Sunday, 12 July 2020

The Secret Rules of Grammar Revealed...

It seems grammar is an issue for many of us writers.
(BTW, I think 'we writers' sounds dumb - and is probably incorrect these days. See below.)
Grammar rules often seem to be some kind of closely guarded secret. They must be - because new writers often ignore them or act as though they're irrelevant!
Many readers still like good grammar from writers. So, here's a round up of the most common writing mistakes I've noticed recently.
Its/it’s Confusing
I saw this in a newspaper just the other day. It's is short for 'it is' - and there's no apostrophe needed for its other possessive uses.
Formatting Foibles
Fiction still needs to be formatted like fiction - with indented paragraphs and definitely no line break between every paragraph. Manuscripts looking like non fiction e-books are roundly loathed by traditional publishers, editors and agents.
Comma Clogging
Some people use too many commas, some not enough. They're used to make your writing clearer. That's all. If they stand out, you're using too many. If your sentences regularly get misread or misunderstood, it's usually because there are commas missing.
Pronoun Positioning
Eric and Ginger started the riff, then he played the guitar solo. Who's the he?
Wild Words
Effect / affect, passed / past, etc. You need to know the difference with these kinds of words because your spell checker won't help you!
Cliche Catching
Check every piece of writing for common, overused phrases. Sometimes we're so used to hearing cliches, we don't realize they've become meaningless.
Tensing Trouble
If you're writing in the past, stay there. And, if you're stuck in the present, don't jump back. Check for tense problems during your edit.
You do go back and edit your work, don't you?
Dang Danglers
Where you start a sentence with an unrelated phrase. Bad fiction writers tend to do this a lot, to break up the rhythm. It rarely works well - and can lead to absurdity.
Folly Filled Fragments
It's perfectly okay to use short ungrammatical sentences for effect. Once or twice. In an entire novel.
Passivity Problems
Easy way to spot this: the use of 'was' or lots of 'ing' words. We all do it but it's often better to change the sentence around to say something more direct.
Who (Whom?) Does That Relate to?
The manager's pen belongs to the manager.
The Perils of Punctuation
More than one or two exclamation marks per story is too many. Don't overuse them, especially to denote humor. Similarly, the proper use of the semi-colon is so misunderstood, it's best not to use them at all.
Are You Prepositioning Me?
Used to be that you couldn't end a sentence with words like 'to' or 'for' or 'on' or 'about'. Personally, I don't see why not. Doesn't seem to bother anyone these days. Never bothered Dickens either.
Capital Ideas
Names, titles, places, nationalities, days, months and big events are capitalized. Things that you personally think are important are often not.
Adverb Anarchy
Not all sentences need a descriptor or three. If you can't make a sentence work without an adverb, you're probably using the wrong noun. Same goes for adjectives.
It's a Big Wide World
America, Australia and the UK use different spelling for certain words. Write for one market in another's spelling and people think you're incompetent. If in doubt, use the US spelling - it's becoming the accepted norm (because English and Australian readers don't mind it being that way.)
Words Missing in Action
Okay, it's one of my own personal failings. Sometimes you just don't see there's a missing word. No matter how many times you read a piece, your brain sees the descriptor, even when it's not there! If in doubt, use an old journalist trick: read your work backwards.
Of course there are many more little mistakes we make - but the above are a few of my favorites - and the ones I see in other writer's work most often.
Other Stuff
Pet peeve: the use of the indefinite article: IT.
Don't get me wrong, I love 'it'. It's so... indefinite.
But good writers need to watch out for its overuse because "it" can lead to lazy writing - not to mention confusion.
I also get confused over whether to use 'that' instead of 'which' or who - or whether to use 'who' or 'whom' for that matter, not that it's a common problem these days. Using 'whom' just makes you sound pretentious anyway.
Plus, I've never understood the insistence on 'you and I' over 'you and me'. After all, when did you ever hear anyone ask, "Are you talking to I?"
But there will always be the anal among us who (that?) see errors in everything.
I'm already positive this article will irritate the editors on my list...
I happen to believe the English language should be organic - and we should accept modifications to the rules when the majority of users see no point in hanging on to an archaic convention.
Having said that, writers are meant to be, at the very least, understood by the majority.
And just because there's a whole new way of writing emerging as a result of technology - textspeak - that doesn't mean all the rules are pointless.
Far from it.
Because when we know the rules, we're in a much better position to break them, as I do - you'll have noticed in the above - all the time!

Keep writing!

(c) Rob Parnell