November 22, 2011

Beware These Grammar Boo Boos

On page 75 of our workbook, Write a Marketable Children’s Book in 7 Weeks, we mention the importance of checking one’s manuscript for spelling and grammar errors. As competitive as the writing world is, one can’t afford to be careless with one’s writing, particularly when submitting a manuscript to an editor. I’ve heard editors state that if they find spelling errors on the first page of a submission, they automatically reject the manuscript. Another editor at a large book publisher company said he ticks off any grammar errors and once he reaches three, he reads no further. He said he doesn’t need to. After all, he has an overwhelming slush pile and knows he’ll find a better manuscript in the pile somewhere.

Grammar is a three-headed beast that terrorizes victims in the following three areas:

  • punctuation and spelling,
  • diction,
  • syntax.

Many writers resent having to contend with grammar at all and accuse editors of being “too picky.”

But consider this—the main goal of coming to grips with grammar is:

  • To avoid awkwardness- Example: Being different from the next person in the crowd to make that person really stand out more is the greatest achievement a person could give himself.
  • To avoid ambiguity- Example: How do I talk to my kids about sex when I’ve never done it before?
  • To avoid inaccuracy- Example: They finished building the incontinental railroad across the United States in 1869.
  • To avoid embarrassment- Example: Announced from the PA system at a St. Louis high school: “Will the basketball team please report to the gym to have your photograph retaken. In the first photo, your balls were cut off.

Keep a handy grammar book near your computer and refer to it often. I like Strunk and White’s Elements of Style and Essentials of English published by Barron’s. Forgot exactly what a sentence fragment is? Look it up. Here are three examples:

  • Having come this far.
  • Especially in front of a police officer.
  • Eliminate the character completely because.

We specifically warn against misplaced modifiers too. Often grammar checks on your computer won’t catch these, but an editor will.

  • Sarah found a gold man’s watch.
    The watch is gold, not the man, so the sentence should be written:
    Sarah found a man’s gold watch.

Here’s another:

  • Oscar yelled at the bus driver, trembling with rage.
    Is Oscar trembling or is the bus driver doing so? It should read:
    Trembling with rage, Oscar yelled at the bus driver.

This one’s really confusing—and humorous:

  • Hugh ran outside and chased after the cat with a broomstick in his underwear.

Mend those muddled metaphors too. Figurative language can conjure arresting images in a reader’s mind. Here’s one of my favorite from the poem, “The Highwayman:”

  • “The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.”

But as Richard Lederer, author of the bestselling Anguished English, points out, “It’s easy to sew two or more figurative ideas together to create a Frankstein monster.”

The following verbal mutants are distracting and confusing:

  • A bevy of hungry students flocked into the cafeteria like an avalanche.
  • In our school, freshmen are the lowest rungs on the totem pole.
  • Stephen King’s novels make my hair crawl.
  • Two years ago, our company had a long row to hoe, but now we have an employee-training program that will help us retread the cream of the crop.

You’re a wordsmith now. Make every word and phrase count.



18 Comments on “Beware These Grammar Boo Boos

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