Favourite grammar mistakes

857087Nobody’s grammar is perfect. No matter how viciously grammatical correctness is drilled into us, we all make mistakes sometimes; and there will always be one or two grammatical rules that we fail to remember.

The following grammar mistakes may seem like they are very easy to avoid, but it’s good to refresh your memory now and then. Plus, if you are at the drafting stage of your writing and have been blessed with a sudden rush of energy and ideas, it is very easy to make them. You have to have them embedded in your brain clearly enough that you will spot them straight away when it comes to the editing process. Good writing is not just about telling a great story; your spelling and grammar has to be tight too, otherwise publishers may not take you seriously.

‘Your’ and ‘you’re’

This is a very common mistake and is notable for starting wars between internet ‘Grammar Nazis’ and n00bz. The difference is simple. ‘Your’ refers to ownership, i.e. ‘your bag.’ ‘You’re’ is an elision of ‘you are.’ Yes, it’s an easy one and yes, it’s one that everybody should know, but the fact is we have all made this mistake. You shouldn’t be ashamed. Well, maybe a little bit …

‘There,’ ‘their,’ and ‘they’re’

Another war-starter. ‘There’ refers to place – ‘over there.’ ‘Their’ signifies ownership – ‘their classroom.’ ‘They’re’ is an elision of ‘they are.’ Again, an easy one and one we should all know by age 7, but slip-ups happen. Just be aware when you’re editing your writing…

‘That’ and ‘who’

This one is so common it’s frequently not even picked up on, and many people aren’t even aware of the difference. The fact is that the sentence ‘the one that likes dogs,’ is grammatically incorrect. When referring to people or animals, it should always be ‘who,’ as in, ‘the one who likes dogs.’ Makes more sense, doesn’t it? Only non-living things are ‘that,’ i.e. ‘the poster that always falls off the wall.’

‘Is’ and ‘are’

The rule of ‘is’ and ‘are’ is governed by the singular and the plural. For example:

‘The duck is walking along the bank.’

‘The ducks are walking along the bank.’

The above is easy. The following not so much:

‘There is a lot of people here.’

‘There are a lot of people here.’

They both sound like they could be correct, but only the second sentence is. ‘Is’ is always singular. ‘Are’ is always plural.

‘Was’ and ‘were’

‘If I was the President’ is not a grammatically correct phrase. The fact is, you are not the president, therefore you are referring to something that you wish were true. So in this case you use ‘were:’ ‘If I were the President, everybody would get free cake.’ Flows a lot better, doesn’t it?

And … and the commas

This one is very easy to slip up on. Many of us were taught in school that you never use a comma before the word ‘and.’ In the case of a list or a long sentence, you most certainly do.

If the sentence is a list, if there are more than three words within that list, then a comma comes before and. For example:

‘I like cats, dogs and pigeons.’

There is no comma because I have only listed three animals. Now see where a comma comes in:#

‘I like cats, dogs, elephants, and pigeons.’

And finally, me, myself, and I…

My personal favourite grammar mistake, very common in not only writing but everyday conversation too (not that the latter matters, of course… ahem.) Although we may be used to saying it, ‘me and my tortoise are going to the bank’ is grammatically incorrect. The sentence should read, ‘my tortoise and I are going to the bank.’ This is because you wouldn’t say, ‘me is going to the bank.’ You would say, ‘I am going to the bank.’ Add another noun to the equation, and the same still applies. This mistake, of course, can be deliberately used in dialogue between characters, because most of us would say this aloud rather than ‘and I.’ In formal writing, or narrative, however – avoid it, unless there is a very good reason not to.

The importance of proper editing

Finishing the first draft of a piece of writing is a great feeling. Although you should be very proud at this stage, you are far from finished yet.

As a writer, editing your work is imperative. It is not enough just to read back over it for spelling mistakes or grammatical errors. Proper editing requires you to look at your writing with a critical eye; you need to be completely honest with yourself about how successful your piece is in its current state. In fact, you need to be utterly brutal.

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Good editing is the key

The following are some tips for editing your work as thoroughly as it needs.

    1. Let go of any romantic notion about ‘capturing the moment.’ You look at a particular scene in your story and see flaws and imperfections, but you don’t want to change anything because you feel as though you perfectly captured the mood at the time of writing. You may well have done, but if you want a story that is polished, professional and stands out, you will need to iron out those flaws. Nobody’s writing is perfect and that’s not what you should be aiming for – you’ll drive yourself crazy. But if you see something that strikes you as needing improvement, then it probably really does need it.
    2. Don’t be afraid to ‘kill your darlings.’ You have a sentence, a paragraph, or a minor character that you really like; but do you need them? Really? What are they adding to the story? Do they really fit, or are they actually spoiling the quality? If you can’t answer positively to any of these questions, then that part of your story is going to have to go. If you take out that sentence or scene, don’t throw it away completely; you might find you can use it again in another piece of work in the future.
    3. Get a proof-reader. It is virtually impossible to edit your work without feedback from an objective party. Ask a writer friend, or even find a ‘writing buddy’ to swap work with. Writers are almost always willing to help each other out, and as long as your proof-reader is not afraid to be honest and has a good critical eye then you will find the editing process much easier. You don’t have to follow every suggestion; if you’ve been advised to change something, but strongly feel this is a bad idea, then don’t do it! Different people will notice and like or dislike different things. Do listen to and think about all the feedback you receive, but sometimes you will need to trust your own opinion too.
    4. Don’t be precious about your work. If you’re the kind of person who has trouble not taking constructive criticism personally, this is something you need to work on if you really want to be a writer. If you ask somebody to be brutally honest about your work, they will be. You don’t only need to be prepared for this; you need to welcome it. Certain things can be disheartening to hear at times, but good or bad, everything will help you along the way.
    5. Don’t be afraid to be drastic. If you think an entire chapter needs to be reworked or a fairly important character is serving no purpose and needs to be cut, then do it. Don’t be wary of your own work. Experiment and make those changes. You might find your entire piece is twenty times better for it.
    6. There is a possibility you will never be happy with your work. Creativity and perfectionism often go hand in hand. It can be difficult to manage, but rather than achieving your notion of perfection, it is sometimes best just to step back and accept that your work is the absolute best it can be. It’s a cliché, but it’s true; we are our own worst critics.
    7. You will know when you are done editing. Once you’re debating whether or not that comma really belongs in the middle of that sentence in line 9 of page 34 you’ll realise that there’s probably little else you can do. You created this piece of work and you know it inside out. You will instinctively know when it is there.

The importance of editing is never to be underestimated. It might not be an easy process, but it’s a very satisfying one; you’ll be amazed at the difference a bit of thorough and honest polishing can make.

Grammar test – what do you score?

643010In a moment of ill-advised madness, we two directors of ASB just took the grammar test on the BBC website. While immodesty suggests it would be nice to report we both scored 10 out of 10, we actually got a joint score of 15 out of 20 (we took the test separately).

Before you pass judgement on this result, have a go at some of the questions – they’re far from easy.

Returning to the writing perspective, my own particular bêtes noires that I come across when editing are ‘alot’ and ‘loose’ instead of ‘lose’. There are plenty of other ones, of course.

The message it sends to me (and I speak now in my editorial capacity) about an author is that they really couldn’t be bothered. We all make mistakes (anyone who thinks that they don’t is not playing with a full deck of cards) but there are such things as taking care and taking pride in what you’ve produced.

Bragging rights allowed on this page. See if you can beat our score on the test but be honest – no second goes!

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What’s the best way to write?

This question reminds me of the problem we were asked to discuss when I was an undergraduate engineer. In those days, knowledge of structural analysis was rudimentary at best and no-one was really sure about whether it was safer for a train to race over an unsafe bridge or to cross it somewhat gingerly. Lacking in the knowledge of what was needed to repair the structure, they decided to run empty trains over a defective bridge at varying speeds to see what worked best.

I won’t bore you with the answer but hopefully you see how that relates to writing. The question for authors is: should you race through your writing and then go back and check it or should you write each sentence and paragraph as if you might never have the chance to edit it?

Each mode has its advantages and disadvantages but, either way, the finished work must be polished and slick. No-one wants to read stuff peppered with errors, be they grammatical or story-related.

Let’s look at both extremes.

There is a clear advantage in getting to the end of the book as quickly as sensibly possible (note the use of the word ‘sensibly’ because presenting your readers with the first thing that came into your head will not impress them). Writing without worrying about spelling or grammar will improve the flow of the work because it’s being done ‘apiece’. Unfortunately it also means that you will face a major final editing session during which you must pick up all these errors, correct them, and then make any adjustments to the story that become necessary as a result of your modifications.

On a positive note, if you’re a new author, getting to the end of the book (even if you have a mountain of editing to do) will give you a real feeling of achievement.

The problem with self-editing is that it easy for your brain to see sentences as it would like to see them rather than as the the way you’ve written them (as per my double ‘the’ in this sentence). This extensive final editing is often glossed over by new authors and such sloppiness gives their work an amateur look.

On the other hand, taking it slow and steady means that you can carefully craft each sentence and each paragraph so that it reads well. You can think about your choice of language, carefully comb through loads of possible synonyms and ensure that the rhythm of the sentences makes for a good read. The drawback is that the slowness of the writing can make it difficult to keep track of the plot – by concentrating on the small picture, one can very easily lose sight of the big picture.

Following the slow path can also be perilous for first-time authors who will often either get bogged down in some technical detail or simply give up because it has started to look like the novel will never be finished. Of course, if you’ve checked, double-checked and triple-checked each chapter, your final editing will be relatively minor meaning that the time lag between completion and publishing should be small.

So, what is the best answer?

Naturally, I risk being accused of ‘copping out’ when I say that it really is a case of personal preferences, however I would emphasize that whichever method suits you, you should always see your goal as a finished book which is devoid of errors and professional looking. Nothing less will suffice.