Thursday, October 21, 2010

Grammar Pet Peeves

In addition to being an author, I'm also an editor – and of course, a reader. My experience editing has made me painfully sensitive to errors in other people's prose. (If only I were as sensitive to my own mistakes!) There are a few types of grammar errors that particularly bug me. I will admit that if I'm reading a published book and come across instances of these five problems, my opinions of both the author and the publisher tend to take a nose dive.

I'm not trying to be snooty or put on airs here. Really, I wish I could ignore this sort of thing. Unfortunately, grammar mistakes tend to jump out at me and hit me over the head.

Here are the five types of errors that bother me most.

Gerundal modifiers with incorrect subjects

A gerundal modifier is a verb phrase that uses the present participle (ending in -ing) to modify a noun or noun phrase. For example:

Unzipping her skirt, Adele grinned at Jake's physical reaction.

Picking up their guitars, the band launched into a soulful rendition of “The House of the Rising Sun”.

Both of the above sentences are grammatical. The rule for this sort of construction is that the noun or noun phrase being modified must be the same as the implied subject of the gerund, that is, the person or thing associated with the continuing action expressed by the gerund. Thus, it is Adele who is unzipping the skirt and the band who is picking up their guitars.

The problem arises when an author violates this rule, that is, when the subject of the main clause is not the subject of the gerund. For example:

Gasping at the ferocity of his kiss, her hand found its way into his jeans.

Tearing off her clothes, his breath came faster.

“Her hand” is not gasping. “His breath” is not tearing off her clothes (unless he happens to be some kind of elemental wind god!) I could hardly write these sentences without gritting my teeth!

This is probably the most common grammatical error I encounter when reading romance, partly because this construction seems to be very popular.

Run-on sentences

A run-on sentence has two separate independent clauses that are not joined by any kind of a conjunction. Most often, authors who make this mistake join the clauses with a comma. Thus this kind of error is sometimes called a “comma splice”. For example:

The bell rang, she raced to the door hoping that it would be him.

Louisa donned the filmy negligee, she felt sexier than she had in years.

Last night I was reading a story where the author had three spliced clauses in a row. Grr!

Sentence fragments

A sentence fragment is sort of the opposite of a run-on sentence. Sentence fragments are verb phrases – predicates – that lack a subject or noun phrases that lack a predicate. They are not complete sentences and thus should not stand on their own. For example:

Julia stood on the curb, scanning the traffic for a taxi. The pounding of her heart in her chest. She couldn't afford to be late.

Roger knew that Helen was the one. Wanted to tell her before she disappeared from his world.

I suspect that most sentence fragments result from the author restructuring a paragraph while she's writing, and not cleaning up the debris.

Note that it is permissible to use sentence fragments, sparingly, when you are expressing inner dialogue. People don't speak or think in complete sentences. For instance (from my own story, “Woman in White”, published in Sex in the City: New York):

The last thing I wanted was to hurt her. I just couldn't help myself. She was my goddess, my dream. My reason for getting up in the morning.

Strictly speaking this is not grammatical. “My reason for getting up in the morning” is a sentence fragment. However, in this case, it is a stylistic device, deliberately chosen to convey a certain mood and tempo.

Incorrect use of contractions

Want to make me groan and throw your book across the room? Use “there's” when you really mean “theirs”, or “it's” for a possessive instead of a contraction.

“There's” is short for “there is”:

There's a naked man in my kitchen!

“Theirs” is a possessive pronoun used to indicate something that belongs to some group:

Our boyfriends are cuter than theirs.

In a similar fashion, “it's” is short for “it is” while “its” is possessive (though “its” cannot be used alone the way “theirs” can.)

It's a difficult task getting a man to listen to you.

The alien squeaked and wiggled its ears.

Incorrect subject-verb agreement

In English, many verbs take different forms depending on whether their subject is singular or plural. For example:

Her prize depends on which door she chooses. (singular)

We choose our partners based on our past experiences. (plural)

Sometimes authors use the wrong form. Often this occurs when the subject is separated from the verb by a prepositional phrase in which the object of the preposition has a different number than the subject. It is a particular problem when the subject is a collective noun, that is, a noun which is singular but which designates a group. For example:

As their first order of business every year, the committee of teachers choose a chairperson.

"Committee" implies a group, but it is a singular noun nevertheless. So the singular form, "chooses", is what is needed.

An easy way to decide which is correct in such cases is to remove the prepositional phrase. Usually this will make any error obvious:

As their first order of business every year, the committee choose a chairperson.

The opposite error, using the singular form when the plural form is needed, is far less common.

We all make mistakes occasionally. That is (part of) what editors are for. In my opinion, however, it is an author's responsibility to become familiar with the rules of grammar and to use them correctly most of the time. I've encountered writers who smile, shrug and say “I'm no good at grammar. My editor will fix it.” I'm sorry, but I view that as an unprofessional attitude.

Maybe I'm too rigid about this sort of thing. As I noted before, though, I really can't help it. Noticing grammar errors is not a conscious choice on my part. I can't help it, and unfortunately, it sometimes interferes with the pleasure of reading.


JP said...

Here's one I like - the difference between lose and loose. 'I'll loose it if you turn me lose'! Wrong!

Jaime Samms said...

Oh goodness....I hope I'm not one of the authors with grammar that makes you crazy! I know I'm a chronic comma abuser. I've tried to stop. Really I have. I seem to have some sort of mental block where they're concerned.

Cyrus Keith said...

Not sure how it ties in with grammar but in prose, it totally irks me when I read something like: "She stood on the peak of the tall building. Really, it was a cathedral." That kind of "course-correcting" burns my biscuits because the writer could simply stae "She stood atop the ancient cathedral." and have done with it.

Madeline Elayne said...

I agree with every single one of those most of the time. Incorrect subject-verb agreement especially is capable of pulling me right out of even the steamiest sex scene and right into my grumpy pants.

There was a great quote on an episode of Bones recently during a conversation between Bones and a children's show host that went something like this:

"It killed him dead!"
"Don't say that, killed dead is a redundancy."
"Yes, but it's clear, and isn't it a barbarity that clarity is such a rarity?"

(I'll give you two guesses which of the speakers was the kiddie show host!)

If a grammatical error is capable of pulling me farther into the story, making me more invested in the story's characters, or if it can show me in three words what it would take a grammatically correct sentence a dozen words to convey, then I say (with some effort) good for it. Isn't it a barbarity that clarity is such a rarity?

I think, though I may be wrong, that often the difference between an effective misuse of grammar and a psychically painful one is whether the misuse was deliberate or careless. If that's the case, then wouldn't it do all writers a little good to bone up on those rules we learned in public school English class, so that we can learn how most effectively to break them? I know I certainly appreciated the refresher posted above!

Thank you, Lisabet,


Diane Scott Lewis said...

I have the same problem when reading other authors' work! The Major publishers no longer edit novels the way they should.
I hope all the above was expressed in correct and proper grammar.

Jim Hartley said...

I am going to disagree with you on run-on sentences and comma splices. The rules on this date back many years, and at least some sources indicate a loosening of the rules in current usage. For example, "He ran across the road, then tripped over the curb," is technically incorrect according to the formal rules, but flows well and is very readable.

I think there should be some thought given to considering whether rules from 1910 should still be enforced in 2010, or whether the rules of English grammar should be revised to match the way people speak and write today (those who do not have the dubious "benefit" of being edited in line with the formal rules).

Anonymous said...

I agree 100% and there are 2 that really irrate me. The first is another contraction misuse. 'Your' and 'you're'. The number of times I read 'You're shorts are torn/dirty/thin', or 'Your going to the party'. GRR

Or the other one - the over use of I as in 'He gave the book to Lisabet and I'. No no people, you do not say 'he gave the book to I' - you say he gave the book to me so it is He gave the book to Lisabet and me.

Good post Lisabet - you gave me a forum to rant! :)


Jude Mason said...

Hi Lisabet,

While I read, and agreed on most of what you said, what really made me smile was a bit you mentioned right at the beginning.

'My experience editing has made me painfully sensitive to errors in other people's prose. (If only I were as sensitive to my own mistakes!)'

This is so true. I'm the first to admit, I do make mistakes in grammar. I do my best, I have a co-author who goes over my work, but the odd ugly bit still manages to get through. I believe most authors feel the same.

And, like you, I truly wish I could turn off that internal editor. I used to read a lot, and found great pleasure in it. Now, I very often cringe when I've barely begun a book.

Great post!


Kim Richards said...

One of the things that drives me crazy is the misuse of 'seemed to' or 'appeared to'. It's like being a little bit pregnant. You either ARE or you AREN'T. If she seemed to be pregnant, does that mean she's really fat? Perhaps some wizard cast an illusion spell on her to make her look pregnant. Just say she's pregnant and be done!

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