I once received an email from a friend of mine who was plowing through a nasty divorce. In the body of her message (amidst the tirades against her soon-to-be ex-husband, relationships in general and lawyers in particular) she said something similar to this –
“When this is over, I’m heading to the beach to binge drink, lie in the sun, and exercise my demons.”
Sounded like she had enough troubles without sending her demons to the gym, where more than likely they’d just come home to roost, buffed up and meaner than ever.
Dark humor aside, we all know what she really meant. She wanted to “exorcise” those pesky imps.
Not exercise (physical movements or actions designed to make the body stronger and fitter); nor excise (to delete a part of something such as a text), but exorcise (to use prayers and religious rituals with the intention of ridding a person or place of the supposed presence or influence of evil spirits).
I know I’ve brow-beat this example, but I’m a grammar nerd. I have these peeves.
Case in point. I hate it when people say such-and-such is “____ in color”. “The car is red in color.” “Joe’s house was white in color.” “The blouse Peggy wore was blue in color.”
It’s red, dang it. Or white. Or blue. You wouldn’t say “Our flag is red, white and blue in color,” would you? Red or white or blue or some other hue is the color. You don’t need to prop it up.
Another grammar demon that plagues me every so often is confusing conservation with conversation. Whether I’m writing or speaking, when these words come up I have to pause a few seconds, stare at the ceiling and think about which one to use within the context of what I’m trying to say. I don’t know why I trip over these two demons. Something in my brain is not wired right, I guess.
Intentionally Raising Grammar Demons
I’m as guilty as anyone of not minding my grammar manners. I’ve made enough mistakes to fill a book (a grammar book). With fiction, you can raise up a few demons and get away with it, if you know what you’re doing. Fiction is more malleable, especially when you’re writing dialog.
For example, in my short story “Comeback”, John Bennett, a minor character, is engaged in a conversation (conservation?) with Jake Corbin, the protagonist. John (not the brightest bulb in the chandelier) uses “was” (singular past tense) instead of “were” (plural past tense) when speaking. As in “They was…” instead of “They were…”. I wrote it this way to subtly show that John had a less than stellar education.
Of course, I run the risk of readers thinking I didn’t know what I was doing, so maybe I got too cute for my own good. No matter. My point is that, in fiction, grammar rules can be more easily compromised—if you can get away with it.
Non-fiction is a beast of a different color (sickly green in color?), especially if you’re branding yourself as an expert. You’d better dot all your “Is” and cross all your “Ts”, so to speak, if you want to be taken seriously.
Which brings me to another peeve: why do authors let their works go out with outlandish grammatical demons gallivanting everywhere through the pages?
The Curse of the Grammar Demons
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to sell myself as better then other scribblers out there. As I said before, I’ve made my share of boo-boos (some better forgotten), and will more than likely bruise a few grammar rules in the future. Heck, I’m still stumbling across grammar demons lurking in my ebooks that I thought I’d exorcised long ago. When I find one, I excise it.
But an infestation of grammar demons can be insidious. It starts with email and texting. I understand these tools are used as time-savers, and people just dash off their thoughts and send them out into the ether, but, come on—we’re writers, dang it. If we can’t get the words right, who can?
The possession spreads to ebooks. Nothing says amateur hack like a fiction ebook littered with the scat from dozens of grammar demons. Yech! Mis-spelled words; wrongly-used punctuation; even missing words and left-out phrases. I read one fiction ebook that was missing an entire section. Hey, author! You’re trying to make me believe in your fictional universe for the duration of your story, not yank me out of it just as things start to get interesting.
Even worse is when your published print novel or non-fiction book goes out to market with a case of blatant grammar demon possession. I’ve seen the same errors I mentioned above in hardbacks published by the big boys.
Sure, these errors are unintentional, but what do your readers think when they shell out their hard-earned money, start reading your tome, and come across the tracks of grammar demons every third page or so.
Out, Out, Damn Demon!
Luckily, grammar demons are easily exorcised. Here are a few tricks to help you get rid of them:
- Use the spelling and grammar check tool that comes with your word processor. It’s your first line of defense. But take the results with a grain of salt. Sometimes what it wants you to do will make no earthly sense.
- Print a copy of your manuscript. This is important. Mistakes you miss on the glowing screen will jump out at you when you read the printed page.
- Go through your manuscript with a fine-toothed comb. On your first pass-through, edit for content. Then for style. Lastly, do your copy editing.
- Some writers swear that by changing the font type, size and color in their manuscript, mistakes pop out at them. I’ve tried that, but it didn’t work for me. All I got out of it was a headache. But it might be just the ticket for you. Give it a shot.
- Send the manuscript to your cadre of beta readers. You mostly want your betas to comment on whether the story works or not, but most times they’ll pick up on grammar and spelling problems, too. Act on their recommendations when appropriate.
- Give your manuscript to a group of teens. Tell them you’ll pay them a quarter for every grammar demon they uncover. Make any corrections they might find, and then do it again, this time offering a dollar per mistake.
- Use an editor. At the very least, see if your high school English teacher will take a pass at it. If not, maybe a college professor could do it for a small fee. Or an English graduate student. If you have a little loose change lying about, budget it towards a professional editor. The payback will be well worth it.
- Proof read one more time. Once your manuscript is formatted correctly (for ebooks), print a final copy. For print books, have your publisher send you galley proofs. Then read them! See if you can catch any more grammar demons doing their nasty thing before your baby goes out into the world.
A Few Grammar Demons to Watch For
English is a strange language. Its rules can be confusing and contradictory. I’m as guilty as the next writer of sending my share of demons to the gym. Whether it’s misspelled words, misuse of punctuation, confusing word meanings, or loose sentence structure, grammatical boo-boos can creep into the most pristine writing.
While researching this post, I found more examples of grammatical mistakes than I could possibly list, but here are a few demons that have given writers trouble over the years:
Confusing Words –
- Affect or Effect? “Affect” means to influence, and is almost always a verb; “Effect” describes an outcome or result. “Alcohol affects your ability to drive.” “Alcohol’s effects can be disastrous.”
- Farther or Further? Use “farther” when you have a distance that can be measured. Use “further” for things that can’t be measured accurately. “His putt traveled farther than ten feet.” “It’s doubtful his pro golf career will go any further.”
- Then or Than? “Than” is used to compare two things; “then” can have several meanings, including “in addition to” and “at a point in time.” If you can compare it (“Joe’s ego is larger than the Grand Canyon.”), use “than”. Otherwise, go with “then”.
Confusing Punctuation –
- Its or It’s? “Its” is a possessive pronoun. “The bear pulled its meal from the river.” “It’s” is a conjunction of “it is.” The test: substitute “it is” in the sentence you’re writing, or say it out loud. If it looks or sounds funky, use “its.”
- Comma or No Comma? Use commas after an introductory word or phrase (“In Las Vegas, prostitution is legal.”); use a comma in a compound sentence when the parts are joined by coordinating conjunctions such as and, but, so, or, yet, or nor. (“The john thought the prostitute was alive, but she was really a zombie.”); use commas to set off non-restrictive elements, a part of a sentence that could be removed and the sentence would still make sense. (“The zombie, who had been dead for over a week, was starting to stink.”)
Have Participle, will Dangle –
- Dangling participles have to do with the way you order your sentences. Bad: “After rotting in the woods for two weeks, Joe killed some zombies.” Good: “Joe killed some zombies that had been rotting in the woods for two weeks.”
The above examples barely dimple the surface of the grammatical primordial sea. There are many more demons out there in their multitudes, waiting to be exorcised.
Or is that exercised?
It can be fun and illustrative to seek out grammar demons. Learn all you can about the rules these beasts live under. Then you can recognize them when they crop up in your own work, and take steps to excise them from the written page.
Then, when you know all there is to know about the rules that make those grammar demons tick, you can send them to the gym, put them through their paces, and sweat them till they break. Hey, you’re a creative writer, right? You don’t think you’re character Bubba Bob McCoy is going to speak perfectly precise Queen’s English, do you?
Find any grammar demons in the above post? Leave a comment and let’s have a conservation—uh, conversation—about them.
* first published June 2012 in DragonLyre.com; http://dragonlyre.com/send-your-demons-to-the-gym-grammatical-errors-we-love-to-hate/