Monday, May 20, 2013

Grammar Matters

No wait-- don't turn the channel. I promise this won't be painful.

We all have grammar issues: the fear of the comma, love affairs with ellipsis, m-dash confusion. And let's not even start with the semi-colon. But the fact of the matter is that grammar does matter.

I've been reading a lot of manuscripts lately. I've read slush and I've read things under contract, and I've seen a lot of interesting grammatical things later. And when I say interesting, I'm being kind. It's sad, because when I open a new submission that I'm looking forward to, and the first 10 pages are riddled with errors, I know I'll have to pass. And it's not just because it would take me ten times longer to edit that manuscript.

Here's the thing--grammar is voice. Voice is grammar. Period.

Think about it. Grammar is the representation of speech. It's the system we use to notate what it is that we would sound like if we were saying the same thing. While it's true that there are a lot of people out there that don't speak "proper" English all the time, most of us do speak grammatically. If we didn't use sentences with subjects (the naming part) and predicates (the telling part), we wouldn't be conveying much. When a writer chooses to have a fragment, it needs to convey abruptness or disjointedness. If a writer chooses to have a character speak without correct grammar or tenses, it has to tell us something about that character.

I had a teacher once who explained grammar in a way that made sense. She said, it's not really important that you know the technical terms. What's important is to understand that grammar is, at its essence, a tool for communication.  We writers like to play fast and loose sometimes with sentence structure--especially when it comes to sentence fragments and dialog. But there are some errors that you can't play fast and loose with, because they will confuse your reader. For example--you can't have a comma-splice or run-on sentence, because people don't speak in run-ons the way that we sometimes speak in fragments. You can't have a story with no (or very few commas), because most people need to breathe at some point between words. You can't have long runs of -ing phrases, because if you had to listen to someone talking like that, you'd slap them eventually.

Sure, there are grammar-ninjas out there who can diagram a sentence like nobody's business, but most of us are never going to bother memorizing the difference between the past perfect and simple past tense, or try to explain the difference between an appositive phrase and an infinitive phrase. What all writers--aspiring or otherwise--really need is to understand which mistakes they absolutely must learn to avoid. What we really need to know is how to avoid making the mistakes that will cause a reader (grammar-ninja or not) to get tripped up on our prose and lose the story.

Look, I understand. Grammar (for most people) is not fun. I teach it, and even I hate it most days. It's not the part of the story that makes your pulse race. It's not why you fall in love with your hero. But without it, none of the other stuff works.

And here's the thing--it can be learned. You can figure out where commas go (there are only a couple of places). You can remember that -ing verbs aren't really verbs. You can remember when to use an em-dash vs. a hyphen. It's totally possible. It just takes practice.

Here are a couple of my favorite resources for brushing up:
Strunk & White: Elements of Style- The best, most succinct explanation of commas ever (plus snark)
Grammar Girl
Purdue OWL (Online Writing Lab)--explanations and exercises

So what are your grammar gaffs? Your punctuation problems? And how are you trying to make them better?


Carla Swafford said...

This is one of my downfalls. I've worked hard the last several years on it and failed a few times. The biggest problem is commas and then followed by tenses. For commas, either too much or not at all. Tenses, I believe is mostly me being lazy.

A few years ago, I purchased ENGLISH GRAMMAR IN USE that included a CD. Loved it. I could practice to my heart's content. Then I realized it was the Queen's English. Oh, well, they are the ones who started the whole thing. So I bought the next book (ADVANCE ENGLISH IN USE) with the CD and practiced on it.

Another grammar book I love and use to take everywhere with me is ENGLISH GRAMMAR FOR DUMMIES. Funny and easy to understand.

Of course, I have Strunk & White's and several others.

Alicia Hunter Pace (aka Jean Hovey and Stephanie Jones) said...

I always have to look up where to put the em dash in a divided quote--inside the quotation marks if interrupted by something narrative and outside if there is actual action. I had to relearn ellipses. I learned four at the end because one is a period. Chicago style and my editor don't like that. They like three. Language is ever changing. I can adapt.

Lisa Dunick said...

Carla!! I have an easy comma handout--email me and I'll send it to you. :O)

Lisa Dunick said...

Alicia- good point. There's the whole issue of house style. Samhain doesn't use the oxford comma, and this drives me batty. Alas, I've had to adjust :O)

Ali Hubbard said...

I'm all about the Oxford comma! Lol.

Chris Bailey said...

I tend to use commas in the same way I would use a line break in a poem, but just because I want to stop for a breath doesn't make it right. What about that one? Was that right or wrong?

Tina B said...

Great post, Lisa! I always try to pay attention to my Grammar. Thank goodness that I am not a writer. Lol.
As a reader, I find it difficult to read a story with a large amount of errors. It is very distracting to me.
Thank you for sharing some links also. :)

Megan Mulry said...

"And when I say interesting, I'm being kind."

I love you.

That is all.

Lisa Dunick said...

Chris- depends on the style the house is using. British usage, yeah--that's perfectly fine. Many house styles are more liberal in how they distribute commas.

Roxy Mews said...

Ellipsis need love too! ;p

Thanks for the resource links Lisa. Now slinking away from screen to edit.

Cari Hislop said...

Great post! For me, one of the most frustrating things is the shifting rules. It's like standing on a sand dune. You memorize the rules (the one's you can understand without an English degree), only to find they've changed. I know grammar rules shift because language and word flow shift. I've read a lot of mid 19th century writing (letters as well as stories) and it often jars. Sometimes it reads like they're talking backwards. I'm sure in one hundred and fifty years I'll sound backward too (if I don't already).

As you say, the rules change with the publisher, but if it's left to the author I think consistency is the key. You can't please everyone, but if a reader has enjoyed one of your books they have a right to expect your other stories to be written in a similar grammar/word flow. I think Georgette Heyer is a good example of individual word flow. If she was trying to get published today any editor worth their salt would take a hatchet to her excess description/verbiage among other things. They would end up very different books, but most of her readers love her because of how she wrote (and will probably hate me for suggesting Heyer would need to be edited). I think at the end of the day there has to be a compromise between following the rules and writing the story the characters demand. One does need to know the rules though before one can break them (or have an awesome editor to tell them they're not making any sense!) :)

Lisa Dunick said...

Cari- I totally agree about consistency. Pick a style and go with it. Go with Chicago style or AP or whatever, but be consistent.
And part of my point is that you don't need an English degree to learn this stuff, but if someone wants to be a writer--that is, they want to make a living with language--they need to be sure they know the basics. It's like a carpenter not bothering to learn the difference between the types of tools they're about to use.
I'm telling you, Strunk and White is dead on--and it's from 1918. (plus it's short) :O)

Cari Hislop said...

I shall have to look up Strunk and White!

As you say, at the end of the day good grammar is good communication. It makes me think of that saying "Make ends meet!" Growing up I'd never seen it written so until a few years ago I mentally heard it as "Make ends meat". I assumed it meant you had to try to make the meat last all week. Literature with good grammar does have advantages! :)

Chris Bailey said...

Cari, I love "make ends meat." You got the gist of it, even if you substituted a homonym. That happens with lots of idioms. And comes back to haunt us via "Family Circle."

Lisa Dunick said...

Love that!