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Please Learn the Rules

December 19, 2016 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified December 20, 2016

I debated over this article for the last couple of weeks. I really didn’t want to play the curmudgeon, coming across as more worried about grammar and punctuation rules than good story, but sometimes you simply gotta point out that writers and editors need to learn some rules.

The prompt for this article was a paperback that I borrowed from my sister. I was looking for a quick read a few weeks ago, and she generously handed over a book.

It took me three weeks to read the thing and not because it was deep and meaningful; I couldn’t get over the grammar and punctuation problems. At one point I laughed aloud, wondering if every comma rule had been turned inside out—I’d have sworn that every place that needed a comma lacked one and every place that didn’t need one had one. Yes, it was that bad. I put the book down after reading the first 50 or 60 pages and only picked it back up again more than two weeks later.

There are always allowances for style choices and effects, so I’m not getting on the author for that. But what I found again and again were not style choices but ignorance of the rules. Yet I don’t know if the writer was the one who didn’t know the rules or if an editor was to blame for the lapses—the book was traditionally published with a publishing house that’s been around for more than 60 years. Either the writer didn’t know some of the rules and trusted the publisher to know them and correct for them, or the editor at the publishing house was responsible for the repeated errors getting through. Maybe copyediting is a thing of that past at that publishing house. Maybe someone just wasn’t on the ball.

Whatever the cause, the many errors interfered with my enjoyment of the story. And I’m sure I wasn’t the only one bothered.

Such an issue can be a real problem for writers and for publishers. If quality isn’t good, readers could always go somewhere else. And if a writer gets a reputation for poor writing, that reputation might be difficult to overcome.

If you’re a writer, don’t rely on others to know the rules; learn them for yourself. No, a fiction writer doesn’t have to know grammar and punctuation at the expert level, but writers should know more than the basics. Comma issues are covered in style and grammar books and in hundreds of articles online. A few minutes of study or research here and there may be the difference between a decent story and one that fights the reader on every page.

Now, lest you imagine that I pounce on errors because I’m an editor, I will say that I can easily read books without searching for errors. I like to read fiction, to get lost in story. But like any other reader, I’m annoyed by repeated errors.

 

Commas

Many writers admit that they have more trouble with commas than with any other piece of punctuation. One problem is that commas have so many uses that misusing them is easy. Yet learning a few rules is not hard.

In the book I’m referring to, comma use wasn’t inconsistent, but it was almost always wrong.

Writers: Don’t trust that someone at a publishing house will be cleaning up after you; do your best to make your punctuation clear and correct.

Editors: Don’t assume that writers—even writers publishing their tenth book—know all the rules; if one of your duties is to check punctuation, check it.

Here are a few comma rules that are easy to learn. There are always exceptions, however, so if one of these rules is new to you, do a little research so you can get all the details.

• Put a comma between a dependent clause and an independent clause when the dependent comes first.

• There is usually no comma between an independent clause and a dependent clause when the independent clause comes first. (A link to an article that covers both conditions)

• Don’t use a comma to separate two subjects, two actions, two objects. (I’m oversimplifying on this one, but we typically don’t separate two of the same item with a comma. Exceptions for some adjectives and repeated adverbs.) Do use commas for three or more like items.

Tom, and Lana went bowling. X

Kylie sang, and danced her way into our hearts. X

Tony picked up burgers, and pizza on his way home. X

We were happy to be nominated, and to win. X

• Don’t use a comma between the subject and the predicate.

• Use commas before and after nonessential clauses midsentence.

• Use commas before and/or after names used in direct address.

• Use commas between independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction (the comma goes before the conjunction).

• We don’t need commas after every so, and, or, yet, and but, no matter where in the sentence they fall or what comes before or after them. If coordinating conjunctions are followed by a name in direct address or by a nonessential phrase or parenthetical, then you do want a comma after the conjunction.

But, it doesn’t matter. X

Or, you could call his mother. X

He didn’t look good in blue, so I told him that.

He ate the hot dog so I could have the burger.

But, and this is very important, don’t drink the potion.

But Mom told me to lie.

“But, Mom, I didn’t do it.”

• Don’t fall into the thinking that says that some words must always be followed by a comma.  This book included commas after words such as now, then, tonight no matter how they were used or where they fell in the sentence. Words can be used in multiple ways, and sometimes they may need a comma while at other times they may not.

Sentence adverbs are usually separated from the rest of the sentence, but not all adverbs used as the first word of a sentence are sentence adverbs.

 

Beyond Commas

Sentence Fragments. Commas weren’t the only problem in this book. Some paragraphs were solely sentence fragments. Many paragraphs held three and four fragments and no complete sentences. Sentence fragments can be a style choice, and we use them in fiction without problems. Yet fragment after fragment without any full sentences containing verbs is more than a little unusual. And annoying. It was almost as if the writer had simply strung words together.

Sentence fragments are great for creating a dramatic effect or for setting up a particular rhythm, but fragments lose their punch—and paragraphs and scenes lose meaning—when too many sentences are incomplete. Sentence fragments should be an exception, not the rule. You’ve actually got to make some declarations. Readers need to know who is doing what to whom as well as how and when the doing is being done.

Absolute Phrases. Absolute phrases separated from the sentence that they modified were another problem. Absolute phrases are ways of expanding on a sentence, a way to provide more information or to focus on one element of the sentence. But if you separate the absolute phrase into a sentence fragment of its own, readers can lose the connection; does the absolute phrase belong to the sentence before it or to the one after? And if the absolute phrase is sitting as a sentence of its own, why would the reader even know it was supposed to modify something else?

The little girl smiled. Happy to be at the party. She couldn’t stop twirling.

Happy to be at the party is an absolute phrase that’s meant to modify one sentence or the other, but punctuated this way, how would the reader know which? Keep your absolute phrases inside the sentence they modify.

You do have options with absolute phrases, even within a single sentence:

The little girl smiled, happy to be at the party.

The little girl, happy to be at the party, smiled.

Happy to be at the party, the little girl smiled.

Paragraphs. There were also many paragraphs that should have been combined rather than split. So rather than keep sentences on the same topic in the same paragraph, the author split them into two or three paragraphs. Again, doing this every so often for effect can work; a sentence on its own can be dramatic. But readers will quickly tire of such a technique when it’s used repeatedly and when the effect isn’t needed. Not every sentence needs to be dramatic.

___________________________

Any one of these “errors” could be used as a style choice or to create an effect. But used again and again, these choices point to a lack of knowledge.

To strengthen your skills and to please your readers, learn the rules. Take the time over the coming holidays or during the first month of the new year to go over some grammar and/or punctuation rules. Read a chapter in CMOS or Hart’s that you’ve never read. Read a dozen articles on commas. Learn about dangling modifiers or absolute phrases.

I linked to a handful of articles here at the Editor’s Blog, but there are many more. Print out a few and read them with a cup of hot chocolate.

There are always exceptions to writing rules (that’s the blog’s unofficial tagline), yet sometimes an exception is just poor writing. Errors will always find their way into books, but you can reduce the number of errors in your books by learning the rules.

Help readers enjoy the stories you work so hard to write. Make your presentation at least as strong as your plot and characters.

edit well #2 83797AA0F48D684CBAC54FBF163B9699

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    Posted in: Beginning Writers, Grammar & Punctuation

35 Responses to “Please Learn the Rules”

  1. Amen, amen, and amen! “The rules” were not established for arbitrary reasons, but to give text the structure it needs to communicate the message clearly. What’s the point, otherwise?

    If the text is incomprehensible because the author couldn’t be bothered to learn the basics, then why should I award any credibility to the author by reading his or her work? An author can despise “the rules” if he or she so chooses, but that attitude tells me that he or she also despises me. An author who is ignorant – perhaps English is not his or her first language – can get help from those better versed in the language.

    In a nutshell, there is no excuse for publishing unedited or poorly edited work, whether it be the fault of the author, editor, or both.

    • As you said, Sally, help is always available. One problem that’s hard to deal with, however, is not knowing that something is wrong. That’s why I recommend reading a grammar or writing book every six months or every year. While we can look up answers to questions we know to ask, sometimes we don’t know we should be asking questions. But if we read books on grammar and craft, we learn about topics we didn’t even know were topics of interest to writers and editors.

  2. Judy Bodmer says:

    Thank you for this article. I argue with my friends about this topic all the time and have given up. You give me hope.

  3. phil h says:

    Structure is the one that kills me. Even more than, misplaced or, forgotten, commas because, they make, it, impossible almost, to read. Or like that inverted modifier right behind me. I run Grammarly, mostly to argue with it and force myself to read line by line, word by word. I do not agree(,) that the first one to four words of every sentence are always an introductory clause that require a literary speed bump (our friend the comma). An exclamatory phrase as simple as “Oh my God!” does not cry out for “Oh, my God!” I don’t care what Word or Oxford or Grammarly or CMS say. The comma is the equivalent of tapping your brakes. And that isn’t always the desired effect. I’ve read books with too many, often to be polite and acquiesce to the comma cognoscenti, and too few (,) for whatever reason. The second half of the 20th century saw a lot of dismissal for effect. I’ve read so much PUBLISHED, underedited crap lately. Are the publishers dying for a reason to kill trees or do they just not care? People are hanging their names on unfinished, sophomoric junk and claiming to be “authors.” I don’t get it. I’d be embarrassed, as, well as all, hell, if I came, off, so, freaking stoopid,

    • Phil, I laughed the first time I read this and laughed again today. Like you, I don’t want to be embarrassed by what I write. And that means I need to learn to do it right and creatively. There are lots of choices, combinations, and possibilities when we write a sentence, especially in fiction. And that’s both the challenge and the fun of writing.

  4. Mark says:

    Such a great post! Thank you for clarifying some of those points. I am a hyperspeller, but grammar is a little more work for me. I particularly appreciate commas, they are like a stealthy ninja, few pay them the attention they deserve; and they do so much work in a sentence!
    Thanks again Beth, so many authors need this information.

  5. While we’re at it: please may we dispense once and for all the “he, or she,” conundrum. Just let’s say “they”.

    • Sally says:

      Personally, I’d prefer to go back to the more generic use of “he,” “his,” and “him.” I’m a woman, but use of the male pronouns bothers me not one whit. I have better ways to burn brain cells. Until the pendulum swings back in the direction of simple, common sense, I work harder to rearrange my prose to avoid the “he and she” quagmire that has been inflicted on us by our culturally confused society.. (The usage that simultaneously cracks me up and makes me shudder with dismay is a sentence like: “He scolded his son because they were so late coming home.” [Yes, I have seen this usage.] If the gender of the singular is obvious, why must you employ the [incorrect] plural?)

      Just my two-cents’ worth…

      • Sally, I was never bothered by masculine pronouns either. Even as a child I knew when he meant a male person and when it meant any person.

        • As writers we need to stray often into uncomfortable territory to strengthen our writing muscles. If using “he” comes that naturally to you, you should go with “they”. Just try it.

          • Suzanne, I’ll have to beg to disagree here. I find in my reading that the constant use of “she” just to avoid using the culturally outdated generic “he” stops me in my tracks and I have to restart my reading engine to get back into the thread of the text. To me, it’s just too obviously applied. I find “s/he” even more annoying. And the use of “they” to avoid singular gender identification hits me just as hard. As clumsy or formal as it can be, I am happier with the “he or she” option, although I’ll rework the sentence in my own work to make my gender references either all singular or all plural.

            I see mixing gender references as acquiescing to culture at the expense of writing muscles. Therefore, whenever possible (and it usually is), I will continue to rework my material so that I do not fall into (what I consider the lazy) mixing of singular and plural pronouns so as to avoid offending someone. (There will always be people out there who choose to be offended, no matter what someone else writes or says, and I have no patience with or for them. I say to them, “Get a life.” If they are more concerned about gender reference than about my message, then I don’t really care if they read my work or not. It’s akin to my niece’s high school teacher who gave her a poor grade for using the wrong color ink instead of grading the quality of her work.)

            Reworking the sentence or passage for consistency flexes my writing muscles far more. Maybe I’m stiff-necked and old-fashioned, but that’s the way I am. I’m willing to apply myself to avoid the inconsistency.

  6. This is my first visit to your blog, and I’ll be back! It can be difficult to find people who care about grammar, yet I recently read about the cost to businesses of poor writing in the workplace. Is texting doing us in?

    As you have shown, Beth, we’re judged by the way we use language — and punctuation. Even experienced writers have to pause to think about where to put a comma, whether to use a comma or a semicolon, what needs capitalizing.

    Thanks for being one who cares.

    • Kathleen, punctuation is one of our tools—there’s no reason not to learn how to use it well. And if it makes a difference in the final product, who wouldn’t want to learn to wield punctuation with precision?

      I’m glad you’ll be back. And thanks so much for joining in.

      Did you read about the cost to businesses in print material or online? I’d love to read the article.

  7. Mary J Hicks says:

    I’m one of those unfortunate people who find grammar difficult to grasp—I used English class as a drawing class. My question is, if we can’t trust our well paid professional editors, what is a dunce head to do?

    I study grammar. I want to learn—I’m not lazy in that department, but the comma rules just don’t seem to stick. But I am getting better! My editor finds less and less misused commas. :-)) And posts like these help—thanks!

    • Mary, if your editor is finding fewer misused commas, you are indeed on the right track. If comma rules are still confusing, however, search for blog articles on comma usage. You may find the explanations in articles more illuminating than what you find in grammar and punctuation books. I try to provide plenty of examples (and long explanations), so you’ll definitely find a lot of material on comma use here.

      I suggest reading up on punctuation not only when you’re looking for a specific usage or rule but also as a means of gaining general knowledge. I still come across useful rules and tidbits that I’ve never seen before. And then—since I never trust something I find in only one source—I set off to research to see what other experts have to say about the rule. The bad thing about that is that I can get lost in the research, with an hour passing when I should be doing something else. But I consider it enrichment for my career.

      One more benefit for writers who start applying punctuation and grammar rules consistently? Editing fees may be lower.

      Have fun with your writing.

  8. Richard says:

    I just published my memoirs. I’m not a bad writer, but do have trouble with commas and semi-colons. I have a hard time editing my own work. I just don’t see the errors. I find I often put commas where it just feels there should be a pause. I sense it when I read my work aloud. So–an editor is important to me. But I do get frustrated with lazy editors who assume I must have meant Argentina, Newfoundland, instead of Argentia, Newfoundland. After paying good money for an edit/proofread, I hate having “friends” point out errors in my published book. I want to stay in touch with this blog.

    • Richard, I’m glad you found the blog. Welcome.

      Commas are quite tricky, so you can expect to spend a lot of time with them. As for semicolons, those are actually easier since they have very specific and very limited uses. And even when a semicolon might be right, you may want to rewrite to avoid using it. They have their purposes, but they become noticeable when used too often, even when the use is correct. Don’t shy away from using them, but do consider other options if you find yourself going to the semicolon again and again.

      As for the pause and comma connection, you probably don’t want to rely on that since there are plenty of times when the two don’t go together. Knowing a rule is more accurate.

      As for editors, we do make mistakes too. Yet I hope that any one editor with any one project won’t add to the errors already in a manuscript. Place names definitely need to be checked, as do product names and dates and all manner of details. Definitely check the changes your editor recommends rather than simply accepting them.

      Typos can work their way into an edit, so always consider having someone proofread a manuscript, even after it’s been edited. And try to get a proofreader who hasn’t read the manuscript before. A fresh pair of eyes is beyond helpful at that stage.

      And while we want perfect books, publishing the perfect book isn’t likely. No, we don’t want friends or critics finding errors, but every book does have them. Still, if we can get rid of most, including the most obvious or critical ones, that’s what we go for. There’s a big difference in acknowledging the fact that a book will have errors and giving up looking for those errors much too soon.

      I wish you success with your memoirs. What will you be tackling next?

      • RICHARD says:

        thanks for the quick answer, Beth. You make good points. I periodically review the Chicago Manuel of Style and one other writers reference just to stay on track. My next project–I want to try a novel. I have what I think is a good story, and I’m studying more of structure etc. I suspect I’ll be back to get editing advice from you. Meanwhile, I’ll keep in touch and keep on learning. My blog has excerpts from my memoir chapters. Just fyi.

  9. Thank you. I enjoyed this article. Errors like the ones you cited spoil my pleasure in reading, and I will usually stop reading. Hope your words inspire writers to take more care.

    • Frances, such a great number of errors spoil my pleasure in a story too. Beyond that, I get frustrated because I know that such issues can be easily corrected by the author or editor.

      Thanks for letting me know you enjoyed the article.

  10. Mary J Hicks says:

    That’s my headache, Francis, I do take care! I read the MS until I’m sick of it and then send it off and pay a professional to edit it also. But like Richard said, my friends still point things out … I don’t know how to be anymore careful! :-)

    Neither do I enjoy reading a book that’s poorly edited.

    • Mary, if you’re doing your part and an editor is going over your stories, then—except for some tweaking—you’re probably doing enough. Kept refreshing yourself on the rules, always ask your editor if you have questions about something he changed or didn’t change—we don’t mind in the least—and make sure a qualified someone proofreads the final version.

      You can only do so much. If you’re already doing everything required of a writer, then you can’t be expected to do more.

      Yet if your books are still being released with either major errors or a lot of errors, there’s a breakdown somewhere. One answer may be to put the manuscript aside for a longer period of time. We really do find more errors when the story has gone cold. Don’t rush to publish—let stories sit and move on to another project before you make your own editing passes. And remember to proof from hard copy if you normally proof on the computer. A different format helps us see errors.

      Here’s to fewer errors—I’m toasting with a cup of tea.

      • Mary J Hicks says:

        In all fairness, the errors are minor and could have been introduced back into the MS when corrections were being made. The difference in a book with professional editing and one without is not even comparable. I learned the hard way! :-)

        I have a library of books on grammar, word usage, sentence structure and everything else on the craft of writing. I love reading them.

        Articles like this one and the other writers comments are a big help.

      • One sure-fire way to help eliminate errors of many kinds is to read the manuscript OUT LOUD. That way, your eye doesn’t skip over material that’s all too familiar. Even better, if you have someone willing to work with you, and you read out loud to him or her, while he or she follows along with a print copy in hand (or vice versa, or taking turns), you will also pick up on a lot of stuff that otherwise slips past the editorial eye. On my published novel, Bead of Sand, I read the ms. out loud to myself three times, once each between initial submission, first-run of proofs, and second-run of proofs. In reading the book after publication, I have found only eight grammatical or typographical errors in the print product.

  11. The discipline of punctuation and other grammatical structures: without some kind of discipline, the story won’t stand up. Try flying a kite without a string. In today’s culture of choosing to ignore rules and “anything goes,” we would encourage the elimination of the string, seeing it as too limiting to the freedom of the kite. But just take that kite out into a field and lay it on the ground, free to fly. Will it fly?

  12. Definitely agree with reading and studying books on the craft of writing on a regular basis. I have bought nearly a dozen such books on various aspects of writing in the past year. I glean much value from each one.

  13. Jim Snell says:

    I’m curious about one of your examples of mistakes.

    We were happy to be nominated, and to win. X

    (Sorry, your red X didn’t survive the copy ‘n paste.)

    Seems to me the comma could be an indication of how the writer wants this sentence to be read.

    I suppose it could be punctuated differently:
    We were happy to be nominated–and to win.
    We were happy to be nominated. And to win.

    In fact, I kinda feel that I like the speaker better if the comma–indicating a pause–is there in the sentence. Much more than I would like someone who says that sentence without a comma, as if they simply expected to win when nominated.

    So what’s the best way to give an indication that the speaker isn’t a stuck-up egomaniac?

    • Jim, we can always use punctuation to create an effect or to help with clarity, and there are always exceptions to any rule or recommendation. Normally, however, a comma isn’t required in the original sentence or for any sentence with a similar setup. If I were to separate out and to win, I’d probably use the dash or period to create a stronger break. A comma may not be enough of a break, and some may read it as an error. If you want a separation, give the sentence a true break.

      I don’t read expectation of a win into the original sentence, only that the group was happy to win. How would the sentence strike you if it was spoken by a ten-year-old rather than an adult, maybe one caught between his mother’s insistence on him being humble and his own exuberance over what he and his friends had achieved?

      As always, we have many, many options.

  14. Phil Huston says:

    Interesting how much juice this post has gotten. He and She seems to be an argument beyond the who can use which public restroom. He’s a he, she’s a she and they is them. I think. Unless a character hasn’t declared, then that’s free range pronoun or lifestyle descriptive. Effeminate doesn’t mean gay and masculine doesn’t mean lesbian unless further analysis or description of a character goes there. No one should be offended. As far as “they” go, I’m with Willie Nelson, who once said (paraphrased) Who are ‘they,’ anyway? ‘They’ say this, ‘they’ say that. If I could find out who ‘they’ is I’d shoot the sumbitches. Dropped that comma on purpose.

    As far as an earlier analogy was presented, and in light of this discussion about proofing, the do-over generation doesn’t get a pass for content. The teacher who counted off for the wrong color of ink was probably trying to impress on the student that rules (here we are) should be followed. Not the ones that are convenient. Or comfortable. Write about he she and they like he she and they are. ‘They’ is useless unless the author has already described the horde of bad guys or locusts or whatever and we all know who ‘they’ are. Otherwise, it’s just a bad modifier and I’m with Willie. Who the hell are ‘they’ anyway?