Books by Melissa Bowersock

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Grammar Police

I’ve written before about typos and how they send me right up the wall (especially my own). Sure, we all make mistakes (doesn’t mean I have to like it), and it’s a natural human failing, much as we strive to keep our work clean and correct.

Now it’s time for the Grammar Police.

Word Usage

The English language is confusing. Having two words like bear and bare that sound exactly the same, yet mean two (make that three or four) different things can be frustrating and annoying, and our language is peppered with examples like that. It might help (but maybe not) to remember that our language is a distillation of many, many languages down through time, which means that several similar-sounding words have come to us from different derivations, hence the differences in meaning and spelling. Do you really need to know what word came from what language? No. Do you need to know how to use them? Yes.

On Facebook or any written forum online, you’ll often run into a long-standing ruckus between the self-appointed Grammar Police and the luckless souls who find themselves so policed. You might see sentences like the ones below, complete with comments about their usage:

Your an idiot.  

I went over to there house.

Every dog has it’s day.

Use it or loose it.

Every one of the above is an example of incorrect usage, and my Word spell-checker is indicating each one with a wavy line beneath the incorrect word. Do yourself a favor and if you see the wavy line under a word, check it out. It’s there for a reason.


I once helped a friend format a book for self-publishing. My job was not to edit but to format, so I did not proofread the book but did notice some problems. In every case where the author had a single word as a sentence of dialog, there was no period following the word.




Yes, it’s a fragment and yes, we’re generally advised not to use fragments, but we all know we don’t speak in perfect sentences and we very often speak in fragments, so I have no quibble with that. But fragment or not, that one word is a sentence. Put a period after the blinkin’ thing. I suggested (gently) that this person might want to go through and put periods after these one-word sentences, but the author never did. If there was a reason for doing it this way, I have no idea what it might be.

Punctuation is our friend. Really. It helps us to communicate to our readers how the thoughts we are writing down should be ordered. A period means the last sentence has come to an end. It means that last thought has come to an end. It sets us up for the next sentence, the next thought. Not having that period sets up the assumption that the thought is continuing without a break.

I saw the deer it ran through the bushes.

A comma indicates that there is a slight pause, but the train of thought continues on unbroken.

I saw the deer, and it ran through the bushes.

A semi-colon indicates that you’ve got two separate thoughts, complete unto themselves, yet they are connected in some way.

I saw the deer; it ran through the bushes.

In each case, the punctuation is a signal to the readers how they should read that sentence and how the thoughts should be ordered. Help your readers; use the correct word and the correct punctuation.

What’s the big deal?

Why the nitpicking? Aside from casting aspersions on your level of education, the main reason I rail against these things is because it pops the reader out of the story. If I’m reading and the story has grabbed me by the throat and dragged me relentlessly along on a lethal, fast-paced car chase, the sudden appearance of a their instead of a they’re will stop me dead in my tracks. Now not only am I no longer engrossed in the story (and cranky about it), but I have to re-read that sentence to make sure I know what the author is trying to say, and that makes me crankier. Writing a story is like leaving a trail of breadcrumbs; we’re leaving a trail of words for the reader to follow. If the breadcrumbs are scattered haphazardly, perhaps mixed in with some street gravel, readers will have a hard time picking out the crumbs and the direction we want them to take. Help your readers by giving them a good, clear trail to follow.

We may want our readers to work a bit while they’re reading: work to figure out who actually killed the philandering husband, or wonder earnestly how the star-crossed lovers are going to get back together when she’s in Paris and he’s in Timbuktu. But we don’t want them to have to work to figure out what it is we’re trying to tell them. To my mind, the reader should be drawn along that trail of words in an almost effortless way, so effortless that they forget they are reading and they are, instead, feeling the story, seeing the location, sensing the love or doom or conflict. If they have to stop frequently to re-read errant sentences and try to figure out what you’re really trying to say, they most likely will not enjoy the side trip and will not put your  next book on their “to be read” list.

All that aside, language is such a fluid, dynamic thing, is there really only one correct way to use words and punctuation? Absolutely not. That’s actually the beauty of language; we can use it in whatever way it serves our purpose. Let’s go back to fragments. MS Word will very kindly let you know every time you use a fragment, and that wavy line will tip you off. Ideally fragments are to be avoided. But there are plenty of times (like the single word sentences above) when we want to use a fragment and it’s entirely appropriate. Breaking the rules is fine as long as you (1) know the rules to begin with and (2) have a reason to break them. Breaking them for no reason will only serve to confuse and confound your readers.

I don’t know about you, but I want my readers to enjoy the experience of reading what I’ve written.

1 comment:

  1. Writers who claim to be writers should definitely have a good grasp of their language! I have corrected several people who do not. (The teacher side of me made me do it!) Faulty usage of words and grammatical errors is one of my pet peeves!