Have you ever heard of surreal grammar? No? Because up until a while ago, neither did I. Recently, I stumbled over a reddit post illustrating this phenomenon though and it struck a perfect little chord with me.
I’ve always been a fan of the weird, wicked and beautiful when it comes to literature. I’ve adored House of Leaves (despite all the hate it got), am a huge fan of David Foster Wallace as well as H.P. Lovecraft and Jorge Luis Borges. I adore authors who manage to spread lingual beauty through their pages without sounding like pretentious assholes – writing should neither be plain nor should it be trying too hard.
Language is flexible and I truly believe we must take advantage of this; twisting and turning until the words sound right.
One of my favourite stylistic devices in writing is surreal grammar. Before we head into the causa any further, I feel like we need to define our tools of the trade once again. When I refer to surreal grammar, I am also meaning to cover the areas of surreal syntax and lexis. Technically, those are subordinates of grammar but some people prefer to treat them seperately – hence the disclaimer.
Grammar can be defined as the set of structural rules that govern the structure of sentences, clauses, and words of a language; whereas syntax especially focuses on the logical build of sentences in a language. Last but not least, lexis defines the complete entity of a language’s vocabulary.
So far, so good. Now that we covered the dry and boring parts, let’s hope straight to the fun parts.1
Us authors have the freedom to be somewhat lax with what we do. Almost always, you can pass something off as art (looking at you, invisible-i-am), as long as you manage to look competent while doing it. Grammar has a fine line between competence and ignorance. If you modify grammatical rules to express, you are running danger of being labeled as too stupid to language – literally. Adding a grain of flexibility on the other hand can work wonders for your writing. The emphasis here is on “grain” and not “bucket” – don’t smother your writing in lingual creative freedom or stuff might get exhausting.
Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.
Memorize this. Inhale it, exhale it, then do it. Widely attributed to Pablo Picasso, this quote captures the essence of writing as a skill. Grammar is boring and dry and I swear I probably failed every grammar test in school; still, if you want to make the magic work, you first need to be sure your artisanry is on point.2 If you slacked off in school (just like me), there are great, free courses on sites like edX or Khan Academy for all levels – and I’m pretty sure you can find similar offers for your native tongue as well. Go there and marvel at how damn complex the system you work with every day actually is; it is fascinating, I promise.
Know the rules? Cool, let’s break ’em!
I’ve spent 500 words rambling about grammar now without defining a single time what I mean by surreal grammar. Let’s look into that!
There is no set definition of this term; however, it is generally understood as the non-conformity with set rules in order to add depth, dimension or tone to your language. This doesn’t necessarily mean the use of entirely wrong grammar (although it can), but also the use of unusual or questionable compositions. Again, make sure you know what you’re actually doing – otherwise you’ll look like an idiot trying to be fancy. Not cool.
Let’s start with a very tame example, bordering between unusual and not quite correct. This is the stylistic device I probably use the most (so much I actually need to call myself back to order at times): replacing itemization commas with and.
She stared at the sky. The fireworks were red, yellow, pink, purple, blue and green.
She stared at the sky. The fireworks were red and yellow and pink and purple and blue and green.
Notice the tone alteration? The first example sounds – standing alone – like a factual itemization of all the firework’s colors. The second sentence on the other hand like someone fascinated, maybe even overstrained by the variety of colors these fireworks had to offer. It feels like narrating persona is just awestruck and continues retelling without knowing when to end. Used sparingly3, it can add excitement or pacing to a scene.
The zeugma is probably my favorite stylistic device in the world – unfortunately, I am rarely creative enough to produce beautiful zeugmas on my own.
Explaining a zeugma is really hard and it’ll probably only makes sense if you saw one, so I’ll start this off with an example.
He opened his mind and his wallet at the movies.
A commonly used zeugma – here, the verb open applies to two parts of the sentence. Firstly, the abstract meaning of open applies to his mind, as I hope he didn’t literally spill his brains over the theatre. Secondly, the concrete, producing notion of the verb open combined with the wallet, which he physically opened.
In conclusion, a zeugma is a device where a part of a sentence can be applied to more than one other part.
Fun Fact – my favorite pop culture zeugma stems right out of Star Trek. It was used to explain the phenomenon on some grammar website and became an instant favorite for mine.
You are free to execute your laws, and your citizens, as you see fit.
Another powerful device is the singularity of a noun which serves as an entire sentence. It can be used to show someone being overwhelmed with a certain feeling, for instance. Also, a quick analytical rundown of a situation would be thinkable.
He opened his eyes. Darkness.
There’s still a whole bunch of other figures of speech, such as the Lovecraftian or (A mountain walked or stumbled) and the capitalization (to indicate divine status) or misspelling of words (see Stephen King’s Semetary).
Generally speaking, surreal grammar can be used to spice up your language and generate a whole new meta level in your words. I can only urge you to try some of these devices out and see the wonders (or horrors) they can do to your text.
Or you could just go and read some Lovecraft4 and be awestruck about his mastery of this woven discipline – because I sure was. And now, as always, surreal or real, bland or bright: go, just go and write and be excellent.
1 Or horrifying, depending on just how much of a grammar pedant you are.
2 Dear inevitable asshole dissecting my text (looking for grammatical errors): You’re a pretentious eggplant and nobody likes you. xo
3 Note to self: sparingly.
4 You can do so for free right here.