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.)

Introducing Professor Punctuation

Welcome, Prof Punc!

Today, we are welcoming a newcomer to Amaze-ing Words Wednesday. From our local college faculty, I now introduce Professor Punctuation. I’ll hand over the mic now. Thanks for coming, professor.

I know, I know: I don’t look like a professor. However, trust me when I say that I know my stuff. Forget the chalkboard and textbook: All you need for today’s lesson is your eyeballs and my expertise. And call me Prof Punc.

Punctuation is the part of language expressed by:

 , ; : ‘ ” . ? !

And today’s topic is the apostrophe.

First, imagine that you’re an apostrophe. How would you feel? Misunderstood? Misused? Well, the Doubleclicks pretty much cover it with a song. Grab your latte and take a listen.

So there are several ways that poor apostrophe gets abused. Let me help you and that ol’ apostrophe out with some tips.

If you want a plural, leave the apostrophe out of it. It’s rude to wake up an apostrophe and make him stand around before an s at the end of a word when he could be sleeping in. How about we look at some examples?

I swear there’s not a theme here. These are simply the best photos that came up. But it does make a girl wonder. Anyway, if you mean a bunch of something, you don’t need to bother an apostrophe for that plural. Simply add an s.

EARTH-SHATTERING ANNOUNCEMENT. This is true with names as well! So if your last name is Smith, and there are a bunch of you at your family reunion, you have a gathering of Smiths, not Smith’s. The invitation should read, “Please join the Smiths for their son’s bar mitzvah.” The welcome mat should say, “The Smiths.” It’s just plural. If your name ends with an s or a z? Hey, toss an e in there like you would for any other s or z-ending word: “The Hesses” or “The Gutierrezes.”

This is also true with decades. You lived through the 1990s. Some will debate that you should put an apostrophe in there as “1990’s.” But really, it’s just plural, so why would you? You don’t need it.

If it’s only a verb, leave the apostrophe out of it. I felt the need to include only one photo on this one. Renee Zelwegger represents this gigantic oops well enough for all the misguided out there.

Seriously, Renee? Apostrophe is never part of a verb word itself. If the apostrophe hangs around verbs, it’s because there is a pronoun contraction involved. Example? You are = you’re. It is = it’s. He will = He’ll. Get it? But if you’re simply making a verb plural, it’s the same rule as with plural nouns: No apostrophe.

If you have a contraction, call an apostrophe. An apostrophe often takes the place of letters that are missing. When we use a shortcut to say two words together, then the apostrophe is happy to step in. So you are becomes you’re. Where I live, you and all make y’all. There are plenty of other examples. A picture is worth a thousand words?

I have no idea what the rest of the billboard says. Come up with your own.

If you have a possessive, get an apostrophe. Apostrophe loves coming around for possession. If someone owns it, slap an apostrophe in there. Thus, it’s Bill’s date, Tawni’s mohawk, your parents’ love life, and my ex-boyfriend’s sister’s husband’s jail sentence. You get the idea. This is also why the following businesses have an apostrophe in their name.

A special note on it’s/its. This is the face palm moment for a lot of you, right? When do you use “its” and when do you use “it’s”? One is possessive and one is a contraction, and I just said that contractions and possessives get apostrophes. So which is it?! Where does the “its” come into play?

This chick needs to relax.

Well, just with the contraction here. When you mean it is, bring on that apostrophe for the contraction and make the shortcut it’s. If a pronoun is possessive, however, you leave out the apostrophe. So it is his, hers, mine, yours, ours, theirs, and its.

Now get out there and use those apostrophes right, students! Just ask what could happen if you don’t know where the apostrophe goes.

I hate grading papers over the weekend, so no homework. In fact, I never give real homework. Your homework is to be smart and stay cool. As they say, peace out.

Thanks Professor Punctuation — I mean, Prof Punc — for that important lesson. I remember watching an Angel episode in which a lawyer presented a business card that read “Attorney’s at Law.” If only the TV show makers had consulted you beforehand . . .

Now what do the readers think? Where do you struggle with the use of an apostrophe? What mistakes have you seen people make with an apostrophe?

Miss Spelling Returns: Words that Get Confused

Welcome to Amaze-ing Words Wednesday. By popular demand — or simply because she asked — Miss Spelling has returned. Her insistence on making a reappearance stemmed from a nonfiction book she is reviewing. While the book itself is written well, a different author wrote the foreword. Appallingly, however, said author of many books used the word forward instead to refer to her contribution. That settled it. Miss Spelling politely requested to come here and focus on words that get confused.

It’s my pleasure to return to the fine folks here at Ms. Glover’s blog. I adored the comments from A Lesson with Miss Spelling. I hope to shed some light today as well. I have collected pairs of words which get switched all too often like Parent Trap twins. They are not exchangeable, however. You likely have seen them misused as well.

Affect/effect. Simply put, affect is always a verb. In turn, the result (a noun) is the effect. For instance, seeing my muscular personal trainer shirtless affects my heart rate. The effect of seeing my muscular personal trainer shirtless is an elevated heart rate (and flushed cheeks and sweaty palms, but I digress).

Effect can also be used as a verb, but it is rare. It means to bring something to fruition, such as “he effected his plot to take over the world.” Most of the time, however, affect = verb, effect = noun.

Note: The views of Miss Spelling regarding shirtless personal trainers in no way represents this blog’s owner — who has no personal trainer and whose heart rate is affected by her wonderful husband of 19 years.

Capitol/Capital. The only capitol is the Washington, D.C. building in which the United States legislature congregates. Otherwise, it’s capital, as in the following: (1) the capital of Burkina Faso is Ouagadougou (wah-guh-doo-goo); (2) Ouagadougou is a name so it begins with a capital letter; (3) I have invested no capital in the country of Burkina Faso. Why is the U.S. Congress fond of confusing us with the different spelling? The name capitol hails from the ancient temple of Jupiter at Rome, and it stuck.

Compliment/Complement. To compliment someone is to flatter them by saying something kind and true or something ridiculous that will get you what you want. “How sweet of you to compliment my house! Of course I’ll sign your petition to protect the mosquito.” To complement is to balance, enhance, or complete. “Yes, Angelina, that right leg is a wonderful complement to your dress’s slit.”

Desert/Dessert. I’ll make this one easy: It’s Sahara vs. Soufflé. One would hope that when dining in a dirt-infested wasteland, one could have a French baked treat. However, these words are not usually seen together. A desert is to die in; a dessert is to die for.

Forward/Foreword. Forward is the direction you are facing. A foreword is the section of words before the main book. Thus, the foreword is several pages of a different author telling you why you should read the main author and what an amazing contribution his or her book is to you personally and to humanity as a whole for moving forward in life.

By the way, I understand that some bookstores will turn down carrying a book if they see foreword misspelled; they figure if you can’t get that right, you didn’t take enough care with the book generally.

Lightning/Lightening. This may take the cake as the most confused pair. I covered this in A Lesson with Miss Spelling. It bears repeating, or perhaps a visual instead.

Lightening (pic from josydoodle.blogspot.com)

Peaked/Piqued. If you have peaked in life, you have reached the pinnacle, the highest point you can achieve. Meanwhile, your interest may be piqued in what the heck you’re going to do now. I often see the statement, “That peaked my interest.” Does that mean your interest is hovering at the top of Everest?

Perhaps it will help to explain that pique means to arouse or excite. Having your interest piqued means your interest has been stirred up like a witch’s cauldron brew. Who knows what magical things could happen next?

Precede/Proceed. I am saddened to report that our own fine language lover, Ms. Glover, made this alarming error in her friend’s obituary. To precede is to go before, while to proceed is to go forward. By definition alone, they don’t seem so far apart. However, consider a procession, in which a parade of people proceed along. Thus, when Ms. Glover proofread the obit and saw that her friend had proceeded several family members, she should have corrected it to read preceded since her friend had died before the others. Instead, it sounded a funeral parade.

Now, now, Ms. Glover. No need to hang your head. You won’t make that mistake again. Moreover, your friend would have made a lovely Grand Marshal of any parade.

Principal/Principle. Consider this sentence: The principal problem with Congress is their lack of principles. While I believe the statement is true, more importantly it demonstrates the difference between principal, or primary, and principle, or ethic.

Principal McGee from Grease

Principal is also used as a noun to express this concept of the primary — such as when the money you pay on your loan goes in great part to the interest and in some part to the principal. Additionally, it refers to the warden of your local high school, as in Rydell’s Principal McGee. Meanwhile, principle refers to a guiding tenet, whether a moral one or, say, the principles of physics.

Now store all of your book under your seats and pull out one fresh sheet of paper and a pencil. It’s Pop Quiz time!

Just kidding. I’m sure you’ll all do wonderfully with these words in the real world. It has been my pleasure to be here once again. Ta-ta!

My thanks to Miss Spelling for helping us navigate the tricky world of spelling. Remember that natural ability to spell is not highly correlated to intelligence, but a complete disregard for checking your spelling is.

So which of these words give you trouble? Do you have other words spelled or pronounced almost the same which get switched in your mind?

A Lesson with Miss Pronunciation

"Listen up, class." - Miss Pronunciation

It’s time for AMAZE-ing Words Wednesday! Today’s word lesson will be taught by renowned language arts instructor, Miss Pronunciation. Miss Pronunciation will present the incorrect and correct ways of articulating some commonly mispronounced words in the English language. Without further ado, I hand our virtual classroom over to Miss Pronunciation.

Arthur is a lovable aardvark featured in children’s books by Marc Brown and the PBS series of the same name and/or Dudley’s Moore drunken character from the movie Arthur(1981) which co-starred Liza Minnelli and gave John Gielgud a Supporting Actor Oscar. An author writes books. Please do not confuse the two.

An axe is a tool wielded for cutting down trees or butchering family members (e.g., Lizzie Borden). To ask is to inquire, query, request information.

An ath-a-lete does not exist. Unfortunately, the additional syllable is often added by those simply unaware of the proper two-syllable version, athlete, or by such athletes who have been knocked in the head too many times.

I believe that Excetera, or Ekcetera, is Superhero Elektra’s younger sister whose ninja skills didn’t quite make the cut to get her own comic line. Et cetera, pronounced [et set-er-uh], is the Latin phrase meaning “and so on” and is used to indicate more items in a list without naming them specifically.

Pic from Kevin at deviantart.com

An ideal is a standard of perfection or excellence, while an idea is a notion or thought which pops into your mind like that lightbulb above the cartoon character’s head. What would be ideal is for people to pronounce idea without the added “l” since it is rather unnecessary and somewhat confusing.

Libary is the command given to your dog Barry when you wish him to play dead for the amusement of your neighbors. A library (note the “r”) is a public institution which collects and loans out books to residents who go the trouble of procuring a library card.

New York Public Library

Mischievous is a word almost no one knows how to say. However, it does not have an ē sound anywhere in the word (no mischievEEous). Those who mispronounce it demonstrate a mischievousness all their own. Personally, Miss Pronunciation believes that the problem could easily be avoided by changing the spelling of this word altogether to mischuhvus.

A pitcher is what one uses to pour liquids into cups and glasses, as in “Bring me and my buddies another pitcher of beer!” If, however, you have too many pitchers, you and your friends will not be a pretty picture for long. Not only will your speech slur such that you can no longer get a “k” sound in before the “ch,” but nearby tables will ask you to leave or call the cab for you. (Drink responsibly. Or not at all.)

Johannes Vermeer's Milkmaid - A piCture with a piTcher

The Pacific is an ocean or the region of islands in that ocean. Specific is something identifiable and particular. You may wish to be more specific in using this word by making sure that you include the requisite “s.”

If the good-looking guy across the hall asks whether you get ESPN because he wants to watch the game at your place, do not answer “Supposably I do.” That will be the last “I do” you say to him if he possesses pronunciation skills. In fact, he will supposedly find another young lady in the apartment building whose couch is comfortable and whose speech is clear. “Oh well,” you say, “I didn’t want a sports-obsessed couch potato anyway!” Perhaps, but you might want to shift that “b” to a “d” just in case the guy you adore wants to know if the Caribbean cruise passes through Acapulco, to which you would say, “Supposedly” as you pack your carry-on to join him.

Miss Pronunciation thanks you for your attention and hopes that this lesson has been enlightening and entertaining.

What other words have you heard mispronounced? Do you struggle with certain word pronunciations yourself? (Undoubtably Undoubtedly, it can be hard to break a habit!)

Wednesday Words: It is Lite or Light?

You will never catch me pulling into the “Krazy Kat Kar Wash.”  I don’t care if my vehicle looks like it emerged from a mudslide or the only thing visible through my front windshield is the collection of insects amassed from a three-hour drive down a farm-to-market road.  I simply cannot endorse the new craze of misspelling everything in sight to get a potential customer’s attention.

I know, I know.  Grammar snob.

But I have wondered when this craze began.  At what point did we decide to forego spell check and purposefully alter signs to grab a second look.  In fact, when was “All You Can Eat Night?” replaced by “All U Can Eat Nite”?  When did “crazy” become “krazy” and us not think that’s crazy?

And how far will this trend extend?  Will I eventually pull up to the “Dryv Throo” at my local “Chikn & Freyes” restaurant?  Will it reach my doctor’s office, so that I am greeted by a sign saying, “Akcepting Nu Payshunts!”  Where’s the line?

For me, a business can get my attention by delivering a quality product, excellent customer service, word-of-mouth advertising, and people dressed up as your corporate mascot waving me down from the road curb (?).


Liberty Tax Service Mascot

But I would prefer that you leave the English language intact.  It’s already a hodge-podge of spellings lifted from other languages and years of evolution.  It doesn’t need further confusion.

What misspellings have you noticed?  Do they get your attention?  If so, is that attention positive or negative?  Are you more likely or less likely to frequent these businesses?

Wednesday Words: Should You Correct Friends?

My feet shuffle across the hard floor, as chairs creak and a cough echoes in the half-empty room.  I clear my throat, lean over to the microphone on its rickety stand, and announce:  “My name is Julie, and I am a correcta-holic.”  At least that’s what I confessed in my post about Obsessive-Correcting Disorder, although I don’t really think being a stickler for correct spelling, punctuation, and grammar is a disease that requires diagnosis or treatment.   Still, I can imagine that others may not want to send a note, shoot an email, or chat with me on Facebook after I have admitted to naturally noticing such errors.

Rest assured, however, that the grammar sticklers I know, including moi, are not mentally grading your work like an English teacher with a red pen.  (Do they still use red? I heard that injures self-esteem.)  There is a difference between published works and informal communication!

If I pick up a novel and notice ten errors in the first chapter, my thought is, “This was written and/or edited poorly.  This author and/or publisher did not care enough about the reader to clear up errors so that the book reads smoothly.”  (And I often toss the book aside like unidentifiable leftovers from my fridge.)  Advertising flyers, business signs, newsletters, and websites get the same level of merciless scrutiny.  These are professional publications that should be edited and proofread!

However, if I open my email inbox and someone has shot me a “Youre blog was terrific! Cant wait to read more posts!” I’m excited that they sat down and penned me a personal note!  If I notice the errors at all, I figure it’s because our lives are harried and they wrote in a hurry.

Now granted, if almost every Tweet, Facebook post, or email from someone is riddled with errors, I will figure that this person could use a remedial writing course; English is their fourth language; or they simply don’t care.  And it will unnerve me like an itch between my shoulder blades that I just can’t reach.  But when it comes to informal communication, a good rule is judge not, lest ye be judged!

I’ve read over things I sent out to a friend in a hurry and been appalled at an egregious misspelling or the absence of a crucial word.  My most recent ridiculous error was tweeting back to another author (Wendy Sparrow – check out her blog here) about how much I enjoyed reading Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss and typing, “Stickers unite!”  (Duh.  Sticklers.)  Thankfully, with friends, we fill in the gaps and determine the meaning nonetheless.   To err is human, to forgive divine!

I proofread my emails, blog posts, tweets, etc. because I consider those few seconds well spent.  But errors still spill through the cracks.  And if I corrected every informal message that I received, I would waste precious time that I could devote to more productive pursuits; stop receiving texts from my children; and be that itch between the shoulder blades that my friends and family just can’t reach.

You see, this is why I don’t think I have a problem that requires intervention.  (So my family can stop planning one, thank you very much.)  I can turn that correcting part of my brain off when it isn’t useful to the communication.

At least, most of the time.  Unfortunately (or fortunately, I think!), my husband and children are still subjected to my periodic correcting, regardless of context.  The rest of you are relatively safe.

What do you think about errors in professional publications vs. informal communication?  How do you approach it?

Round of Words in 80 Days Update:  1,038 of 5,000 words for the week; found serious timeline error in manuscript so pulling out hair and working that out; keeping up with three blogs at week (despite AT&T accidentally yanking my internet today).  All in all, progress!