I’m always amazed when I see this argument:
If my story is good, nobody’s going to care how it’s written.
And really, I see it a lot more often than is to be believed.
Grammar and punctuation are important. They are the most basic tools a writer has. Through correct grammar and punctuation we make ourselves understood; what is so difficult to get about that? (And why am I suddenly finding dozens of typos? I think my keyboard is getting old and worn down, actually.)
Vocabulary is important, yes. Incredibly so. Especially since without decent vocabularies we make stupid homonym erros, like site for sight (which drives me batty) or bear for bare or peek for pique or peak (another batty one.) But you don’t need a huge vocabulary; I find sometimes the most basic words work the best, conveying as they do not only their intended meaning but the very purity of their basicness.
Case in point (for me at least): I wrote a sentence the other night in which I mentioned a character’s big chest. (A male character.) Now I could have said huge or gargantuan or broad or anything else, but I didn’t. I used big, not only because I meant big, but because the character thinking this wasn’t thinking just of the size of said chest but of the safety of it. “Big”, the word we learn as children to use for anything larger than ourselves, put the thinking character, if not into a childlike place (which would be highly inappropriate considering it was a kissing scene), then at least into a place where her thought process has regressed to that point. In seeking to curl herself up into the chest of the man who made her feel safe, she brought back the need for safety a child would express.
And lots of other basic words are perfectly good. They have an impact; they delve straight into the reader’s psyche. We should always use the most clear and direct word we can; sometimes that word is “big” or “red” or “hot” or whatever else.
But grammar and punctuation? So much easier to grasp, really, especially in fiction writing as opposed to, say, school reports where you have to follow silly rules like not ending sentences with prepositions (as Churchill said, “That is the sort of English up with which I will not put.”) It’s simple, and to be perfectly honest it should be instinctive. If you read a lot and pay attention, these rules should be absorbed effortlessly.
I know it’s fashionable in some circles to wear bad grammar like some sort of shiny crown, to insist you yourself are a rebel with a new voice and style. But there’s a difference between someone who obviously knows the rules and is playing with them, and someone who doesn’t know the rules, and the reader can tell. I fnd it absolutely infuriating to hear people say things like “The readers won’t know the difference” because yes they will. They will even if they’re not big readers; they will even if they themselves write terribly. Because grammar written should be much like grammar spoken: when I talk to you, or you talk to me, we “hear” grammar almost as a separate language, gliding beneath what’s actually being said. Readers aren’t stupid. People who enjoy and choose to read are not stupid people, and they’re your audience. Who do you think is buying your books? Last time I checked, people buying books were people who read books. I knew a woman (an absolutely horrible woman, btw) who didn’t read; you can bet she didn’t spend a lot of time buying books.
So here is a nice, handy little list, from me to you, of my personal grammar and punctuation bugbears.
1. Quotation marks used for emphasis. Seriously? Seeing this makes me want to find the person who did it and ram a copy of Strunk & White up their asses. “Car Wash” $1.00: is it a real car wash, or an alleged one? Are you going to charge me for a car wash but really just spit on my car and run away? When you put up a sign at the grocery store that says “Pears” $.25, are you implying those aren’t actually pears? Are they made of plastic?
2. The aforementioned homonyms. “Morning” is the beginning of the day; “mourning” is what you do when people die. “Site” is a website or a place where a building is being constructed or a specific location; “sight” is what you have. Something “piques” your interest, it doesn’t “peak” or “peek” it. You climb a peak, you peek with your eyes.
3. Elipses are three periods. They indicate a sentence has trailed off, or that someone has taken a longer pause in speech than they would if just a period were used. You do not use the number of periods in an ellipsis to indicate how long the pause lasts…..or to create drama……..or simply because you don’t feel like using an actual period….or because maybe your finger just got stuck on the period button.
4. Questions do NOT have to end with question marks every time. They just don’t. The punctuation indicates how the sentence is spoken; it is and can be fluid. For example: when Character A gets home, and Character B says, “Where were you?” it indicates, without needing to use dialogue tags or unecessary description, a totally different tone of voice and demeanor than Character A arriving home to Character B’s “Where were you.” That’s not the best example in the world but you do see my point, I hope (and likewise, characters who say almost everything as a question tell us something about themselves and their general demeanor too.) I have twice been dinged for this by line editors and it’s the only line edit nitpick that pisses me off. The fun of punctuation is that it determines how a sentence is spoken; it tells the reader something. Think of Willy Wonka, telling the children, “No. Please. Stop.” Instead of “No! Please! Stop!” See the difference.
5. It is perfectly acceptable in fiction to start sentences with “And”, “But”, or “Because.”
6. I find the grammar nitpick that unless a word ends in “s” it cannot be hissed most irritating. “Hissing” implies a furious whisper much more eloquently and directly than “whispered furiously” or “said in a furious whisper”. Much like the nitpicking about how eyes do not follow people, gazes or stares do. “Her eyes followed him” is colorful and, I think, clear to just about every reader; frankly, if something like that is throwing you out of a story, there are other problems with the writing to the point that you are, consciously or unconsciously, looking for them. (I know there’s at least one other of these that bugs me but I can’t remember what it is.)
So you tell me now. What are your grammar issues? What drives you nuts?
I have been thinking of doing another summer publishing series, perhaps about agents. Thoughts? And if you or anyone you know has any Bad Agent stories, please send them along.