Why Grammar Matters in Your Book

I’ve been called a Grammar Nazi, a grammar geek, a grammar freak, a grammar nut, the grammar police, and a stickler. What they say behind my back, I don’t know.

I’m not that bad. I don’t critique tweets, personal emails, texts, slang, or other informal communication. I am, however, concerned about proper language usage when it comes to published works.

Before you think I’m here waving a red Sharpie and poised to attack your misspellings, mispronunciations, or mistaken word usage, you should know that first and foremost, grammar geeks are word lovers. Just like writers.

I spend one day a week talking about language on Amaze-ing Words Wednesday. Those posts range from grammar advice to etymology to word games. Language is fascinating. The human ability to communicate a wide range of emotion, information, and ideas sets us apart and allows us to accomplish together what we couldn’t do alone. Words have meaning and power. And I agree wholeheartedly that language isn’t all about where the dang comma should go.

However, where the comma goes matters.

Lynne Truss illustrated this in her book Eats, Shoots and Leaves. The title is based on the funny story of a panda walking into a restaurant and brandishing a pistol. He devours a sandwich, fires his weapon, and starts to leave. The server asks, “Why did you do that?” The panda tosses an encyclopedia over his shoulder and answers, “Panda. Look it up.” The bartender finds the entry for panda, which in part reads, “Eats, shoots, and leaves.” One extra, misplaced comma made a huge difference. Ms. Truss goes on to make the case for why punctuation in particular matters in language.

Grammar matters. It assists writers to convey meaning effectively to their readers.

Proper grammar is a framework. Language has structure. We know a sentence is comprised of a subject and a verb. He smiles. She swoons. He kisses. She slaps. These are the building blocks of any book. And there are rules about how you string these blocks together so that you communicate your meaning to others.

Rather than think of it like the rules at school (no chewing gum, must have a bathroom pass, etc.), think about your favorite sport. Mine is baseball. It’s a terrific game of throwing, hitting, fielding, catching, and running. A grand slam homer can send a crowd of spectators into a wild eruption of excitement. However, what if there were no rules? If everyone threw wherever, hit however, caught or didn’t catch, and ran in any direction? That’s not a sport; that’s chaos. And it wouldn’t be interesting to watch or play. You’d probably get smacked upside the head by a wooden bat in ten minutes.

Language is exciting – full of meaning, fluidity, and passion! But it needs a framework to keep that excitement alive.

Proper grammar demonstrates professionalism. What is one of the major complaints about self-published books? They haven’t been properly edited and are full of grammatical and spelling errors. Of course, that isn’t true of many self-pubbed works, and there are plenty of mistakes in traditionally published novels. However, paying attention to those details puts you at a more professional level.

When we see an egregious error on a company’s sign or a brochure, it speaks to a lack of professionalism in getting their content correct for the consumer. People may wonder about the quality of the product itself if the company wasn’t willing to take the necessary steps to ensure proper spelling on an advertisement.

Likewise, people expect the purveyors of words – writers – to have a fairly good grasp on language and its usage. It speaks to our quality level. I recently tossed aside a traditionally-published novel after a few chapters when I read several incorrect phrases, including “could care less.” (It’s could not care less.)

Poor grammar disrupts the flow. Have you ever been reading a marvelous novel and had to stop on a sentence and reread it? You might wonder who that pronoun “he” refers to or stumble on an “it’s” when there is no need for an apostrophe. Perhaps a misspelled word or a missing question mark gives you pause.

Whatever the error, a grammatical oops can disrupt flow. Since we want readers to remain deep in our plot, we should eliminate anything that encourages them to jump back out of the story. A few such moments in a novel are not a problem; we are human and make mistakes. However, if you disrupt the flow of your story too may times with grammatical errors that could have been avoided, there goes the reader.

So should you turn into a grammar geek? We aren’t all grammar geeks, of course. (Thank goodness! Right?) Moreover, I misspell words and miss errors plenty of times. We all do. Have you heard the saying, “Even perfect people use pencils with erasers”? I can’t recall the last time I read a novel and didn’t see a typo somewhere. Most books have a few to several errors, and these works have typically been viewed by numerous people prior to publication.

The standard is not getting a Ph.D. in Grammarology or achieving perfection. It’s recognizing the importance of grammar and exerting reasonable vigilance to get it right.

If you’re taking all that time to develop a story, write 60,000+ words, and focus on the importance of those words, why not check for proper structure so that you can best convey your meaning? If you suck at spelling and grammar, have a grammar geek friend or copy editor take a look.

Now grammar isn’t a first draft endeavor. Don’t sweat the comma when you’re throwing out the word count. But it’s worth paying attention to in the editing and revision stages. Because we deal in language, its usage matters. Grammar matters.

What do you think, readers and writers? Does grammar matter when you’re reading books? What do you do to ensure proper grammar in your own writing?

(And as always, correct me if you see a typo here.)

18 thoughts on “Why Grammar Matters in Your Book

  1. Grammar has always been tricky for me, but I’ve gotten a lot better in the last two years. My best friend is a reading/writing college prof, and she’s taught me quite a bit. One thing I hate, however, is the Oxford comma. I’ve trained myself to use it now since it’s the preferred way, but it still seems unnecessary most of the time.

    Great post, Julie!

    1. I was always an Oxford comma user, because it makes more sense to me, but I know that’s thrown some people. How excellent to have a reading/writing college prof as a BF! What a resource! I have a sister who is an English teacher (an AMAZING one), so I consult her at times when I am tripped up. Thanks, Stacy!

  2. Grammar totally matters. It’s not that it needs to be perfect but at the same time, improper use of grammar or punctuation can really disrupt the flow of a great story. Now I do understand that FOR story flow etc, the rules of grammar can be bent, and even broken. I’ve seen a sentence fragment work wonders at getting a point of pacing across. But at the same time, too much would leave me feeling violated. LOL!
    Love it. Here’s to embracing the grammar police within each of us!

  3. 100% with you on this one! It throws me off when I’m reading and encounter bad grammar and misspelled words. It drives me nuts. And I see it in traditionally published NY Times books as well. But I agree with you about “showing professionalism”. That’s the way I look at it.

    1. Indeed, Patti. It’s an extra step for most of us but worth the effort to make things easy on the reader and put us at the professional level. Thanks!

  4. In college (hard to believe I went, I know), I loved grammar. I even took an extra course beyond the required one. The teacher and I got on well because I viewed grammar as a puzzle, and I like puzzles. So much has happened since college, unfortunately, that I don’t remember much about grammar. I try hard, but…well, you get the gist.

    The thing I notice more often than grammar in published works is misused homophones. I also notice sentences that don’t flow well.

    Loved this post. 😀

    1. Grammar is like a puzzle! I never thought of it that way. Perhaps that explains some of my interest in the topic as well. And yes, misused homophones are a head-smacker. I was thinking yesterday that Prof Punc might want to discuss who’s and whose one of these days. Thanks, Catie!

  5. Like Stacy, I am not fond of the Oxford comma – I was taught in school NOT to use it, and now that it seems to be back in fashion, I have to consciously look for where I need to add them. Fortunately, my copy editor’s excellent at this, and what I miss, she catches.

    I’m also with Catie in that the misused homophones drive me nuts. I think I commented that on your Wednesday blog too! LOL!

    1. I like the Oxford comma, primarily because you don’t have to decide when to use a comma and when not to. It appeals to my desire for consistency and symmetry. But I know that a lot of people would prefer to omit unnecessary punctuation marks, so I can understand La Resistance.

      Thanks, Jennette!

  6. An overall good piece that supports why we need to guard our use of grammar and punctuation. You mention reading from a traditionally-published novel. I’ve been taught that no hyphen is needed when ly-ending adverbs are used in a compound construction. Is this a question of style or usage?

    1. Great question, Diane! I did a little research and found it both ways. Some recommend no hyphen with an -ly adverb (traditionally pubished) while others assert that a hyphen should be used to identify this as a single concept (traditionally-published) which modifies the noun (novel). On those either/or issues, I’m pretty flexible. I wouldn’t balk at either approach. What does drive me nuts is people writing things like “three year old child” instead of “three-year-old child.” But maybe that’s just me. Thanks for coming by!

  7. Oh, I do recognize the importance of grammar and exert reasonable vigilance to get it right, but, English being my second language, I guess I err more than American-born people.
    While writing, I try to get my first draft as perfect as I can, but I’m conscious I won’t … so, before sending out my manuscript to submission, I hire an editor to line-edit and copy-edit to me.
    I took some grammar classes and I guess it helped, but i still wish I was better at it 😉

    1. Well, Juliana, I read quite a bit from you and never knew that English was your second language. So I suppose you’re doing just fine! My point is exactly what you say: If grammar or spelling is a weakness, get someone else to comb through your writing. Thanks!

  8. I totally agree — grammar is important. I have stopped reading more than one book because of grammar errors. I’ve gotten pickier about the books I buy too. I don’t want to spend money on a book I’ll never finish.

    I don’t usually have a problem with grammar in my own writing. I taught high school English for more than thirty years. Teaching a subject is the best way to learn it well!

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