This column may not appeal to everyone, for I'm going to write about the grammatical mistakes that annoy me the most. If you're so good that you don't make these mistakes, you don't need to read further. And if you make these mistakes all the time, you may be in the subset that thinks, who cares? All too often I've encountered "writers" who take the following positions: Grammar doesn't matter. Punctuation doesn't matter. Spelling doesn't matter.
I don't agree with these statements, nor do I believe that they are appropriate attitudes for any writer to take. I'm more forgiving to those who don't have English as their first language, because I know how hard it is to write in anything besides your mother tongue. But for everyone else, good grammar is a requirement, a sign of professionalism. Therefore, in this column I'm going to rant and rave about a few of the mistakes that people make with great frequency.
A few years ago, Lynne Truss's book, Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, surprised the publishing world by climbing high on the bestseller lists. Now, not everyone may agree with how she punctuates, but the fact that so many people bought and read this book is a clear indicator that punctuation matters to many.
Just for emphasis, punctuating properly is not simply a matter of having a clean manuscript to impress intellectual prigs. Punctuation helps you convey the meaning that you want to convey -- instead of something else entirely. This is seen in the very title of the book by Lynne Truss, which is from an incorrectly punctuated definition of a panda. The correctly punctuated version would be Eats Shoots & Leaves (implying that our panda is a vegetarian) instead of Eats, Shoots & Leaves (implying that our panda is a gunslinger in some Western).
But let's move on to actual examples. The most common mistakes -- or at least, the one that bugs me most -- concern apostrophes. Apostrophes (') are those funny little marks that look like commas but are placed above as opposed to below the letters in sentences. And the most frequent mistake that people make with respect to apostrophes is confusing its and it's.
Here are a couple of examples in which these words are used correctly:
Apostrophes are used improperly, too, in the creation of plurals. If you're making plurals, you probably don't need apostrophes (one exception is letters, such as when minding p's and q's). However, in general, if you're writing about more than one boy, you should write boys. Look closely! No apostrophe! Nevertheless, many "writers" insert apostrophes determinedly into their plurals, despite being told repeatedly to cease and desist.
The other main case requiring apostrophes is the possessive. If you want to indicate that the bike belongs to the boy, you write: the boy's bike. If you want to indicate that bikes belong to several boys, you write: the boys' bikes.
And here we see, at last, the source of the confusion. Apostrophes are necessary when creating possessives for nouns. However, apostrophes are not used when creating possessives for most pronouns. Its, his, hers, theirs, whose, ours -- these are all pronouns, all indicating some degree of possession, and none of them use apostrophes. It's unfair, even illogical, but that's how it is.
Of course, there is plenty more to punctuation than mastering the apostrophe, and you would do well to understand the proper use of periods and commas, colons and semi-colons, dashes and hyphens, and the other little marks that help to convey meaning.
Good spelling is another fundamental for the writer. One misspelling that irks me is alot (it should be a lot -- and given how hard my word processor tries to correct this it is amazing how frequently alot appears in others' writing). Another gripe: many people use loose when they mean lose. If you lose something, that means that you can't find it; if your pants are loose, that means you're dieting successfully. Definately is definitely not a word, yet it pops up everywhere! Perhaps the saddest, though, is grammer -- which should be spelled grammar -- for the latter spelling is what will help you find what you need.
Admittedly, spelling in English is not easy. Say the following words aloud: though, tough, bough, cough, through, dough. Even though they all end in ough, they don't sound alike.
Words that sound alike are the cause of many misspellings (these words are known as homophones). My favorite example is when a woman wrote wonton (a type of Chinese cracker) when she actually meant wanton (used to describe a lusty wench). These sorts of mistakes may bring smiles to the faces of your readers -- but they're the kind of smiles that you don't like, because your readers are laughing at you instead of with you -- and so care is needed. In fact, you need to be especially careful because spellcheckers can't catch these mistakes.
Here are a few instances in which the wrong word is often used:
Affect instead of effect (I'm not going to explain; please visit your dictionaries)
Accept and except (again, visit your dictionaries)
Advise (a verb) and advice (a noun)
Than and then. Than is usually used as a comparative; for example, "He is older than his sister." Then is used to indicate what follows, either in logic or in time: "If all the Weasleys have red hair, then Ron Weasley has red hair" and "First we went to dinner, then we went to the movies."
Again, there are plenty of websites with more information on the matter. If you search for "common spelling errors" you will find plenty -- you may even find the ones that you make!
Nit-picky readers will note that so far I have only complained about punctuation and spelling and not about grammar -- which, according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary's first definition, is about "the study of the classes of words... their functions and relations in the sentence." These readers may point out that I have not yet justified the title of this column, "Grammatical Griping." Another set of readers may contend that this is splitting hairs, for surely correct punctuation and spelling are fundamental to good grammar? Besides, if you look at websites devoted to grammar, there will be sections on punctuation and spelling.
Still, it's important to remember that writers have to master more than punctuation and spelling. However, here are a couple of irritating and all-too-frequently-made grammatical mistakes:
In the sentence above, the subject noun and the verb don't "agree" -- that is to say, the subject (box) is in the singular and the verb (are) is in the plural. This is true even though the word apples is closer in the sentence to the verb. A correct version of the sentence is:
For more on this topic, search for "Subject Verb Agreement."
Another irritant concerns the improper use of pronouns:
In this example, the writer is using the wrong pronoun (me) in the subject of the sentence. The word me should only be used as a direct or indirect object. A correct version of the sentence is:
Also, a word of warning: although you may be comfortable using the common, everyday pronouns, if you're writing historical fiction, you may want to review the proper usage of pronouns such as thou, thee, thy and thine.
A third improper instance, adjective instead of adverb:
Here the writer is using an adjective (good) when an adverb is needed. A correct version of the sentence is:
There are plenty of other grammatical mistakes made by writers. Creative typos know no bounds, and there are many ways to incorrectly arrange words within a sentence. What is the best way to rid your work of these problems? The first requirement is to know what you should be doing. You will turn up a huge number of resources if you search on the word "grammar" -- make sure you spell it correctly!
The second requirement is to proof your work, again and again. Even if you know what you're doing, errors can creep in -- especially if you have revised and edited your work.
Although this article gives the impression that I'm hard-nosed and strict in my approach to grammar, I'm well aware that the English language is changing. There are several instances in which old-fashioned grammar dictates that a sentence should be written one way -- and yet, more and more, people are writing these sentences in another way, sometimes for very good reasons. So in the next column, "Grammatical Groping," we'll take a look at these areas where the use of language is evolving.
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Victoria Grossack studied Creative Writing and English Literature at
Dartmouth College, and has published stories and articles in such
publications as Contingencies, Women's World and I Love Cats. She is the author of Crafting Fabulous Fiction, a step-by-step guide to developing and polishing novels and short stories that includes many of her beloved columns. With Alice Underwood, she co-authors the Tapestry of Bronze series (including Jocasta, Mother-Wife of Oedipus; The Children of Tantalus; and Antigone & Creon), based on Greek myths and set in the late Bronze Age. Her independent novels include The Highbury Murders, in which she does her best to channel the spirits and styles of Jane Austen and Agatha Christie, and Academic Assassination (A Zofia Martin Mystery). Victoria is married with kids, and (though American) spends much of her time in Europe. Her
hobbies include gardening, hiking, bird-watching and tutoring
mathematics. Visit her website at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com, or
contact her at tapestry (at) tapestryofbronze (dot) com.
Want to learn more about crafting fabulous fiction? Get one-on-one guidance with Victoria Grossack's personal writing class; find out more at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com/VictoriasWritingClasses.html.