How To Tell Your Grammar From Your Gramma

19 Jun

The title of this article comes from an old joke which probably only works in certain British accents, but there’s a serious point behind it. We all know that spelling mistakes can put readers off, but poor grammar grates even more, and if you repeatedly make the same or similar errors, you’ll find your work is quickly projected, with some force, across the room, never to be opened again. Well, in the days of digital publication, this might not literally happen, but it certainly will figuratively (especially if you repeatedly get those two words the wrong way round!).

Now, I’m no grammar expert (as the error or two which I’m sure will have crept through my attempts at editing this article will attest to), and indeed I have very little memory of ever really being taught anything grammatical in school. Certainly, I was never taught the difference between a colon and a semi-colon, or how to use the more obscure punctuation marks, such as ellipses or em dashes, which, if used correctly, can really make your writing pop and fizzle with excitement. However, as I started out on my writing career (many years after having left school), I quickly realised that the most important thing for an author is to be able to tell a compelling story and to be able to create interesting, realistic characters. If you can’t do this, then no matter how perfect the grammar, no one is going to be interested in reading a word you’ve written.

Does this mean grammar isn’t important? Of course not. What it means is that when you’re working on early drafts of a project, you need to concentrate on getting the story and the characters right. Only once you’ve got those sorted out, do you need to start thinking about the grammar and whether you’ve got all your apostrophes in the right places, used the three ‘theres’ (their, there and they’re) correctly and worked out when you should be using ‘onto’ rather than ‘on to’. But how do you do this?

Unless you’re a bit of a natural at such things, the chances are you’ll need to resort to some sort of external advice. One option is to employ an editor, and this is certainly a great way to make sure you get everything spot on (although even editors are not perfect!). In particular, an editor can really help with the proper usage of those lesser-used punctuation marks which can really make a piece of writing stand out from the crowd. For example, many people will use commas to break up sentences into different sections. However, you can add much more variety to your writing by replacing some of these with semi-colons (;), colons (:), em dashes (double-length dashes) or even ellipses (…), and an editor can really help point you in the right direction.

However, you should never rely on an editor entirely, and if you take your writing seriously, you should do your best to both learn how to use these punctuation marks, and also how to sort out all those other grammar issues, like when to use passed rather than past, for yourself.

There’s three ways to do this. The first is that if you work with an editor, get them to use ‘tracked changes’ rather than simply providing you with cleaned up copy of your manuscript. This way, you can look through the changes they’ve made and learn from their experience. In the long-term, this will also reduce your need to hire an editor again in the future – but don’t tell them that! I’m only joking on this last point, but this is a great way to brush up on or extend your grammar skills (it’s certainly done a lot for mine).

The second is to get yourself a good reference book which you can keep by your side while you’re editing your work. Of the many which are available, the one I use is called Grammar For Grownups: Everything You Need to Know But Never Learnt In School by Craig Shrives. I happen to like this one, but it won’t be everyone’s piece of cake so the key here is find one that you like and then make sure you use it to double-check everything.

Finally, there’s the web. There are many good grammar sites out there, and these can often be found simply by typing something relevant into a search engine (such as ‘Passed vs Past’). In fact, I’ll frequently turn to the web when I want to check specific examples, rather than general rules, instead of opening my reference book. One of my favourite sources of grammatical advice is Grammar Girl, and she can usually be counted on to have an answer if I’m wanting some quick advice on a specific topic.

Of course, it’s not always easy to find out exactly the right answer for a specific problem, and you have to do a lot of digging to get there. One of the biggest problems I had with this was ‘onboard’ vs ‘on board’. As much of my writing is set on or around boats, I use these two options quite a lot, yet this was something which somewhat flummoxed the editor I work with, at least at first, as she didn’t necessarily get the subtle difference in meaning between the two and wanted to replace them all with ‘on-board’. It took me a while to rummage through the internet to find just the right explanation of which one I should use when so that I could ensure I got it just right (‘onboard’ is an adjective which precedes a noun, ‘on board’ is used in every other context: e.g. ‘We brought a radio on board so we could have an onboard radio’)

Similarly, there may be times when you choose to break the rules. This is particularly true with dialogue, where you might want to use colloquialisms, but you need to take a lot of care when you do this so that people understand this is intentional and not a mistake. For example, when speaking, many people will say ‘there’s three motorbikes coming over the hill’, but grammatically this should be ‘there are …’ or ‘there’re …’, and on the page most people will assume that using ‘there’s …’ in this context means that the person has a poor knowledge of grammar and poor editing skills rather than that they’re using a colloquialism.

I recently ran into this problem when creating a character in The Outbreak who speaks in my native Glaswegian dialect, which butchers English quite dramatically in places (to quote Billy Connelly on this, ‘being greeted by a Glaswegian is like being savaged by a rottweiler’). In Glasgow, the word definitely is widely pronounces ‘definately’ with the emphasis on the ‘ately’ at the end or ‘defenetely’ with the emphasis on the central ‘enet’). Yet, anyone unfamiliar with this local peculiarity would assume that either of these were spelling mistake and would quickly get annoyed by what, to them, is clearly bad editing and an inability to use a spell-checker. This meant I had to tone down the accent a little, and out went either possible spelling of definitely along with other local variants on the official English words, such as ‘oot’, ‘dae’, ‘gonnae’, ‘dinnae’ and ‘wean’. Yet, I chose to leave some others in, such as the use of the word ‘How?’ where almost every other English speaker would use ‘Why?’ (as far as I can work out it’s a shortening of ‘How come?’) and ‘Pure’ to mean very or extremely (as in ‘That’s pure mental!’, usually said with a slight shake of the head, for ‘That’s extremely weird!’). I figure I can get away with these because they can’t easily be mistaken for a typo and can probably be figured out from the context.

However, if you do choose to break the rules, you need to be aware that the results are likely to grate with some people. For example, while they are generally brilliantly written, throughout the Harry Potter books, J.K. Rowling consistently uses the phrase ‘to try and …’. I’ll admit this is acceptable in informal English, but for some reason it leaps out at me and each time I read it, I feel myself wanting to take a red pen change it to the more widely accepted ‘to try to …’.

So that’s my quick run through the subject of grammar and how to make sure you get it right. If you do, hopefully you’ll end up with something your readers will like, and, indeed, that your gramma can be proud of.



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From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.

To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.

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