Grammar fads for writers

One trap that some fiction writers fall into is writing with present day slang or expressions in a story set elsewhere. I don’t mean something obvious such as a Roman centurion talking about social media, or somebody, talking about a traffic jam during the Civil War, I mean things that are more subtle. Take everyday expressions. They change constantly, so something that sounds all right today, may not tomorrow. For instance, did people say “Give me a break” in the 1930s? They certainly needed one, but the expression wasn’t in fashion at the time. I once had a 1920s flapper saying “Boop boop be doop.” It sounded right to me, but a little research revealed that the expression didn’t surface until the 1930s, so I had to change it to “Ain’t we got fun?”. Of course, this works the other way as well. Just as you wouldn’t have someone say “cell phone” in the 1950s, you wouldn’t have someone refer to someone as “daddy-o” in 2016. (Well, maybe your great grandfather might.)

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In addition to expressions, there are what I call grammar fads; little phrases or constructions that people don’t really think about, but that become widespread for a while, such as saying “whatever”. If these creep into your writing, it could be embarrassing if readers notice, even though it is likely they won’t. For instance, you may have noticed that in old movies set in the 1930s and 1940s, many people start sentences with “Say,”. “Say, are you that guy I saw last night?”, or “Say, what’s the big idea, anyway?” Come to think of it, what’s the big idea is an expression you don’t hear much any more, either.

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As a writer, you are probably in more danger of letting 2016 talk creep in to a 1980s story than the other way round. Here is a grammar fad I’ll bet you never thought about.; answering a yes or no question by repeating the subject and verb of the question itself.

“Are you going to the movies?”…….. “I am.”

“Was that your husband I saw being led away in handcuffs?”……..  “It was.”

“I heard you split the atom yesterday.”……. “I did.”

Admittedly, this is a very fine point, and most would never notice, but if one of your characters talks this way in the 1960s, it can sound like an anachronism.

Oh, and that goes for something currently popular being referred to as “a thing” also.

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About johnreisinger

retired engineer and author of historical fiction and non fiction. My current book is Master Detective, the story of America's Sherlock Holmes and his involvement in the Lindbergh kidnapping investigation.
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