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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.

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9 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!
    THANK YOU!

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