On Grammar

Dear Lauren,

Thank you for your nice review. I’m glad you admired Mary Mae’s curiosity and tenacity and that you also liked Granny. It’s always nice for a writer to hear that her characters are appreciated. You add, however, that you did not care for Mary Mae’s use of “bad grammar” which you say “does not set a good example for middle grade students.” I would like to respond to your objections.

Mary Mae speaks the way her family, from the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, speaks. She speaks a dialect thick with double negatives and phrases such as “he come” and “they was.” This speech was (and is) spoken by many Appalachian people in my hometown of Norwood, Ohio. I used it for this story because I love the poetry of the language and because it tells Mary Mae’s story better than standard English ever could. To show you what I mean, I’ll quote my opening paragraph and then change it into standard English:

“Stomping, jumping, I’m a-singing away. Me and Granny’s up here at the microphone, Granny on guitar, double strumming, foot tapping, urging everyone on for the chorus.”

Now for standard English:

“Grandmother and I sang together at the front of the church. Grandmother strummed the guitar and tapped her foot. She asked everyone to join her on the chorus.”

The second version lacks the color and urgency of the first, the sound of a real individual with her own view of things, of phrases that connote knowledge of music such as “Granny on guitar” and “double strumming.” I think young readers deserve the best, so I use dialect where it best tells the story. I also believe that it’s good for children to become acquainted with other cultures, and one of the best ways is to read stories in authentic language. You mentioned you were concerned about children reading “bad grammar.” I would not worry about this if I were you. Children’s speech patterns are well established before middle school, and no child was ever corrupted by reading Huckleberry Finn. More tragic would be to miss out on such a book.

Rules for fiction are different from rules in a grammar book. A story may or may not be told in standard English. The author may choose, as I did, to tell a story in the authentic speech of her characters. Indeed, stories in dialect are especially good for middle school students, who need to see that the world is broader than their own little neighborhood.

It’s also nice for a child like Mary Mae to discover herself in a book of fiction, to see her speech being celebrated.

Again, I’m happy that you enjoyed my story, and I enjoyed the description of your books stacked on books. You’re the kind of reader I love to hear from.

Sandra Dutton

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