Thursday, September 09, 2010

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT GRAMMAR

Everybody hates this stuff, don't they?

We all buy great books about "how to" write - I have a huge collection - but we're not interested in the nuts and bolts of the craft, the stuff that makes what we do intelligible to the reader. We all rush to the chapters that show us how to create a plot, a to-die-for hero, a heroine with the strengths, empathy, spirit that we all yearn to possess.

It's inevitable. It's the exciting stuff. Who wants to read the boring stuff about apostrophes, or where to use a comma, and when to use a full stop? Dull, dull, dull.

But grammar is the basic tool in the writer's craft box and I'm bringing this up now because I've been reading entries to Mills & Boon's New Voices competition. I can't comment because it won't let me for some reason - but I'm not here to talk about computer glitches.

I read a lot of really great stuff, but all the time I was being thrown out of the story by bad grammar. Apostrophes in the wrong place. Sentences that were miles too long. Writers who seemed unfamiliar with the purpose of the comma or the full stop.

I'll tell you right now that I'm not a great grammarian. I use language in ways that serve my story. If I want single word sentences, I'll use them. If I want a sentence without a verb, I'll do that, too - but not too often.

I don't know about your computer, but mine is always throwing up wiggly lines and sometimes I'm not sure why, so I click on the mouse and find out. Mostly it's "fragments"; the sentence without the verb. I think about it, and decide if maybe I'm overdoing it and occasionally I'll combine two sentences. Sometimes I'm surprised to discover that I can't spell a word when I thought I could and I'm grateful for the help. Sometimes it's just querying my use of an apostrophe. (It's asking me to think about it, not telling me I've got it wrong - it just sees an apostrophe and thinks uh-oh...)

Do you know the difference between "its" and "it's"?

The thing is it matters. And in a world where editors and agents struggle for every minute in their day, they no longer have the time to cope with someone who hasn't taken the trouble to master the basic skills of writing a sentence. Read your work out loud and you'll soon realise how important this is.

The good news is that anyone can learn this stuff. I did. Point proved. Not the strange words - gerunds and past participles - but the reason for using an apostrophe and how commas help make sense of a sentence.

For those of you who are a little hazy on the basics, I can heartly recommend GETTING THE POINT by Elizabeth Hawksley and Jenny Haddon (former chairwoman of the Romantic Novelists' Association). It's a light-hearted and simple guide to grammar.

I'd also recommend noticing this stuff while reading. I know, we all race through a rattling good yarn without noticing the punctuation - that's the point. It enables the reader to instantly make sense of the words on the paper. But once you've enjoyed the book, you might usefully go back and read it again to look at sentence structure. The simple grammar. The skeleton that supported the story while you were concentrating on what was happening to the hero and heroine.

And good luck if you've entered NEW VOICES.

28 comments:

Julie Cohen said...

Hear, hear.

Chris Stovell said...

Wonderful post, Liz. Grammatical errors stop the flow - if I have to pause to think about what the writer means I'm liable to put the book down.

Lacey Devlin said...

It's a shame that so many are having technical problems but they've promised to fix them :).

It's lovely that you're able to take the time to read some of the entries :)

Lesley Cookman said...

Good stuff, Liz. What seems to have been forgotten is that punctuation evolved for people who were Reading Out Loud, to give then the sense of what they were declaiming to the masses. And give an actor a script without any punctuation and see what happens!

Teresa Morgan said...

I've entered (OMG how scary was that!) and although it's not really scoring 'highly' I've had some wonderful feedback from it.

And yes, I totally agree with you. I'm no grammarian either (is that how you spelt it?) and I've had a lot of help over the years, so I'm better. When reading, I'll let the odd thing slide (we're only human after all) but when it is continuous I usually find myself giving up and stop reading.

I'll definitely check out that book. I certainly need to understand grammar better as sometimes I'm still not sure whether I should use a comma or a semi-colon and when.

I love Word too... I rely on those squiggly green and red lines.

Glad to hear you're reading. Shame you can't comment.

Great post, Liz.

Liz Fielding said...

Whoa! Lots of comments.

Thanks, Julie and Chris, exactly. Nothing stops me quicker than having to work out what a sentence is supposed to mean!

Liz Fielding said...

Lesley, I imagine it's my early dramatic training, but I do tend to punctuate for speech. If I can't say it, it doesn't work.

Liz Fielding said...

Hi Lacey

I'm doing my best to read entries, although I am in deadline hell at the moment. It's exciting that there are so many entries, though.

margaret blake said...

Worthwhile blog, Liz...er is that correct?

I forget spellings too, yet it's never the long words, I put it down to age!

How about this one seen at a local veg shop

Karrat's

Liz Fielding said...

Thanks for stopping by to share your thoughts, Teresa.

Not sure what's up with the website - just have a load of emails giving me links that don't work. I'm sure it'll get sorted.

Good luck with your entry! Loved your blog, btw!

Jane Holland said...

Oh yes. I'm with you here. All the way.

J.

Hello. My name is Elizabeth. said...

Lovely post. And beautifully punctuated, too, I might add.

Jessica Hart said...

I couldn't agree with you more, Liz! It's not about stuffiness. It's about meaning.

Tammy said...

Thanks for the great advice and recommending the book.
I struggle with my English a lot and when I am re-reading my work I see what I want to see instead of what’s actually there. My submission is poor and everyone has commented on my grammar, clumsiness (think that’s the right word) and I understand them. I wrote my chapter to quickly in the hope of having something to enter in the competition and in my rush I made a lot of mistakes, so sorry if anyone had the misfortune of reading mine.

Vince said...

Hi Liz:

Even more basic than punctuation is meaning. While punctuation can help us read copy out loud, it also acts to change the meaning of what is written.

For example:

Shoot, the sergeant ordered his men.
Shoot the sergeant, ordered his men.


What frustrates me the most in reading is when the punctuation is correct but the sentence can have two or three different meanings. While the writer knows what was intended, the reader does not. This requires reading the sentence over again. If this happens on the first page of the book, even reading the sentence over again may not help. This happens when understanding the meaning requires context which the reader does not yet have at the start of the book.

Some writers never make this mistake. I never have to reread a single sentence in their works. Other authors do this regularly. I wish authors would slow down and after each sentence ask themselves: “Is this sentence crystal clear?”

I think you must do this because I count you as one of the ‘crystal clear’ authors. In fact, I just pulled-up Chapter One of “The Bride’s Baby” -– aren’t eBooks wonderful? -- and you used only two semicolons compared to fifty-four (54) dashes in that chapter.

Lesson: “Punctuate to create crystal clear meaning”.

Loved the post. : )

Vince

JV said...

May I say, "Amen?"

JV said...

Another good book with a humorous bent is "Eats, Shoots and Leaves" by Lynn Truss.

Liz Fielding said...

Tammy, no, I haven't read many and not yours. I'm in the final stages of a book which has taken me six months and I'm struggling!

But what you said is interesting. One I read, with all the problems I mentioned, did appear to have been written fast, without a proper read through by the author.

I do hope the comments you do get will help you will future work. This, I suspect, will be a real use to all the writers entering - if they have the wit to accept the criticism and learn from it.

Good luck with your writing!

Liz Fielding said...

Thanks, JV. And Lynn Truss is brilliant. Love her old sitcoms which I listen to late at night on BBC 7. :)

Liz Fielding said...

Vince, I think I love you :)

Liz Fielding said...

And Vince, I am trying to cut down on the dashes!

junkfoodmonkey said...

I found it very useful to get English Grammar for Dummies (UK edition, importantly!) and work through it slowly a chapter a day so things sank into my brain.

It was a great help. I was at school when grammar regarded in the same light as Facism, so learned very little of the formal rules and what things are called. Reading a lot let me absorb the rules, so I know if something sounds right - or wrong - but I usually couldn't say why.

Liz Fielding said...

I have to admit that I wasn't exactly keen on English grammar school, JFM, but I'm grateful now. And always glad to hear of another great book to help adults who suffered through the lack of formal stuff at school. What was that all about!

I understand what you mean about absorbing the rules by osmosis, though. I'm a bit that way with numbers.:)

Sally Clements said...

Excellent post comma Liz exclamation mark
Seriously, that's a great post.

Penn said...

I know I'm late, but this was in my PW email yesterday. I would so buy some of these apps/games if they really existed!

http://blogs.publishersweekly.com/blogs/shelftalker/?p=2369&utm_source=Publishers+Weekly%27s+PW+Daily&utm_campaign=ce3491fbfc-UA-15906914-1&utm_medium=email

Penn

Liz Fielding said...

Brilliant link, Penn. Lots of potential for fun. I think I'd particularly enjoy Exploding Exclamation Marks :)

Penn said...

I want the game where you can zap the apostrophes that don't belong!! I see that so often here on signs and menus!

Penn

CCMacKenzie said...

Hello Liz Fielding.

Great post, I've been wondering when your next book was due.

No pressure.

Another great little book, you can carry it around with your handbag, is: Strunk & White's The Elements of Style.

Christine Carmichael.