How Much Grammar Do You Need, Part V: Rules I’ve Seen Erudite People Break–

—but that other erudite people will definitely notice!

One of Joe Williams’s categories included errors erudite people make but no one notices. Even the erudite people preaching against the error make it and don’t catch themselves.

Bill, the dog, critiques

He tells me when I’m wrong!

But another category: errors erudite people DO notice, and react negatively to—the implication being that these are errors erudite people scrupulously avoid.

Ahem.

I recently read the following in the New York Times:

The Arlington police had went to the Classic Buick GMC dealership Friday just after 1 a.m. when a caller reported that a man was standing on top of a car in the lot “stamping on the windshield trying to break it,” according to a 911 call.

I’m not posting this here as a statement on the events being described (you can learn about that elsewhere.) I’m providing it because it commits—in the New York Times of all places!—one of those fairly egregious errors an agent or editor or any other “well-educated” reader definitely will notice—and judge.Sad Editing!

(Tip for that NYT writer: if “have” or “had” is part of the verb phrase, go with the past participle. Otherwise choose the simple past.)

So Rule #1 that won’t be overlooked is use the correct verb form!

Rule # 2 on this list: Know the difference between “its” and “it’s.”

Trivial? Absolutely. Will not knowing the difference really matter? In some cases, you bet.

I suspect this one results from writing too quickly and proofing on the screen with a deadline looming. If by some chance keeping these straight plagues you, there’s unfortunately no easy way to remember, unless it’s to go with the one that makes the least sense. You’d think a possessive, like “The dog chased its/it’s ball,” would take an apostrophe, wouldn’t you, since possessives are formed with apostrophes? But “its,” the correct choice, is kin to “her” and “his.” Just fix in your mind how silly “He ate hi’s supper” would look, and you may be able to remember to pick the one without the apostrophe.

While we’re on the subject of apostrophes,

Rule #3 on this list is do not form plurals with apostrophes.

I saw this done in the crawl on Good Morning America! But it’s like announcing that the writer has been reading more roadside veggie stands than novels.

Rule #4? Do not put commas in these two places.

Comma rules can look complicated. Recently I eavesdropped on professional editors trying to decide whether to insert a comma based on whether they heard “a pause” or not. But people hear pauses in different places. There are “rules” for commas. I find that the basic list of uses for commas in handbooks, or on sites like this one, make sense.

I consider commas one of the most important tools for clear writing. They mark off sections of sentences and help me, as a reader, know what’s coming next (are we still in the appositive, or have we returned to the independent clause?). In this post, I just want to emphasize two places where I’ve seen commas sneak in. (And my agent from years back said specifically that she’d stop reading a query the minute she spotted one of these.)

Forbidden place A) Between a subject and its verb. “Gloria, went out to lunch.” I don’t hear a pause there. Do you? Or, more understandably: “One of the reasons I don’t like that play, is. . . .” Here, the length of the subject phrase may make a writer feel as if it’s time for a pause.

The only time a subject should be followed by a comma is when some kind of “interrupting” element comes between the subject and its verb: “Gloria, however, hated the restaurant we’d chosen.” Or “Gloria, who hates Chinese food, went with us to the Chinese buffet because it was cheap.”

Forbidden Place B) After a coordinating conjunction.

The most dangerous place for this interloping comma is after the conjunction between two complete sentences: “I hope you will consider representing my novel but, I know you have many submissions to read.” The comma goes before the “but,” never after, unless there’s an interrupter, and then you need two commas: “I hope you will consider representing my novel, but, like all agents, you have many submissions to read.”

None of these errors directly impacts communication. At worst, they create little hiccups in the flow of the text. Except that, as Williams points out, error is in the eye of the beholder. What’s a hiccup for me might well be a coughing fit for someone else. Agents and editors qualify, at least in general, as erudite readers. Even if the staff of the New York Times didn’t catch that “had went,” they probably will.

Do you have your own candidates for rules you really can’t get away with breaking? Leave a comment and let me know!

Cats as kibbitzers

They have their opinions, too!

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Filed under correct grammar, Editing, grammar, grammar rules, indie publishing, Learning to write, novels, punctuation, self editing, Self-publishing, style, Writing

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