Wednesday, September 12, 2012

On Grammar and Punctuation: Most People Do It Wrong

As I've mentioned, now that school is back in session, I'm teaching my creative writing class again. It's going to be different this year, though, as I will be teaching two days instead of one, and one of those days will be devoted to the technical aspect of writing. Story structure. Plot. And, yes, grammar and punctuation. I expect that I will start having more posts, um, start having posts devoted to these topics as we (my class and I) go through the year. Actually, I already have a post started all about that wily rascal, the comma, and class hasn't even started, yet. [Okay, actually it has, but I wrote this before it had.] Oh, and there was that post about adverbs which has actually been sitting around for a long while. See, these posts aren't being inspired by  the class; they're being inspired by the lack of correct grammar and punctuation I'm seeing all the time in people's projects and the tendency of said people to just brush it off.

Now, look back up at my title of this post. No, really, read it again. Do you see it? I'm guessing most of you don't see it. Actually, I'm guessing that none of you see it, but, hey, I could be wrong. If you see the problem, raise your hand. Anyone? It's wrong. Specifically, "wrong" is wrong. The word in that spot should be an adverb, because it's (supposed) to be modifying how people do it. The appropriate wording would be, "Most people do it incorrectly."

Why do I bring this stuff up? Aren't grammar and punctuation subjective? Can't you just kind of do it however you want to? No, not really, despite what a lot of people, including some (bad) editors, would have you believe. There are rules for grammar and punctuation for a reason, and, frankly, I'm getting tired of seeing comments like this from authors:
"I write first person because that way I don't have to know any of the grammar rules."
I'm sorry; that's just lazy and irresponsible, and, honestly, if you can't take the time to learn the rules of your job, then you shouldn't be allowed to write.
The problem, though, is that editors, also, don't want to learn the rules of their jobs, and publishers don't care as long as they're going to make money, and more and more of them are cutting back on the editorial staff to increase profits and "allow the audience to get involved in the editing." (Yes, that's a real quote from a real publisher (but I'm  not gonna say which one).)
While we're at it, why don't we let drivers get involved in the process of building cars. Without training.

So, yeah, I'm being kind of ranty, but the attitudes around this stuff are (frequently) just wrong! (And, see, that time the "wrong" is correct, because it's an adjective telling what kind of attitudes. Wrong ones!)

Here are two things that I've experienced recently that I want to point to:

1. In providing feedback about a manuscript recently, I made a punctuation error. Yeah, I did, because no one, and I mean no one, is ever 100%. Part of it was just that I don't go back and proof blog posts and emails and things like that quite as thoroughly as I do a work I mean to publish. I just don't have the time to proofread these things quite as fanatically as I will something I want someone to buy. Part of it was just that I was having a brain fart and was thinking about the word incorrectly, so I punctuated "although" in the manner that you should punctuate "however." All in all, it was a relatively minor mistake, and it wasn't a repetitive mistake; it was a singular slip. However, I made this error while providing grammar correction to someone. And there were a lot of corrections in the other manuscript, and they were all repetitive mistakes. See, that means the person in question didn't know what s/he was doing and needed someone else to say, "Hey, you're doing this incorrectly," or, in the vernacular, "You're doing this wrong." A third party responded by pointing out my mistake and saying that I had no business offering grammar corrections, because, LOOK!, I'd made one, too. Basically, if I couldn't be 100%, I had no business giving advice.

That is a ludicrous statement. In fact, if you take that out to its full implication, no one would ever be able to teach anything. Because why? Because no one is ever 100%. Not all the time. If I'm operating at, say, a 90% capacity and you're operating at, say, a 30% capacity, it's just ridiculous to make the statement that I shouldn't be allowed to make the assist on you getting better. This attitude of having to be at 100% just supports the idea that anyone can do whatever they want any way they want to because there's no one qualified to make them better. HOW STUPID! I just want to say: take the help you can get and the help that's offered and learn as much as you can. If you can see that someone else is more qualified than you, don't be a dunce and dismiss him/her because s/he's not 100% qualified.

2. Someone recently posted her first chapter and asked for feedback on it. Now, this was supposed to be in "final" condition. As in, she was getting ready to send it off and was asking for final thoughts. This also means that she was "finished" with her editing process, whatever that was. I'm assuming, based on comments, that it included feedback from critique partners. I figured I might as well give it a glance. I was barely able to do that.

The very first sentence had a punctuation error in it. And, I have to say, it was one of those that is really beginning to bug me, because I see it everywhere. Still, I thought, maybe it was just a slip, so I kept reading. The piece was full of errors. The dialogue was rarely punctuated correctly, and every instance of the type of sentence like the first sentence was punctuated in the same incorrect manner. Clearly, the piece needed editing, and I only made it about 1/3 of the way through before giving up. I left a comment noting the error in the first sentence and stating that I was unable to finish the piece because of all the errors.

The author asked for examples. Well, I felt I'd already given an example, so I related to her that I was busy editing another piece for someone, but I would try to give her 1st chapter a pass when I was done with the other project. Her response was, "Oh, no, I have critique partners for that; I just wanted an example of the punctuation errors you were talking about."

Clearly, her critique partners had failed at their job.

And that's the point, really: "Most people do it wrong." Critique partners when used as editors are entirely overrated, because, honestly, they don't know any more than you do. If you think you're going to get what passes as editing from your critique partners, you're going to be incredibly disappointed in almost every instance. They can't catch those comma errors, because they don't know they are errors. Do you know, without looking it up, the difference between a coordinating conjunction and a subordinating one? I guarantee you, your CPs don't have any more clue than you. And that's an easy thing.

While it's true that grammar and punctuation and, heck, language change over time, that does not mean that it's subjective. That just means it changes. Speech changes, and writing changes along with it to reflect those changes, but that doesn't mean that it's subjective, although there are often cases where rules can be argued (But that's just like science. Remember, science still doesn't know what glass is). Rules exist in grammar for a reason and while, yes, fiction is allowed to play with those rules more than non-fiction, it's not a reason not to know them or to break them because you don't know them.

I get that writing how we talk is all in vogue, right now. The first person experience has become this holy  thing and everyone is getting on board, but what comes out of it is a lot of garbage because people don't actually know how to write. First person has become the short cut to actually doing the work, and, yes, that bothers me. Writing, even first person writing, is not like speech. It shouldn't be. Writing is a separate discipline, and it should be treated as such.

I'm going to end this with a quote by C. S. Lewis. Specifically, he's speaking here about using italics in writing, but the idea can be expanded to all of writing, especially 1st person writing:

I am now inclined to think that this was a mistake - an undesirable hybrid between the art of speaking and the art of writing. A talker ought to use variations of voice for emphasis because his medium naturally lends itself to that method: but a writer ought not to use italics for the same purpose. He has his own, different, means of bringing out the key words and ought to use them.

What this really says to me is that a writer should learn to write. A writer should not be someone that just copies down what people say. Speaking and writing are different and should be different. Make words your tools and learn how to use them.


  1. I am completely out of my depth here Andrew. I stopped by to say that I'm taking the week off to paint and work in my gardens.

    I did read all four of your books and I will be glad to write a review in Amaon if you like. I didn't make a spelling error. The letter that comes after the Y in the alphabet is broken on my computer.

    Have a good week and I'll see you on Sunday or Monday!

  2. I've started this comment three times, so afeared am I of making a grammatical faux pas. Oh well, screw it. Fact is, grammar is a bug-boo of mine, too. Nobody seems to take it seriously anymore. That said, I have PLENTY of weak spots that need an editor's eye. In the newspaper business we have a saying that a story or an ad "can always use another pair of eyes," meaning it takes a village of people to spot all the errors. Even then, shite gets missed.

  3. Cathy's opening sentences are hilarious!
    Expecting anyone to be one hundred percent all the time is ludicrous. That's perfection. No one is perfect.

  4. I'm fortunate that I have a proof reader who e-mails me when I make egregious errors on my blog posts. He's been quiet lately, but for awhile there I was getting an early morning e-mail every time I posted. Most of my mistakes are simply typos, but I admit I generally write by instinct (based on middle school English indoctrination) when it comes to grammar. I've long forgotten the terms for things like "coordinating or subordinating conjunction."

  5. I'm definitely far from perfect. I know I have errors in my manuscript. I just don't want missing commas to lead to a brain aneurysm.

  6. Anne: Oh, man, you give me paint envy!
    I think I like the new word you invented and will have to find a way to use it.
    And, yeah, I'd love it if you'd do some reviews. That would be awesome!
    Have a great week of painting and gardening!

    Cathy: I think it's texting that's really caused it. We have everyone ascribing to Twain's philosophy these days, and, while I agree with him in theory, I think it's bad practice.

    Alex: Yeah, it was pretty insane. How do you even respond to that?

    L.G.: Oh! Egregious! What a good word!
    Honestly, there's no real need to know those terms, just like there's no real need for most people to know any math beyond basic algebra.

    Michael: Death by comma! Or, wait, a comma coma!

  7. One of the many things I learned by having a real editor go through my manuscript is that I haven't a clue about how to use a comma. And don't get me going on semicolons; I do so love me a semicolon. I think I need to take a basic grammar class again, or just go back to my CMS and try to figure it out.

    So, how long did it take you to understand grammar?

  8. J.B.: Commas are tough, and, I think, the rules of comma usage are more in flux, right now, than they have been for a long time, but I'll be talking about that little guy pretty soon and, maybe, simplify things a bit. Semicolons are great, underused, and under appreciated.

    I wouldn't actually say I "understand" grammar; there are still plenty of places where I bumble around; however, once you come to an understanding of the clause and the difference between dependent and independent clauses, it becomes much easier. So, um, my whole life?

  9. Looks like having a good writing crit is the most important thing. There are so many grammar rules right now.

  10. Maurice: I think, culturally, we're doing our best, right now, to sweep all grammar rules away and reduce writing to tweeting chaos.

    L.G.: Unless it's egregiously. :P

  11. I'm sure I make my fair share of grammatical errors, but it still sets my teeth on edge when I catch an obvious error in a published book or newspaper article. Oh, and yeah, I picked up on the misuse of "wrong" in your title, and was happy to see you used it on purpose.

  12. Susan: It certainly bothers me from big publishers that can afford to hire competent editors. There's kind of no excuse for that.
    Glad to know you picked up on that!

  13. I've put books down because of punctuation and grammar issues but I have a feeling my threshold is higher than yours. Fingers crossed you don't find any/many mistakes in The Big Smoke!

  14. Spelling issues bother me more. One of my crit partners, calls herself the comma-nazi because I sprinkle too many commas in the first drafts. I try to clean them up as I revise.

    One can always learn more, so I'll be checking out your posts. I like to take whatever help I can get (even with crit partners and courses).

    It's okay to rant every now and then. . .

  15. Cally: Actually, I've never quit reading a book because of what I would consider editing issues. If the story is worth reading, I'm willing to struggle through the bad grammar/punctuation. At least, I am in an indie book. I'm not sure if I would go with it from something traditionally published.

    D.G.: I use too many commas, too, but they're all actually correct; they're just not within what I'd call "current conventions."

  16. Now you've only made me more paranoid to write. I'm sure I over use commas at times and omit them at others. I also fall into the use of idioms, vernacular, and whatever sounds right. I'll need an editor.

    A Faraway View

  17. I'm so glad you wrote this post so that I don't have to write one like it! The part that keeps IRRITATING me so much is that it isn't just people's "polished" work they're displaying on blogs that has so many errors, it's some of the books I read that are ALREADY PUBLISHED that have errors everywhere! And then I read all the 5 star reviews and brain just goes ... huh?!

    And this comment confuses me: "I write first person because that way I don't have to know any of the grammar rules." I write in first person and I haven't noticed any grammar rules disappearing!

  18. Lee: There's nothing to be scared of in writing as long as after you're "through," you're willing to get the help you need to get it into shape.

    Rachel: Well, see, this just goes back to that whole questions of reviews, which you've already noted.

    And I agree with you about that statement, but many people feel that they can get away with it in 1st, because they can just chalk it up to being the "character's voice" and leave it at that.

  19. I think what people like that are missing is that first person is meant to be a bit of a train of thought, but you're still writing, and it should still be correct, minus certain syntax and such. If we could all just write like everyone around us talked, who would want to read it? It would be all over the place. It would be hard to get through. There would be glaring errors all over the place. It's like the fact that my brother had to take a course in Ebonics in order to be fully certified for a specific job. Are you kidding me?

    We should not be catering to the lowest common denominator and using that as an excuse. Do it right so people learn the right way to do it, not the other way around.

  20. Shannon: Oh, man, there is no way I'd want to read anything like what people going around saying. That would be horrible.
    Just like I wouldn't want to read most people's diaries, because that would be just as bad.

  21. I echo your sentiment, and in its spirit would like to point out one structure, in hopes that you'll help promote its correct use in the future:

    "It was one of those that is really beginning to bug me" should be "it was one of those that ARE really beginning to bug me," since the adjective clause "that are really beginning to bug me" modifies "those," not "one." Both the clause's proximity to "those" and logic (if you think your way through it) support the plural.

    You're wise to urge writers to learn the tools of their trade, just as plumbers would have to know what to do with a plunger and airplane pilots would need to know what all the dials and switches do.

  22. Kendall: Thanks for stopping by!
    Actually, no, it's "is." It's "is" because, if you take out "of those" (and you can, because it's a prepositional phrase modifying "one"), the "are" won't even sound correct. Both verbs, "was" and "is," refer back to "it" at the beginning of the sentence.

  23. Julia: Well, it's very good to follow some standard set of rules, yes.