Saturday, January 14, 2012

Defeating the Grammar Villains

 English is a strange language. Much like the ethnic diversity of the United States, our language is filled with smatterings of other places. Words hail from musty tomes of Greek and Latin, the guttural Germanic tones of Old English, the smooth rhythm of the Romantic languages. And English grammar rules are often downright unconventional. Here's a classic example: haven't you wondered why the plural of "goose" is "geese" but the plural of "moose" is not "meese"? Haven't you wondered why almost ever other possessive is formed by adding an apostrophe and the letter "s" but the word "it's" is a contraction for "it is"? So, why is grammar important anyway?

Pretty much every discipline in life has rules. Just like you can't substitute baking soda for flour in a recipe or replace the oil in your car with water, you can't write "gr8" and "its time 2 go c u l8r" in any professional English writing without creating a devastating reaction. As William Strunk and E.B. White emphasize in The Elements of Style, you have to know and follow the rules before you've earned any right to break them.

As this year's contest coordinator and a former Call to Pens judge, I've found that few things are more distracting in a good story than improper grammar. It's hard to get involved in a story when you're constantly jerked back to reality by comma splices or  misused words. Even if your story has all the other ingredients-- a strong plot, believable characters, etc.-- continual grammatical mistakes can make a good story horrible, just like too much baking soda can wreck a recipe. I like to call them "grammar villains": those nasty little mistakes that seep in subtly to undermine your message.

The following list is by no means a comprehensive catalog of these nefarious creatures. But by watching out for these three common mistakes, you can keep your stories free of unwanted and destructive villains (except, of course, the real villains that are supposed to be there).

1. The Calamitous Comma Splice.

This common error raises its ugly head nearly every time unfortunate writers are wearily trying to fit all their thoughts into one sentence. See an example:
The knight fought valiantly against the dragon, his sword melted under a single blast of the dragon's hot breath.
Like the knight under the dragon's breath, the reader is wilting under the barrage of words and wishing that the sentence would come to an end. But defeating this monster is simple. To have a grammatically correct sentence, you must have only one subject (the knight) and one predicate (fought) per sentence. However, you can also join the two independent clauses together with a comma and conjunction (and, but, or!).

Thus, we have:
The knight fought valiantly against the dragon. His sword melted under a single blast of the dragon's hot breath.
The knight fought valiantly against the dragon, but his sword melted under a single blast of the dragon's hot breath.
Villain vanquished.

2. The Fatal Fragment.

The fatal fragment is a deadly and subtle villain that attacks writers who are trying desperately to eschew the comma splice. It hacks apart your thoughts and leaves your sentence missing one of its vital limbs. And it can masquerade as a perfectly innocuous sentence that even has a verb in it:
The knight who was very brave. Fought off the terrible dragon.
 However, neither of these strings of words are actual sentences. They're posers, Trojan horses that creep their way into your writing. To have a real sentence, you need both the subject (knight) and a verb (was) in the independent clause:
The knight was very brave. He fought off the terrible dragon.
However, fragments aren't always fatal. Good writers can use them rarely for dramatic effect:
She told me that she would always be there. That she would never leave me. That I would always have a mother. But now she was gone.
This is a matter of style, but it also means that in order to break the rules, you must know what they are and follow them most of the time. Stylistic fragments should be used very rarely, and only if they are obviously intentional. Discretion is key, because you can overdo it very easily.

3. The Injurious It's (and its sinister almost-twin sister, Its).

It's and its are two words that often switch places to accomplish their dastardly deeds in secret. However, brave and skillful writers will see through their nefarious masquerade. It's plain and simple: its is a possessive pronoun (its teeth) while it's is a conjunction for "it is" (Look out! It's a monster with sharp teeth!)

If you're not able to spot this distinction, practice it until you know the difference, and be sure to check your writing for these sneaky little words.

Though these aren't all the errors that can sneak into your writing, they are a few of the most common ones. Buy a copy of Strunk and White's Elements of Style (it's usually under $10) and read it cover to cover. Study it and refer to it when you're proofreading your work. And in time you will be able to defeat the grammar villains, which means we're more likely to focus on how your characters defeat their villains.

Happy writing!


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