• To Be or To Be At?

    Posted Posted by Guest Writer in WBN News & Events     Comments 5 comments

    The questions, problems, and personal moments of sorrow brought about by today’s grammatically challenged society are not new, and they are not going anywhere. Which leaves us writers to deal with them.

    I’ve realized that perhaps grammar is an inherently difficult subject to write about. This is true on many accounts, but two predominant obstacles stood between this post and myself. The first was a concern that it would come across as pretentious. The second, and more personally compelling, was the reality that readers meticulously peruse any article about grammar and often lambaste the writer for making a single mistake.

    So this sentence will provide the obligatory grammatical mistakes; incase anyone would like some.

    Back to the point. What baffles me about poor grammar is not the occasional misplaced comma or the too often misunderstood semicolon. What bothers me is the tacking on of unnecessary prepositions (“Where are you at?”), the substitution of “r u” instead of “are you” (it really doesn’t take that much longer to type out the extra four letters), the squishing together of “a” and “lot” to make the non-word “alot,” etc.

    Writers, and literary fiction writers in particular, are often uniquely focused both on portraying a “true” or realistic glimpse of the society in which they live and on respecting and experimenting with language. As writers, we know (or attempt to know) the power of the written word, and grammar plays a principle role in achieving the heights of that power. The occasional and intentional breach of the rules of grammar can be incredibly effective, but sometimes it hurts a little (or maybe it hurts significantly) to recreate the way many people converse or write in text messages or emails.

    I cannot be the only person who cringes when hearing someone ask “Where are you at?” or hesitates for a moment before responding to a text message written with no regard for the English language. Maybe I’m just dramatic, but I would like some semblance of grammar and organization to remain in both written and spoken communication.

    Therein lies the crux. I find myself struggling with a desire to capture the style, emotion, and culture of our generation, while at the same time wanting to retain proper grammar. As a result, I often leave technology out of my stories or write about time periods in which no one substituted “R U” for “are you” because text messaging had yet to be developed.  At best, it’s a temporary solution; at worst, it keeps me from writing about the society I know best—my own.

    How should writers handle dialogue in a technology centric society that seems, at times, not only to use but even to embrace poor grammar? Do we transcribe it honestly, or do we portray the gist of a given sentiment with proper punctuation?

    Really, what I am trying to ask is what happens when “Where are you?” is treated as a formal, pompous version of “Where are you at?”

    I find myself perplexed on the matter and as unwilling as ever to give in, but I know that many of today’s most successful writers do not share my opinion. How do you handle this challenge, WriteByNighters?


    Michelle is currently a student at The University of Texas at Austin, where she is pursuing dual degrees in Business and in Plan II, an interdisciplinary liberal arts program. In addition to interning with WriteByNight, she spends her time writing short stories and editing just about anything she can.

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    Your dialogue should be true to the characters. That’s it. If all your characters are grammar teachers and diction coaches, then let them speak accordingly. Mine talk like real people, though. In informal spoken usage, “Where are you?” and “Where you at?” can mean slightly different things depending on context. The latter sounds like a casual friendly query. The former can possibly be more accusatory (i.e., “I expected you to be someplace, and you’re not there, so where are you?”). Depends on the character. And in New Orleans, “Where y’at?” is a customary greeting. You can’t make that grammatically correct… Read more »

    David Duhr

    RayNoLa, you mean that in N.O. people will say “Where y’at?” in lieu of, say, “What’s up?”

    I say “Where you at?” far more than I’d like to. Actually, I’ll say “Where are you at?” which is even weirder.

    But I agree. Stay true to your characters. Stay true to the work itself. Even if it pains you. Writing is supposed to be painful, innit?

    Candice Coghill

    I have only two comments to make: 1. Michelle, I think I love you. (j/k !! But, you know what I mean….) Can we at least be partners in grammatical pet peeves ? ;) 2. @ Ray: I never before thought of “Where are you ?” as accusatory or “Where are you at ?” as more friendly than the former. After thinking through what you wrote, I’ll agree with the nuances you point out. However, I shall always remain hopeful that, at least in the case of spoken English, we never fully embrace the friendlier of the two. Just call… Read more »

    Michelle Watson

    Ray, I agree with you on dialogue, particularly when certain phrases or expressions can be indicative of a region. Colloquialisms don’t bother me–I think they’re great. What gets to me is when writing feels sloppy. I remember once my Mother took an art class and her instructor taught her basic rules of art, saying that the rules could be broken, but an artist needed to master and understand the rules before breaking them. That’s how I feel about grammar. Caroline, yes, I would love a grammatical pet peeve partner. We can greet each other the “unfriendly” way and be just… Read more »

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