Monday, September 14, 2009

Quick Hits on Grammar

Oh, I love grammar. I never used to, until I started being paid as a technical writer. My first employer who took a chance on me as a tech writer based on the fact that my resume was in color and he was easily swayed by colors, and also that I had taken a class in tech writing and cleverly used my class projects as portfolio pieces. But, in fact, I was a terrible writer then. I didn't know anything, the least of which was the difference between its and it's, a most grievous shortcoming.

I've learned, over time and mostly with the aid of the deliciously pedantic Chicago Manual of Style. (To be fair, I have lots of other style books too, notably Lapsing into a Comma by Bill Walsh, a favorite, and the AP style manual.) I am no grammar expert, to be sure. I couldn't tell you what a past participle or a split infinitive is. I CAN tell you when something doesn't sound right, though--a sign that over the years I have absorbed the rules and usage. (I do hope that my newfound love of grammar isn't steeped in secret glee over being pedantic.)

Grammar can be tricky because there's lot of rules. But, here in a nice short digestive biscuit size, are a few quick novel writing-related highlights, culled from this very excellent post: 5 Mistakes that Make you Sound Like a Chimp. My favorites (and, not coincidentally, things I trip up on) are these (the text under the headings is a direct repeat from the original post):

Improper use of “myself”

This is one that people make because they think that complicating the language needlessly will make them sound smart.

(It’s the same principle as a barely literate inner-city tenant telling me haughtily that her brother is “presently incarcerated in a corrections facility.”)

Unfortunately, misuse of “myself” isn’t just needlessly complicated. It’s also wrong.

Here’s a typical incorrect use:

“The committee will consist of Bob, Mr. Parsons, and myself.”

In this circumstance, “me” is the right choice. In general, “myself” is a word you shouldn’t find much use for, so if you’re using it a lot, you’re probably using it wrong. “Myself” should only be used reflexively, to refer back to the subject.

Was vs. were

Everyone makes this mistake, so don’t beat yourself up if you do. But you should also fix it.

Here’s the incorrect use:

“If I was rich, I’d buy lots and lots of pants.”

However, the correct choice here would be were, not was.

Were here would be correctly used in the subjunctive mood — a case in which what you’re saying is hypothetical. If you’ve used “if,” that’s a pretty good indicator that were is appropriate:

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

(You’re not me, so it’s subjunctive)


“If I were at work right now, I’d be eating a waffle.”

Remember, you use “were” because you’re actually not at work right now. But if you were writing about an actual past event, you’d use “was” (e.g. “When I was at work”).

But wait! There are three grammar rules you SHOULD break!

This one talks about:
1. Ending a sentence with a preposition
2. Beginning a sentence with “and” or “but”

3. Splitting infinitives (cripes, I don't know what that means but it says: "How often have you heard that you’re not allowed to let another word come between “to” and its verb? Some people hold that construction with the same reverence as is typically given to marriage: that which the writer hath wrought together, let no man tear asunder. Except that it’s really not that big of a deal. Come on: “to go boldly where no man has gone before” just doesn’t have the same ring to it as “to boldly go.” If it sounds better to split the infinitive, then take an axe to it!")


FictionGroupie said...

Great post. I talked about rules today too. We were on the same wavelength today. :)

Anonymous said...

There's a woman in the headquarters office that I think is the grammar and editor queene. She's done a lot of postings similar to yours, comparing two words and explaing the difference. I'd be happy to share some if you're interested. I dig this stuff :) p.s. this is anita, don't have a google or other account this site is asking for.

Sierra Godfrey said...

Hey petey pita :) Thanks for commenting!

You can do the "Name/URL" option and you don't have to put a URL.

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