Grammar, argh!

I haven’t been posting much in recent days, but there is a good reason for it.  My muse has gone wild and I’m currently working hard on my novel.  It is coming along and I’m pleased, but there are certain times I stop to check grammar rules and see if I’m doing things right.  To be honest, much of my first draft will still have tons of mistakes and break all kinds of rules.  For that matter, so will my blog posts!  Yet looking over the rules got me to thinking about which ones I tend to break the most or not think about at all.

This became particularly important to me after reading some book reviews on one of Amazon’s top-selling novels under the Kindle rankings.  Some of you may have heard of it, The Hunger Games.  Now keep in mind this is a trad published novel, but a few reviewers complained that it was full of bad grammar and prose which reduced their enjoyment.  No idea how bad it may really be, I can’t say.  Possibly the editors were allowing the author some artistic license, which isn’t uncommon.  Writing styles will vary.  I haven’t read the book myself, so can’t say one way or another.  It’s YA and I don’t get into that genre very often.  Yet a part of me is tempted to read the novel because all the bad reviews actually make it sound intriguing.  Can’t explain it, but sometimes that happens.  I like checking out books with controversy among readers because sometimes they turn out to be the best ones.

Anyway, the point is that if a novel released by a big publisher can get complaints on grammar, then my own writing would get nailed for sure!  That means working on my issues.  I figured others may appreciate a few highlights so I’m going to list some things here that might be useful for when you hit the editing stages of your own books.  No one is ever going to like everything you do with your characters and story- we all know it is impossible to please everyone.  Yet getting the grammar right is the one thing that can be done so at least readers and reviewers don’t gig you for it!  Hopefully, some of you will find these reminders useful.  I will also be providing links to the pages where I got these rules from so you can find the full explanation on them.  The actual site is the following:

Now on to some examples of things I’ve looked at recently.

Words and phrases to avoid:

1) And also This is often redundant.

2) Basically, essentially, totally These words seldom add anything useful to a sentence. Try the sentence without them and, almost always, you will see the sentence improve.

3) Equally as Something can be equally important or as important as, but not equally as important.

4) Just Use only when you need it, as in just the right amount.

5) On account of Use because instead.

6) ‘Til Don’t use this word instead of until or till, even in bad poetry.

7) Very, really, quite (and other intensifiers) Like basically, these words seldom add anything useful. Try the sentence without them and see if it improves.

*There are many more examples on the site, but those are some of the ones that stood out to me.


-Italics do not include punctuation marks (end marks or parentheses, for instance) next to the words being italicized unless those punctuation marks are meant to be considered as part of what is being italicized: “Have you read Stephen King’s Pet Cemetary? (The question mark is not italicize here.) Also, do not italicize the apostrophe-s which creates the possessive of a title: “What is the Courant ‘s position on this issue?” You’ll have to watch your word-processor on this, as most word-processors will try to italicize the entire word that you double-click on.

-In writing the titles of newspapers, do not italicize the word the, even when it is part of the title (the New York Times), and do not italicize the name of the city in which the newspaper is published unless that name is part of the title: the Hartford Courant, but the London Times.

-If a word or phrase has become so widely used and understood that it has become part of the English language — such as the French “bon voyage” or the abbreviation for the latin et cetera, “etc.” — we would not italicize it. Often this becomes a matter of private judgment and context. For instance, whether you italicize the Italian sotto voce depends largely on your audience and your subject matter.

-It is important not to overdo the use of italics to emphasize words. After a while, it loses its effect and the language starts to sound like something out of a comic book.

The Comma

-Use a comma to separate the elements in a series (three or more things), including the last two. “He hit the ball, dropped the bat, and ran to first base.” You may have learned that the comma before the “and” is unnecessary, which is fine if you’re in control of things. However, there are situations in which, if you don’t use this comma (especially when the list is complex or lengthy), these last two items in the list will try to glom together (like macaroni and cheese). Using a comma between all the items in a series, including the last two, avoids this problem. This last comma—the one between the word “and” and the preceding word—is often called the serial comma or the Oxford comma. In newspaper writing, incidentally, you will seldom find a serial comma, but that is not necessarily a sign that it should be omitted in academic prose.

-One of the most frequent errors in comma usage is the placement of a comma after a coordinating conjunction. We cannot say that the comma will always come before the conjunction and never after, but it would be a rare event, indeed, that we need to follow a coordinating conjunction with a comma. When speaking, we do sometimes pause after the little conjunction, but there is seldom a good reason to put a comma there.

-When a parenthetical element — an interjection, adverbial modifier, or even an adverbial clause — follows a coordinating conjunction used to connect two independent clauses, we do not put a comma in front of the parenthetical element.

  • The Red Sox were leading the league at the end of May, but of course, they always do well in the spring. [no comma after “but”]

-An absolute phrase is always treated as a parenthetical element, as is an interjection. An addressed person’s name is also always parenthetical. Be sure, however, that the name is that of someone actually being spoken to. A separate section on Vocatives, the various forms that a parenthetical element related to an addressed person’s name can take, is also available.

  • Their years of training now forgotten, the soldiers broke ranks.
  • Yes, it is always a matter, of course, of preparation and attitude.
  • I’m telling you, Juanita, I couldn’t be more surprised. (I told Juanita I couldn’t be more surprised. [no commas])

-Be careful not to use commas to set off quoted elements introduced by the word that or quoted elements that are embedded in a larger structure:

  • Peter Coveney writes that “[t]he purpose and strength of . . .”
  • We often say “Sorry” when we don’t really mean it.

*Once again, I did not list nearly all the rules and left out many of the common ones that most writers don’t have a problem remembering.  The ones above are examples where it is easy to forget the right way to handle commas.  Of course, some people are better at this than others so I don’t mean to insult anyone’s intelligence.

The last rule I’m going to cover is passive voice.  It is something I am very aware of, but have a tough time handling it.  Every writing guide will tell you passive is bad.  One thing I liked about this site is that it gives a great example of when to use it.  At least now I have a better idea of how to use passive in an acceptable manner.  I’m also going to paste the chart for various passive verbs so everyone that isn’t familiar with them can know what to look for.

Passive Voice

The passive forms of a verb are created by combining a form of the “to be verb” with the past participle of the main verb. Other helping verbs are also sometimes present: “The measure could have been killed in committee.” The passive can be used, also, in various tenses. Let’s take a look at the passive forms of “design.”

Tense Subject Auxiliary Past
Singular Plural
Present The car/cars is are designed.
Present perfect The car/cars has been have been designed.
Past The car/cars was were designed.
Past perfect The car/cars had been had been designed.
Future The car/cars will be will be designed.
Future perfect The car/cars will have been will have been designed.
Present progressive The car/cars is being are being designed.
Past progressive The car/cars was being were being designed.

-We use the passive voice to good effect in a paragraph in which we wish to shift emphasis from what was the object in a first sentence to what becomes the subject in subsequent sentences.

The executive committee approved an entirely new policy for dealing with academic suspension and withdrawal. The policy had been written by a subcommittee on student behavior. If students withdraw from course work before suspension can take effect, the policy states, a mark of “IW” . . . .

The paragraph is clearly about this new policy so it is appropriate that policy move from being the object in the first sentence to being the subject of the second sentence. The passive voice allows for this transition.


There are many excellent examples of how passive is used on the site I linked above, and anyone who is having trouble with this grammar element should definitely check it out!  I think it makes a huge difference in understanding passive and its many forms.

The topics above are only a small sampling of the numerous rules writers must keep in mind.  I am not an expert and so borrowed a site I found helpful to use here.  Most of the information was copied directly from there, but the section titles are linked so you can find further details and examples.  I know some people are stronger in this area, but it never hurts to run through the rules again every so often so we don’t forget.

Hope everyone had a happy holidays!

~ by Suzie on December 27, 2011.

29 Responses to “Grammar, argh!”

  1. I’m so glad you’re working on your novel! Keep it up. Thanks also for the grammar lesson. I too have a lot to learn (relearn!) Thankfully I have good editors & spell checker!

    I’ve yet to read Hunger Games, and up until now, I haven’t heard anyone complain about grammatical issues. She’s a seasoned writer (and editor as well, I think) so I wonder if such reviews are coming from jealous authors. In any event, I feel fiction allows more liberties in this arena than non-fiction.

    On a personal note, I’d GLADLY take the critics loathing if it meant having a bestseller!

    • Thanks, I’m pecking away at it. Hopefully get it done soon. Grammar is definitely something I must work at. I’m not as bad as some people, but neither am I as great as others.

      You are possibly right that some people may have been nit picking on the author. Some of the one and two star reviews were rather harsh. I think one thing people didn’t like was the use of present tense. One guy complained of the author switching between tenses, which bothered him. It is a matter of style, though. Some people think you have to write in one set way amd not deviate from that. They’re always the ones to jump on any novel that doesn’t follow the most widely accepted format. I wish people who hate first person would just not read first person novels. Then they wouldn’t have anything to complain about!

      You are right, though, that fiction does allow for some liberties that you can’t do in non-fiction. Some people forget that. For every rule, there is an exception to it. Writers just need to remember to be careful in their execution.

  2. Ah, the comma. Lol. That’s a major one with my students. I keep having to tell them that a pause does not equal comma. Passive is also something we take for granted, but I remember from my translation/linguistic classes how we studied the purpose of passive and how to translate it into ASL, which does not have a lot of passive constructions.

    In my own writing, “just” and “really” come up a lot. It’s easy to fall into using them with first person, but now I just do a word search of my entire document when I’m ready to edit to weed them out.

    How strange, I don’t remember any glaring grammar issues in The Hunger Games. The present tense is something to get used to, but there are a handful of books that use it. The book was amazing, btw, if you feel so inclined to read it, Susan. 😉 I would say, though, to not read the other two in the trilogy. Catching Fire is almost exactly the same as the first, and I personally found Mockingjay to be disturbing and disgusting.

    • I don’t have a lot of problems with the comma, but there were a few rules that I hadn’t known about, so it was good to look it up. I’m going through the list of words recommended on the site not to use. I was happy to see many of them aren’t in my WIP at all, but found one that is. Apparently I used “got” nearly a hundred times. Good grief! Now I’m going through and trying to eliminate most of the instances where it appears. There are a couple phrases that I can’t find a way around, though. Here are the examples in case anyone else can think of anything:

      1) We got along well.
      2) That is what I got for letting her decide.
      3) She deserved what she got.
      4) She got into the act.
      5) I had no idea what she got herself into.
      6) They got in your face.

      If anyone can come up with better alternatives, I’ll be forever grateful. My WIP now has less than ten instances of “got” and these examples are the main ones I can’t change except a couple in dialog where I figured it would be okay.

    • Angela, forgot to reply about The Hunger Games. Thanks for your own feedback. Not sure if I’ll read it, but between the controversial reviews (which make it interesting) and so many people liking it, I may pick the book up when I get time. It will probably take a bit to get used to present tense, but it would be worth trying out.

  3. Great editing tips here!

    One that peeves me off: “May we eat Mother?”. Oh, my. I’m not a whack-job. Neither is the writer, I’m guessing. The ‘vocative’ is something most writers are unaware of. If the writer ISN’T talking about humans eating humans, the sentence must read “May we eat [comma] Mother?”

    Do I hear a sigh of relief? Whenever referring to someone directly, writers need to use the ‘vocative’ comma.

    • Lol, Novel Girl. That example is disturbing, though a bit funny as well. Commas can be tricky at times, but that particular use of them is fairly straight forward.

  4. Know all the rules, decide which to break and do it consistently. That’s style. When writing dialog, write it as spoken, not by the rules. If the speaker needed to take a breath in the sentence, put in the comma. Read all your work aloud. And please, please, please, learn what a proper noun is and when not to use capital letters. A conjunction connecting clauses is a notification that the two pieces are part of a whole thought or modification of the first clause. It slows the reader to take note of that connection or modification. Don’t use it unless that connection or modification is important. Why did I start a sentence with ‘and?’ To emphasize the connection with what I’d previously said. If you start one with ‘but,’ you are emphasizing the qualification or caveat. The use of “’til” in an academic work is unacceptable, but good prose is poetry and dialog must ‘sound’ like speech. My peeve on that one is people who don’t know “till” is what you do with a plow, or the cash drawer.

    Speak well and you will write well. Listen to interviews with some of the great writers. Watch some great British drama. Learn to express yourself effectively in spoken and you will express yourself well in written. Poetry is an extremely condensed form of expressing feeling. When you hear “less is more” that’s what is meant. Do not describe extensively. Use the reader’s imagination. Engage them in the development and action of the story. Know your market. Write for your market. Ursula Leguin said, “Write what you like to read.” She also said, “Read, read, read, write, write, write, read, read read.”

    Last advice: Don’t write like me. 😉

    • Well said, Sharon. Got to know the rules before you break them. I admit style, particularly in fiction, means some rules may not be followed that closely. In dialog, grammar isn’t as important either since, as you said, it should reflect how people really speak. Care should be given to the narrative more than anything.

      As for your writing style, it is all in its own category, but not necessarily a bad thing. There are some famous authors who didn’t follow all the rules!

  5. Love your column today, Susan! I’m happy to hear your novel’s on track. As for grammar …
    Back when I was in school (junior high) and we spent an entire semester endlessly diagramming sentences, I was so bored –
    And I’m so glad now that I learned all that stuff.
    One of my big issues is communication. You’re writing because you want to communicate with a reader. So for me, the first criteria is always … Does what I write convey information to the reader clearly? Does every sentence say what I intend it to say?
    Nobody’s perfect, and I’m sure I don’t always hit my goal spot-on, but at least it is my goal. To that end, punctuation (like word choice) is always subservient. Rules can occasionally be … if not broken … at least bent a little in the interest of better communication.
    But the point is – as you’ve noted – to know what you’re doing. And why. Even if you’re going to occasionally violate the rules, you’re in a much stronger position when you violate them knowingly rather than by accident because you don’t know any better.

    • You know, PL, I liked my english classes so much in high school they put me at the honors level. Funny thing is I forgot half of what they taught. Eleven years in the military caused me to pick up some bad habits because they make you write in a style that breaks a lot of rules! For instance, if you were writing an evaluation on someone, you had to put all their accomplishments in bullet form like this.

      *Successfully trained fifty soldiers on basic radio operations leading to the unit receiving an accommodation for its high level of proficiency.
      *Provided critical medical support during a joint training excercise that included over nine hundred soldiers and lasted for a period of two weeks resulting in no fatalities.
      *Expertly led an ambush on the OPFOR (opposition forces) where all of the enemy were either killed or captured while his own squad received no significant injuries.

      I made those up but they could appear on a report. You get good at blowing smoke up both the soldier’s and chain of command’s asses to make them look better than they might actually be through using big words. I usually found it entertaining to write up these evaluations for my soldiers. Their accomplishments might be true, but they were usually true for a bunch of other people too and it wasn’t like they had a choice most of the time, lol.

  6. All right, my grammar isn’t as bad as I thought it was! But speaking of The Hunger Games, I didn’t see any major grammar rules broken. To be fair, I was too engrossed in the story to begin with. It’s written in the present tense which might jar some readers because it’s not something that’s not done a lot (at least I haven’t seen) in adult fiction, but more and more YA authors are starting to use it. I’m not a big fan of present tense stories, but Hunger Games did it right, in my opinion.

    Commas are evil. Period. I’m lucky if I use them right because, in actuality, I really have no idea how to use the things and I’ve read five or six grammar books and who knows how many articles on the subject of proper comma usage. I’m hoping that something just sticks in my subconscious and I think it’s finally paying off. My beta readers are happy and approve of my punctuation so far and haven’t had me correct too much; so that’s good, right?

    • Sheenah, I’m beginning to wonder about the guy who wrote the main review I saw complaining about grammar. He said he had a degree in English, but you can’t really tell who people truly are over the internet. With so many of you having read that book and not seeing the problems he did, I don’t think they were as bad as he made them out to be. Some people probably see two or three minor mistakes and call a book riddled with errors. Oh well.

      As for grammar, all you can do is study it and try to follow the rules. No one is perfect!

  7. Sharon, I forgot to tell you this, but awhile back you had mentioned reading you writing out loud. I took that advice to heart and tried to do it when checking my story for flow and readability. It makes such a difference as you can really see where the trouble areas are. Really great advice there that I have been meaning to thank you for! My husband gets a bit weirded out as he sometimes thinks I’m talking to myself or him, but he’ll get over it. The cat doesn’t seem to mind 🙂

  8. The “mechanics,” as grammar and punctuation are called, are the mortar that bind the blocks of the structure. After you’ve got it, you’re ready to build.
    Cut to the chase and don’t slow down.
    Reveal your characters by their actions. It’s not your story. It’s theirs.
    Use the reader’s imagination, too. The story is even better with you both envisioning it.
    Good dialog is action. Bad dialog is lousy editing.
    Read your work aloud.
    If the reader doesn’t have a clearer vision of the world or themselves at the end of the book, it wasn’t memorable entertainment.

  9. Susan, regarding the guy with the English degree … I had to laugh. Back when I was working for The Sheridan Press, there was a school teacher here who would call the newspaper every afternoon to tell us reporters how badly we had mangled grammar, punctuation, etc.
    She was an elderly lady, and she just never “got” that newspapers follow a different writing style (Associated Press, in fact, which has some significant difference from the Chicago Style of writing that’s popular with the big publishing companies.) And I’m quite certain that Chicago Style also is very different from the “correct English” taught in high school and college English classes.
    While there are some basic tenets that all adhere to, in fact “correct” writing in many ways still remains in the eyes of the beholder.

    • Lol, PL. While I was still in college my professors would point out the difference between academic writing and journalism. They are two different things. Just as fiction writing has some of its own rules. I have the newest Chigago manual that I may take a look at for some grammar that would still apply. It’s a great book, but rather pricey. Mostly used it before to check on how to cite sources. That was always a pain in the rear!

  10. Just a tip, there’s one site that I use every so often that’s been instrumental for me on particularly difficult grammar rules. For example, I always get stuck on which tense to use of the word “lay” vs. “lie”, laid or lain.

    Another one that’s been confusing for me is “As if I was” vs. “As if I were”.

    ^^This site will help out a LOT if you run into confusing words or phrases =)

  11. Hi, Susan. I received your email – tried to reply, but Network Solutions (my email server) gave me a stupid response, “SMTP server does not like the sender. 550 relay not allowed.”
    I think the problem is Network Solutions, but if you would be so kind as to send me another email, I will try again to respond.
    Have I mentioned I hate technology? *sigh*

  12. Terrific post, Susan. Really useful. 🙂

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