helenhemphill (helenhemphill) wrote in thru_the_booth,

Grammar School

You’re a writer for goodness sake! You’ve been studying grammar since second grade. You know it. I understand no one wants to stop working on really good dialogue just to check on the use of a comma, but if writing is your art, then you must care deeply about the tools of your trade. That includes grammar.

I gave this lecture or something like it a couple of weeks ago at a Mid-South SCBWI workshop on plotting your novel. I was serious and appropriately righteous. The room was quiet and appropriately respectful. I knew I had made my point. Then, that evening, I received a sweet email from one of the attendees of the workshop that my web site had a grammatical error in the headline on my bio page. Not just a tiny, nobody will see it mistake. It was a big mistake in 24-point type. Good grief.

Nobody’s perfect. I fixed the error immediately. I am heartfelt about grammar, but I’m not an expert. I’m not even crazy about it. I don’t like sentence diagramming, and I couldn’t tell give you an example of a dangling participle without looking it up. But a writer must know the rules of grammar. You can’t wait until copy editing to make your manuscript clear and concise. By then, it’s too late.

Good grammar should be part of every writers’ basic skills, so in light of my 24-point grammar mistake, join me this week as we go back to the fun world of Grammar School. I promise it won’t be as painful as you remember, but maybe it will give you an insight into why grammar is every bit as important to a manuscript as voice, point of view, setting, and plot.

Today we’ll revisit Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. This book is part of the writer’s cannon. And I’m not even talking about chapter one which is elementary rules of usage. (Hey, MFA programs out there…why isn’t this book required reading?)

Let’s look at chapter four, “Words and Expressions Commonly Misused. “ The English language is a fluid, evolving system, but the proper usage of words within a text adds to the clarity of a text. Here are a few I see in manuscripts pretty frequently:

Hopefully. (Did you catch Roy Blout Jr.’s review of Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language in Sunday’s NY Times?) The correct usage is “I hope” or “it is to be hoped.”

Less and fewer. Ever check out at Target in the 10 items or fewer lane? The correct usage is less. Less refers to quantity, and fewer refers to number.

Nouns used as verbs. This is rampant in the online world. Who hasn’t googled someone? I’m blogging this week. Could you friend me? Strunk and White’s advice: Don’t do it. Ever.

I could go on for several pages, but you understand. A writer needs to know the rules. How else can we break them?

One last piece of advice, a writer friend of mine Shana Burg, author of A Thousand Never Evers ,uses a vocabulary style sheet for her novels. If a character is using grammar or words incorrectly, she makes note of it on the style sheet. When it comes time for copyediting, she gives the style sheet to the editor, and everyone understands that certain words, phrasing, and grammar are used intentionally. I like that idea, and intend to use a style sheet for my next manuscript.

Also, if you need more details, pick up Margaret Shertzer’s Elements of Grammar.

A companion book to The Elements of Style, it gives grammar lessons in detail.

Tomorrow we’ll have a grammar quiz. How good are you?

Tags: copy editing, grammar, helen hemphill, vocabulary

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