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On Grammar and Punctuation

May 30, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified May 30, 2011

They can tie a writer in knots, these two writing elements, grammar and punctuation.

They are both tools and essentials for writers, an integral part of the writer’s skill set that requires attention from beginning writers and easy familiarity from experienced writers.

Writers need to know how to put grammar and punctuation to work.

I wasn’t sure how I wanted to approach the topics of grammar and punctuation; both are such basics for writers. We learned how to use grammar in our native languages when we first learned to speak. We learned about punctuation when we first learned to read. And since those early days, we’ve put both to use in our own writing—for schoolwork, for pleasure, for business dealings.

I don’t want to harp on about grammar and punctuation, on the rules and nit-picky minutiae. But . . .

You knew there’d be a but after that opening, right?

But grammar and punctuation cannot be ignored or set aside by writers.

Grammar and punctuation are not the meat of your stories, but they are the framework that makes story stand.

Grammar and punctuation (can we call them G&P?) are necessary elements of any piece of writing—if you want to communicate, you’ve got to make your meaning clear. And clarity goes beyond word choice.

Words and story have to be arranged to convey what you want to say, what you want the reader to take in. You can’t put words in front of readers and expect them to arrange them into meaningful bits of information.

That’s your job.

Anyone can pull words out of the dictionary and string them together; a string of words doesn’t make story, not even a string of electric, exotic, evocative words that pleases the ear or trips off the tongue.

But words that make sense and make connections and make a reader think or feel or shiver, those words do make story.

So . . .

What do I suggest is important in regard to grammar and punctuation?

Learn more than the basics.

You’re the writer or the editor. Grammar and punctuation are two of the tools of your trade, and you should know them inside out and upside down and backwards and forwards and any other way they can be known. You should know how to use them and what they’re capable of, and you should look for new ways to put them to work.

You should know when to choose this rule of grammar rather than that one, and what the use of each punctuation mark would mean for a sentence or phrase.

You should know what both correct and incorrect grammar will achieve and what happens when you don’t use expected grammar or a typical punctuation mark.

While you may want to surprise your readers with an unusual plot thread or uncommon construction, you don’t want to be surprised by grammar or punctuation mistakes. Knowledge of grammar and punctuation rules will cut down on unintended errors.

Treat G&P as any craftsman would treat his tools, with a combination of respect and casualness.

Don’t take good grammar for granted, as though it can perform magic without your hand behind it, as though it can make up for bad plots or weak characters. But at the same time, don’t fear it or spend so much time on it that you can’t write.

You should know how to clean up grammar and punctuation, just as any artist knows how to clean his tools. And not simply know how to clean them; you should remember to clean them, actually set up a schedule to do it. Yes, you should be sure you edit for G&P and make them shine.

Spend time periodically reviewing or learning something new about grammar or punctuation.

Learn the uses of a semicolon. Read up on commas (I know, exciting, exciting). Go shopping for used grammar books and read a different one every year or two.

Brush up on modifiers or phrases or gerunds. Not because your grammar must be perfect, but in order to remind yourself there are other ways to write something, other methods to present your character or setting or action or dialogue. Other ways to craft a sentence or a phrase. Other ways to provoke an impact.

Unless you’ve got a degree in English (or the language you write in) or one in creative writing, you probably don’t know all the rules. Unless you’re a grammar expert, there are constructions that you’ll either use incorrectly or be ignorant of.

There’s nothing wrong with looking up grammar or punctuation rules, but if you don’t know what to look up, you may have a tough time finding what you’re looking for. You may not know you need to search for information at all.

I admit that I don’t know all the rules. I have grammar books on my desk just as I have dictionaries there, and I’m grateful that several someones made the effort to gather the rules in one place so I could review them.

Don’t sweat blood over the grammar of each phrase, each tiny punctuation mark.

Yes, you want to punctuate correctly, you want to get the grammar right and use a variety of options that take advantage of a wide knowledge of grammar. But you don’t need perfection.

Does that sound blasphemous?

I don’t mean it to be. But striving to perfect a manuscript can cripple a writer, can have her so fearful of mistakes that she either can’t write with a flow that brings life to her stories or refuses to submit her work until it’s perfect.

I don’t want that to be your fate.

Realize that the perfect novel manuscript is rarer than the most uncommon gem and that if you’re waiting for perfection before you submit, you’ll likely wait forever.

An agent or acquisitions editor is not going to reject your manuscript because of a few typos, grammar blunders, or punctuation flubs. They know how to recognize good story. And they know how to correct grammar and punctuation errors.

There is a caveat, however: you do owe your readers (and that includes agents and editors) a clean, polished manuscript. So practice due diligence. But don’t let that diligence paralyze you.

Break the rules when doing so serves the story.

Sometimes you’ll want a comma where no comma has any business being. Put it in if you’ve got a reason to do so—you’ll be able to argue your case with your copy editor.

Don’t be afraid to take chances. But do so knowing what you’re doing and why and the possible repercussions of choosing an odd grammar construction or an unusual punctuation mark.

As atypical word choices can lead to poetry in prose, offbeat grammar or punctuation can lead to delightful phrases, rhythms, and meanings.

Be willing to explore non-standard constructions.

Don’t get hung up on the terminology.

You don’t have to know grammar terms to use them correctly. Unless you’re in school, no one’s going to test you on your knowledge of terms.

But do know how to use grammar. Knowing what’s available will expand your options and strengthen your stylings. The more ways you can work a sentence or phrase, the more potential you have, quite literally, at your fingertips.


We’ll explore particular grammar rules and individual punctuation marks in other articles. In this one, I wanted to stress the importance of correct grammar and punctuation while at the same time assuring you that a lack of knowledge about some point of grammar or punctuation should not keep you from writing.

There’s nothing that says you can’t learn the rules. There’s nothing that says you can’t learn how to break those rules. There’s nothing keeping you from presenting your manuscripts in the best manner possible, not when the Internet and writing groups and classes, many free, offer abundant resources to help you.

If you expect readers to pay for the pleasure of reading your stories, if you want agents and editors to take you on, you owe them each the courtesy of well-written fiction, well-crafted stories.

Give readers the best of you. Show them you want them to enjoy the stories you place before them, that you want them to read more of your work. That you’re serious enough about your craft that you’ll put in the time and the sometimes tedious effort necessary to produce the best stories you’re capable of writing.

Respect their time and money and their interest in you by refusing to produce shoddy, lazily written books.

Don’t let the writing tools—any of them—intimidate you. They serve you. Put grammar and punctuation to the task of presenting your stories with the strongest foundations possible.

Learn your craft and put it to work on your behalf.



Tags: , ,     Posted in: Grammar & Punctuation

19 Responses to “On Grammar and Punctuation”

  1. What a wonderful, lucid piece. Good grammar and punctuation are about clarity and courtesy, and you convey that with style and care. Good G&P are invisible to the reader, which is good in a way but can make them seem unimportant. How do you care about something when you have no idea it’s there? Bad G&P, though… Oh, my. Reading starts to feel like driving over potholes. With a gravy-stained map.

    Thanks. Useful piece and a pleasure to read.

  2. Rachel, I love your comparison between good and bad G&P. When there are problems with either grammar or punctuation, they do make the reader’s journey a difficult one.

    Thank you.

  3. You saved me from a meltdown which could have potentially caused me to throw my manuscript through a window – along with my laptop which it is contained within!
    I really needed this!

  4. Amanda, here’s to not melting down. I’m glad to have been of help.

  5. Jake Houck says:

    We usually see this wording (as a disclaimer on TV):

    Due to the graphic nature of this footage, viewer discretion is advised.

    To be grammatically correct, shouldn’t it be:

    Because of the graphic nature of this footage, viewer discretion is advised.

    Thanks again😊

  6. Peter says:

    Great article, thank you, Beth! As an ESL instructor, I’m (a bit too) strict when it comes to G&P in my writing (and Sir. W. Churchill, rest his soul, is driving me crazy with his Second World War series! LOL). I hope my question is appropriate for this discussion. How much is too much when it comes to non-standard English in dialogue? I always use “the Queen’s English” throughout for narration (no contractions), and my central characters generally use the Queen’s English, with contractions and the odd commonly “acceptable” grammar mistake (e.g., “me”, rather than “I”). But, what of two characters who are uneducated, unemployed, drug-addicted, and living in the streets? They appear, and do a fair bit of talking, in two (non-contiguous) chapters. Example: “I don’ give a damn how much ($) ya pulled in, all me ‘n BJ wanna know is, did ya go shoppin’ ‘n did ya bring us any eats?” I can see a few lines written this way, but two chapters (non- contiguous)? Perhaps they should just be educated street people? Any thoughts?

    • phil huston says:

      I’m no pro editor, but…The odd affected character can’t do any harm. It has been discussed that an entire book in dialect would be cumbersome, but as a way to differentiate or highlight a character? Everyone who ever published would be in trouble if characters weren’t, well, characters. Colorful, identifiable characters are the spice in the burrito that is wrapped in the tortilla of a book’s covers. Without them it’s just page after page of beans and cheese and meat like substances. And iceberg lettuce. And we all know how beneficial and exciting that is. Just a thought.

      • Peter says:

        Mmmm … hungry anyone? Thanks for your thoughts, Phil. My current thinking is that I should use non-standard English sparingly in each line of dialogue so it doesn’t wear on the reader’s patience. I hope that will still provide the spice!

        • phil huston says:

          That sort of thinking would have killed “Huckelberry Finn,” but I see your point. Characters are like the bits of musical ensemble. They phrase differently, have unique vocabularies that reside inside the same language. Not slang, but different ways of expressing themselves. To me? Slang is where you get into muddy water because if a reader has to go look something up you’re toast. But a slurred word or a “gonna” or “wanna” can expose a character’s emotions as well as stereotype them. Relaxed, upset, comfortable. How they phrase is often as revealing as what they say…to me. My .02

  7. Peter and Phil, the use of dialect and accents in dialogue can make or break a book. In our storytelling age, less is more when we try to convey dialect and accents and unusual manner of speech. We’re not trying to micromanage the reading experience for the reader; we’re trying to give readers a sense of what a character is like as he moves through his world.

    A few helpful hints—

    ~ Every character has a different speech pattern and uses different pronunciations than those used by every other character. If you’re trying to make only one character’s speech stand out, you may not be looking at the whole picture. You may be saying that the one character is different (maybe in a negative way), but that everyone else is the same.

    ~ Word choice and word order may be better than spelling as a way to indicate that a character has an accent or speaks a different dialect. Words are spelled the same even if they’re pronounced differently by different speakers. So imagine your character rather than you the author writing the dialogue—how would the character spell the words he’s saying? A character may be pronouncing a word as don, but he’s saying don’t. A character may pronounce no as noo to my ears, but he’s still saying no.

    Sure, there are exceptions—gonna is not the same as going to. But for the most part, if you use odd spellings, you’re showing us what you would hear, not necessarily what the characters are hearing and/or saying. You’re showing how words sound to your ears, through your experience. If a couple of Scottish guys are talking together, they wouldn’t need to misspell words to convey their (to my ear) accent.

    Unusual words or a unique turn of phrase used every so often may be more than enough to convey a character’s personality or social class.

    ~ While Twain focused on accents to a great degree, that doesn’t mean that today’s writers have to do so. Different world, different readers.

    ~ You can convey accent by noting that a character has trouble understanding another character or by having one character say that another reminds him of a movie character or of someone back home in East Texas (or wherever). One character could make fun of another or could say how much he or she likes another character’s accent.

    ~ Too much emphasis on conveying dialect and accent can overshadow the spoken words and the emotion behind them. Know which issues are the most important and do what you can to highlight those while diminishing distractions.

    ~ Just as we don’t try to convey every movement a character makes as he moves from point A to point B, and as we don’t try to include every bit of detail in a setting, we also don’t need to try to portray every word or syllable with an accent. Readers are smart—they can pick up what you mean through a few hints. You don’t need to bombard them again and again, reminding them that Evan speaks Russian-accented English and Phillippe French-accented English.

    This is one reason that less is more with accents and dialect—readers may feel that you’re telling them the same information again and again, and that gets annoying fast.

    ~ If you’re using a first-person or deep third POV, the viewpoint character is the one relaying the words of others—would that viewpoint character spell words incorrectly in dialogue? If you’re using an omniscient narrator, would he spell the words incorrectly?

    When you look at the reality of dialogue, seeing it for what it is—overheard words—and not trying to make it do more than it should do, you will likely discover that there are few reasons to use misspellings and odd punctuation to convey dialect and accents. At its worst, trying to portray the sounds of words could bog a story down on the first page. There are too many other ways to let readers know that a character has an accent or uses different word choices or sentence patterns than other characters do.


    As I said, a little goes a long way toward providing info to the reader. Choose some choice words or sentence patterns to make one character different from another. And don’t forget that all characters would have accents to someone else.

    • I meant to add that readers do understand when writers try to convey the sound of speech through spelling and unusual punctuation, so there’s no prohibition against those practices. It’s just that there’s no need to go overboard either.

      • phil says:

        Piling on. That was my point, not overboard, but there’s a fine line between characters, the Queen’s Green and Pleasant and sterility. Like I said. Phrasing. Breathe with your characters. All I’m sayin’. (Saying?)

      • Peter says:

        Thank you, Beth. That’s the direction I’ve decided to go – not to go overboard (e.g., I won’t use ‘ta’ for ‘to’ or ”bout’ for ‘about’, but I will use ‘wanna’ for ‘want to’, etc.). Have to find that “fine line” Phil alludes to in his reply (thanks, Phil!).