Grammar is about writing right, right?

A lot of people, especially in this age of texting and "thumb writing," find adhering to the rules of English grammar to be an unnecessary nuisance. At the same time, you don't want to write a book using all your texting abbreviations or, heaven forbid, emojis! Such a book would be so full of errors, cumbersome non-sentences, confusing, boring and downright annoying words and phrases, no one would have a clue what it was about, let alone pay for it or actually read through.

That would be an extreme situation. It is more common that writers will do your best to employ all the creative writing skill they can muster, but some would-be Hemingways will insist on sacrificing the rules in favour of cuteness, or some other imaginary special effect.

Warning!

Correct grammar is an essential component of any good writing and,  although Hemingway and a few more contemporary best sellers may take liberties with the language from time to time, unless you have their stature and success, your best bet is to obey the rules of the road.

For people who have been speaking it all their lives, English may seem like a pretty easy language but, in reality, it’s one of the most difficult to learn, not because of the complicated rules of grammar, but more often because of all the exceptions to all the complicated rules.

It’s the common errors you should aim to avoid. They can change the meaning of what you’re writing and in the process make you look close to illiterate to your audience, which, of course, ruins your credibility and all those hoped-for book sales. The really tough grammatical stuff you can leave to your editor to dig out. If grammar is one of your weaknesses, consider involving an editor earlier in the process.


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Common grammar errors

Apostrophes

Lazy writers, or those who are just not familiar enough with writing English often do not want to bother with apostrophes. The apostrophe is not optional, like some kind of calligraphic decoration. If it’s there it brings with it a certain meaning to the context; if it’s not there, the context has a different meaning. Most often, the apostrophe signifies ownership: Bill’s hat, Linda’s purse, etc.

Adding “s” without the apostrophe only makes the word plural. “Bills” or “Lindas” would suggest more than one Bill and more than one Linda, not ownership.

With words like “it’s” and “its”, people leave out the apostrophe simply because they don’t know any better, or because of laziness. Maybe they wonder why they should clutter their prose with silly little curlicues?

Ironically, one could easily conclude that in the case of such contractions, the apostrophe was invented to accommodate just such lazy writers. With the apostrophe, “it is” and “it has” are reduced to “it’s”, as in, “It’s not easy to master all the rules of English grammar.” Or, “It’s been a really nice day today,” instead of, “It has been a really nice day today.”

“Its”, on the other hand, is a possessive word, meaning it shows ownership if there is no apostrophe, contrary to the usual rule, as in, “The cat licked its fur.” “The company has worked hard to improve its employee morale.”

A more and more common exception to the possessive apostrophe nowadays occurs in names of companies and organizations. The Manitoba Editors’ Association has even debated whether or not to drop the apostrophe in the association's name. As an editor considering grammatical correctness, there should be no debate – the apostrophe stays!

However, company names and commercial signs nowadays use all kinds of deviations from “correct” English  to be cute, get attention, sell products, whatever! In that realm, a title becomes almost like a part of the organizational logo, separate from the rules of English grammar and, therefore, perhaps, acceptable.

Good vs. well

Adverbs describe or modify verbs. “Well” is an adverb. In the sentence, “I am feeling well,” the verb is “feeling” and “well” describes or modifies it. “I am feeling good,” is commonly used but grammatically incorrect.

Adjectives, on the other hand, describe or modify nouns. Rover is a good dog. “Good” describes “dog”, which is a noun. If your intention is to describe Rover as healthy, it would be correct to say Rover is a well dog, but better: “Rover is well.”

Your vs. you’re

“You’re” is another contraction, a shortened version of “you are”. “Your” is a possessive word. “Your car is beautiful.”

They’re, their and there

Again, another contraction... “they are” becomes “they’re".
And another possessive... “It is their house.”
“There” most often, but not always, signifies a physical place, as in “over there”.
“Their house is over there and they’re not home.”
“There is” or “there are” etc., are forms of the verb “to be”.

Confused? Do your best, then hire an editor.

Ending a sentence with a preposition

Sometimes a little bending of the rules is acceptable, even if you’re not Hemingway or another well-established bestseller… but do be careful. I like the example given by Solo Build It founder Ken Evoy in his book, Make Your Content PREsell.

The sentence, “What did you come up with,” should correctly be written, “Up with what did you come?” It may be correct but what writer in his right mind would write such an awkward sentence, except to make a case for using prepositions at the end of sentences?

Which or that? Which is good grammar

Nowadays, people think these two are always interchangeable. They're not! If the relative clause is a defining or restrictive clause, “that” is better. Use “which”, with a comma, for a non-restrictive clause. E.g. “Dogs that have three legs can learn to hop quickly.” (Refers only to dogs that have three legs – restrictive.)

“Dogs, which can be trained to do nearly anything, love to work and play.” (This is a variant of, “Dogs love to work and play...” ALL dogs love to work and play – the clause is non-restrictive.

Another common error is the use of either too many or too few commas. My personal rule is to minimize any grammatical structure that artificially slows your reader’s pace. Too many commas can do that. BUT, at the same time, where a little pause is necessary, or a series of items have to be separated, there’s no getting away from the comma. Unfortunately, the comma has fallen victim to the texting rage. Most people who text much at all don't bother with any punctuation at all. (I hate it!)

Most writing, although there are exceptions, such as academic theses, some descriptive narratives etc., benefits from the use of the active voice.

“A great book was penned by the novice writer.” As a sentence, this one has no grammatical errors; it’s just a boring, passive way to say, “Wow! The novice writer wrote a great book!”

These are but a very few of the more common grammatical stumbling blocks writers trip on regularly. There are a lot more... and, by the way, “a lot” is not one word!

The point is that while, in principle, writers need to follow the rules of grammar, not only are there a lot of exceptions that are also correct, but also times when doing the wrong thing may be better writing... but who should be the judge of when ignoring the rule is the better choice? Leave it to an experienced editor!

I could write a book on the rules of grammar but that’s been done... many times over. Find just one such good book and use it as a reference but do not, I repeat, DO NOT, let fear of getting your grammar wrong stop you from writing. As Pierre Burton is said to have suggested, write as it comes to you, then edit, edit, edit!

My advice is to do your best to know the rules and follow them but listen to your own writer’s inner ear. If obeying a rule sounds like nails on a blackboard, either don’t follow the rule, or reconstruct the sentence so that that particular rule becomes irrelevant, and consult an editor.


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