Grammar: rules made to be broken
Or even a neighbour…
Why is English so much fun?
The grammar pedant: Possession is nine tenths of the law
Grammar is a marvellous tool. It can be used to add expression, meaning and drama to a piece of writing. It is the structure around which all the beauty is composed – the frame in which the final piece of art is hung.
Lynne Truss has made her name from it, showing the power of punctuation in “Eats, shoots and leaves”. There is a big difference between the panda that eats shoots and leaves and the one who eats, shoots and leaves. And the missing comma is vital in the sentence:
I like cooking my family and my pets.
The so-called Grocer’s Apostrophe is a thing of legend…
No-one can claim that the placement of apostrophes is simple, but when it is done correctly the writing – and thus the reading – flows easily. Watching my daughter doing a piece of homework that involved placing apostrophes in the right place in a sentence brought back all those fears of working out who owns what – a lady, or the ladies? Its or It’s? Childrens or Children’s?
But, when considered as ownership, it’s obvious, isn’t it? There isn’t such a word as childrens… (I know: the computer keeps autocorrecting this post!): the plural of child is children, and therefore the apostrophe must go after the n.
Possession is the basis of your vs you’re as well, though in reverse with respect to the apostrophe. Your shows the possession (is that your coat?) whereas you’re is a contraction of you are. Similarly they’re contracts they are, but their shows possession (have you seen their outfits!) and there indicates a place. Sometimes we simply need to slow down in order to get it right: often I read things in my head as if the apostrophe wasn’t there just to see if it still makes sense.
Inaccurate grammar and punctuation really irritates me when reading a book – particularly if it is in all other respects a good book! I want my enjoyment to flow unceasingly, not to be brought to an abrupt halt by an erroneous comma or a peculiar apostrophe.
My general thoughts about grammar were extended this week when I told my daughter off for saying she had brung her PE kit home the day before.
“No,” I said, “you brought it home.”
She grumpily agreed to that, then her friend pointed out that their English teacher says ‘brung’. Seriously. My jaw hit the floor and I declared he should be sacked. (Probably a slightly over-the-top response to his failings, I know!)
And then, this made me smile … for I like the sentiment, even if the apostrophe use makes my toes curl.
7 tips for editing your book
A few weeks ago (more than I care to admit to) I started a short series of posts about the process of self-publication with a rainbow of suggestions about writing: 7 tips for writing your book. Today I move on to part 2 … editing.
Writing produces a first draft – a basis around which the final book will be formed. There is a magnificent feeling when writing ‘The End’ and putting down your pen (or the computer equivalent) knowing that you have completed your story. However, the fatal mistake of some self-publishers is to think that is it – that the book is complete and ready for printing. When these manuscripts are sent to agents or publishers they are instantly rejected, as the writing is seen as what it is: a draft form.
(Obviously there will be an exception which proves this rule, which you are welcome to tell me in the comments box!)
The next process is editing. It is hard to offer a timescale for this. Some people produce just another one or two drafts; I’ve heard of someone who was on his sixth-fourth. The purpose is to make it as perfect as possible, in every possible aspect: storyline, grammar, layout, spellings, consistency. Here are some of my suggestions.
- Put your opus aside for as long as you can before you start editing. After a week (better still, a month) it will all seem new, and what had felt clear and beautifully written may well be seen as mush with fresh eyes.
- Take on board any advice that you are given by others. Their distance from the work is an advantage that you don’t have. If they’ve struggled to read a sentence, so might any stranger who picks up your book.
- Read the work aloud. Ideally to friends (your local writers’ group is perfect for this). You will be surprised how many errors this highlights, such as the repetition of words, or trite phraseology, or typos.
- Use spellcheck. (Really! Isn’t this obvious!)
- Try to remove adverbs, replacing them with better verbs. Using Find > “ly” should locate most of them. Think twice about leaving any in.
- Be brave in re-writing. Some chunks, even chapters, may have to go. Characters may actually be redundant, however much you love them. If you can’t understand a passage, no-one else will. Press the delete button…
- Keep doing this, again and again, until the point of publication (more in the next post!). Your aim to eliminate all errors and it is astonishing how many times you have to read through your writing to find them all.
When I look back, I realise that I took 4 years editing my first book. Admittedly, within that there were large gaps when it wasn’t looked at, but then I refer you to point 1 above: the space enabled me to my writing afresh, and to understand which parts were stickier than others. And spelling errors (despite using spellcheck … though it has more problems with words like Kalingalinga or Muli bwanji!). The editing process just keeps rolling on and – if you are to create a masterpiece – is probably the most important thing you will do.
What are your tips for editing a book?
A note from a grammar pedant
When I was 16 my father read through my history project that I was to submit as part of my ‘O’-level (yes, I am that old, but only just!). When he got to the end he said, in the way only my erudite father can, peering over his half-moon glasses…
“Very good – only two split infinitives.”
I re-read it again and again, and I still don’t know where they were. Despite my imperfect grammar, I got an A.
This week the Year 6 children in the UK have been sitting the first grammar tests as part of their SATS. Mr Gove believes that our 10-11 year olds should be precise in their grammar, spelling and punctuation and thus they have extra exams to perfect this skill.
There has been a lot of criticism of this test, not least from writers – the very people you’d think want to encourage excellent writing! Michael Rosen has written an excellent article in The Guardian last week, and also Matt Haig with his 30 Things to tell a Grammar Snob. And I have also read of one young girl writing to the Education Secretary to point out the grammar flaws in the exam – flaws that they have been taught by rote to correct.
Personally, I like correct grammar. I appreciate accurate spelling. I understand the difference between their and they’re, and I appreciate the apostrophe. Spotting Grocer’s Apostrophes drives me potty. I love to face a page of clean writing, that flows and fanfares the English language.
Yet I know that grammar changes. It has varied over the years, and varies according to the style of the author and the writing genre. In some places it is best – if not essential – to be as pedantic as possible. Undoubtedly, a letter of complaint will be respected more if it is set out accurately, spelt well and properly punctuated. It may make the receiving authorities seem small-minded, but it is the way of the world. Easy to read: easy to accept.
But surely there is a time for learning the fine points of grammar and punctuation, and that is not necessarily before leaving primary school. Young children need to develop a love of reading, of story-telling and writing. They don’t need to have red pen marks all over their scripts because they spell phonetically, nor to worry too much about subordinate clauses. I have sat through hours of tedious homework that presents a sentence and asks my child to punctuate it, or put in the relevant clauses, or place apostrophes. Does a tortuous weekend chained to the desk writing out sentence after sentence encourage a child to love English? (Based on n=1, NO!)
Grammar changes and fluctuates with context. To boldly go? My father’s pedantry on split infinitives is almost out of date. And if I struggled with them aged 16, then please! Why are we examining 11 year-olds?
A Writer’s Prayer
This is not mine and I don’t know who to attribute it to. I keep a printout pinned to the noticeboard above my desk, as it makes me smile…and reminds me of the sins I could easily fall into!
Dear Lord who art in heaven,
deliver us from cliches
and forgive us our non-sequiturs
as we forgive those who can’t use apostrophes, commas or colons.
Deliver us from the evils of waffle,
and lead us not into the temptation of switching tenses
for no apparent reason.
For thine is the adverb (but only when really necessary),
the punctuation (always correct),
and the glossary,
forever and ever.