and becomes a good editorial ally instead.

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