Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Those pesky words and punctuation

I'm always amazed when I see this argument:

If my story is good, nobody's going to care how it's written.

And really, I see it a lot more often than is to be believed.

Grammar and punctuation are important. They are the most basic tools a writer has. Through correct grammar and punctuation we make ourselves understood; what is so difficult to get about that? (And why am I suddenly finding dozens of typos? I think my keyboard is getting old and worn down, actually.)

Vocabulary is important, yes. Incredibly so. Especially since without decent vocabularies we make stupid homonym erros, like site for sight (which drives me batty) or bear for bare or peek for pique or peak (another batty one.) But you don't need a huge vocabulary; I find sometimes the most basic words work the best, conveying as they do not only their intended meaning but the very purity of their basicness.

Case in point (for me at least): I wrote a sentence the other night in which I mentioned a character's big chest. (A male character.) Now I could have said huge or gargantuan or broad or anything else, but I didn't. I used big, not only because I meant big, but because the character thinking this wasn't thinking just of the size of said chest but of the safety of it. "Big", the word we learn as children to use for anything larger than ourselves, put the thinking character, if not into a childlike place (which would be highly inappropriate considering it was a kissing scene), then at least into a place where her thought process has regressed to that point. In seeking to curl herself up into the chest of the man who made her feel safe, she brought back the need for safety a child would express.

And lots of other basic words are perfectly good. They have an impact; they delve straight into the reader's psyche. We should always use the most clear and direct word we can; sometimes that word is "big" or "red" or "hot" or whatever else.

But grammar and punctuation? So much easier to grasp, really, especially in fiction writing as opposed to, say, school reports where you have to follow silly rules like not ending sentences with prepositions (as Churchill said, "That is the sort of English up with which I will not put.") It's simple, and to be perfectly honest it should be instinctive. If you read a lot and pay attention, these rules should be absorbed effortlessly.

I know it's fashionable in some circles to wear bad grammar like some sort of shiny crown, to insist you yourself are a rebel with a new voice and style. But there's a difference between someone who obviously knows the rules and is playing with them, and someone who doesn't know the rules, and the reader can tell. I fnd it absolutely infuriating to hear people say things like "The readers won't know the difference" because yes they will. They will even if they're not big readers; they will even if they themselves write terribly. Because grammar written should be much like grammar spoken: when I talk to you, or you talk to me, we "hear" grammar almost as a separate language, gliding beneath what's actually being said. Readers aren't stupid. People who enjoy and choose to read are not stupid people, and they're your audience. Who do you think is buying your books? Last time I checked, people buying books were people who read books. I knew a woman (an absolutely horrible woman, btw) who didn't read; you can bet she didn't spend a lot of time buying books.

So here is a nice, handy little list, from me to you, of my personal grammar and punctuation bugbears.

1. Quotation marks used for emphasis. Seriously? Seeing this makes me want to find the person who did it and ram a copy of Strunk & White up their asses. "Car Wash" $1.00: is it a real car wash, or an alleged one? Are you going to charge me for a car wash but really just spit on my car and run away? When you put up a sign at the grocery store that says "Pears" $.25, are you implying those aren't actually pears? Are they made of plastic?

2. The aforementioned homonyms. "Morning" is the beginning of the day; "mourning" is what you do when people die. "Site" is a website or a place where a building is being constructed or a specific location; "sight" is what you have. Something "piques" your interest, it doesn't "peak" or "peek" it. You climb a peak, you peek with your eyes.

3. Elipses are three periods. They indicate a sentence has trailed off, or that someone has taken a longer pause in speech than they would if just a period were used. You do not use the number of periods in an ellipsis to indicate how long the pause lasts.....or to create drama........or simply because you don't feel like using an actual period....or because maybe your finger just got stuck on the period button.

4. Questions do NOT have to end with question marks every time. They just don't. The punctuation indicates how the sentence is spoken; it is and can be fluid. For example: when Character A gets home, and Character B says, "Where were you?" it indicates, without needing to use dialogue tags or unecessary description, a totally different tone of voice and demeanor than Character A arriving home to Character B's "Where were you." That's not the best example in the world but you do see my point, I hope (and likewise, characters who say almost everything as a question tell us something about themselves and their general demeanor too.) I have twice been dinged for this by line editors and it's the only line edit nitpick that pisses me off. The fun of punctuation is that it determines how a sentence is spoken; it tells the reader something. Think of Willy Wonka, telling the children, "No. Please. Stop." Instead of "No! Please! Stop!" See the difference.

5. It is perfectly acceptable in fiction to start sentences with "And", "But", or "Because."

6. I find the grammar nitpick that unless a word ends in "s" it cannot be hissed most irritating. "Hissing" implies a furious whisper much more eloquently and directly than "whispered furiously" or "said in a furious whisper". Much like the nitpicking about how eyes do not follow people, gazes or stares do. "Her eyes followed him" is colorful and, I think, clear to just about every reader; frankly, if something like that is throwing you out of a story, there are other problems with the writing to the point that you are, consciously or unconsciously, looking for them. (I know there's at least one other of these that bugs me but I can't remember what it is.)

So you tell me now. What are your grammar issues? What drives you nuts?

I have been thinking of doing another summer publishing series, perhaps about agents. Thoughts? And if you or anyone you know has any Bad Agent stories, please send them along.


Bernita said...

Agree. Fervently.
Especially about the "question."

BernardL said...

To and too, lose and loose. A series about agents would be great, D.

December/Stacia said...

Tee hee, Bernita. I see what you did there.

Oh, Bernard, I can't believe I forgot lose and loose! And I forgot it's and its, which drives me nuts. :-)
Cool, I'm glad you like the idea!

Anonymous said...

"Through correct grammar and punctuation we make ourselves understood; what is so difficult to get about that?"

After reading Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, I was so frustrated (not at the book, it was great and read as smooth as Tennessee whiskey) I wrote Miss Snark an e-mail asking why McCourt could get away with throwing the rules out the window and I couldn't.

She basically, in a very un-snarky way (though she would probably deny it), replied that well, he's Frank McCourt and you're not.

I got it.

If your prose is so beautiful it even makes a tough Texan like me say things like "your prose is so beautiful" -the rules are not for you. -V95

December/Stacia said...

Right, V95. Although I would argue that McCourt clearly knows and understands the rules; his particular syntax and quirks are just that. Playing with the rules is fine, I do it myself. But there's a difference between playing with them because you're playing and playing because you don't know the difference, IMO. It's what made McCourt's prose beautiful (which it indeed was) instead of incomprehensible.

And didn't you think his mother was just a big lump? She bugged me. I mean I felt awful for her, really awful, but you'd think she'd show a little gumption.

kirsten saell said...

I love that line in Beavis and Butthead do America: "This is the guy off in whose camper they were wacking."

Although shitty writing always irks me, there aren't many things I find particularly heinous in themselves (although that whole peak/pique thing sometimes makes me want to gouge my eye out with a toasting fork out of sheer frustration). But there are times when I'm reading and suddenly find myself in a trance, and when I look I'll often realize the sentence structures in the story are nearly all identical. And that really annoys the crap out of me. FFS, mix it up a little!

bettie said...

Homonyms are the bane of my existence. They're a the trickiest type of misspelling because the spell-checker misses them. I know the difference--believe me, I do--but convincing my fingers is another matter, entirely.

writtenwyrdd said...

I'm not surprised to hear that some folks think they don't need skill in writing to make a great story. Part of written story telling is the writing! How could they possibly not see this point it is so obvious??!!

Seeley deBorn said...

The Man once took a weekend creative writng course (at the University, not just the local rec centre, FFS) and at the beginning of the first class the instructor told everyone in the room (who were mostly women looking to write romances) that spelling grammar and punctuation didn't matter. That's what editors are for.

We figure the instructor was trying to weed out the competition.

Eyecrossingly long sentences piss me off (not to mention put me to sleep). It seems to be some kind of device in crappy historicals, and boy is it overused.

Charles Gramlich said...

Good point. Some perfectly good words are simple and effective, like "big," and don't need to be replaced.

As for not caring about punctuation and grammar, etc, I get student papers all the time that are basically good in their coverage of the material but are so atrociously written grammatically that they are a pain to read. They don't get good grades.

Anonymous said...

Hallelujah! I just had a person in a crit group "call me out" because I said "the overexcited car reved for a moment before stalling out." They swore a car could not possibly be excited.

I've also been poked at because of my comma use. I use them as indicators of pause. Let's not even get into exclamation points. Way too over used I try never to use them, and critters have sometimes caught onto this and criticized me for it. Do you need exclamation points? Don't words like "wailed" and "raged" and the simple "screamed" pretty much make an exclamation point overkill?

Elizabeth said...

I am hanging my head in shame and the things I have learned from this post.
Elizabeth who still fights with its and it's

McKoala said...

Phase and faze. Don't get me started on phase and faze. Suffice to say, I once got a job because of my ability to use both words correctly.

writtenwyrdd said...

I have a crit partner who comments on each and every dialog tag that isn't 'said'. And he calls any of them that include stage business Tom Swifties. It is okay to use something other than 'said'. It IS. And a Tom Swifty involves an obtrusive adjective, as in -ly. Get over it, dude.

Also, corollary of #5, it is okay to use sentence fragments in fiction. Not always, but they do serve a purpose in the rythm and flow of the language, and add emphasis or shades of meaning to the pov character's perspective.

I agree with everything you said. When I see a homonym misused, that really bugs me. Just as much as Bushhead saying Newkewlur instead of Nuclear.

writtenwyrdd said...

Michele, I have to disagree about comma usage for pauses. Use ellipses if you want to indicate a pause. commas placed where there is no rule for it are going to bug readers and will always make you look ignorant. The trend, in fact, is to reduce commas, not add in extra.

Robyn said...

"Loose" instead of "lose." That's not even an actual homonym. They're pronounced differently, so how hard could it be to distinguish between the two?


Misplacement of modifiers such as "only." As in:

He only ate three apples.

That means he ate the apples rather than performing some other nifty trick with them, which, in a certain context (say, for instance, "he" is known to have a habit of performing unnatural sexual acts with produce), would be acceptable.

However, since the intended meaning is usually that he ate three apples rather than four or twelve or twenty, it should be:

He ate only three apples.

I see it all the time, point it out all the time, am told all the time I'm being too nitpicky, but when the placement of a word changes the entire meaning of the sentence, I continue to insist proper placement is important.


Anonymous said...

"And didn't you think his mother was just a big lump? She bugged me. I mean I felt awful for her, really awful, but you'd think she'd show a little gumption."

Oh, yeah. My wife has, er, would kick my ass thoroughly. -V95

December/Stacia said...

Lol, kis!
Yes, I hate those all-the-same sentences. I know I have a problem with that very thing. That's why I re-read with a special eye towards it, though! It's called editing. :-)

You know, Bettie, I think we've all made homonym mistakes as typos before. I know I have (I recall a particularly embarrassing one with "gait" vs "gate".) So some of them don't bother me as much as others, but peak/pique, bear/bare, and especially site/sight drive me nuts because they're so common, you know? To the point where you can't just see it as a typo, it has to be an actual error.

Because they're idiots, Written. Actually I believe it's like what Seeley says below: they honestly think all that is an editor's job, and that they shouldn't have to bother their masterfully creative heads with such trifles. *makes throat-grabbing gesture with fingers*

Oh, Seeley. For shame, that teacher. I would have had a fit.
Yes, I know the overlong sentence, although I admit to being guilty of that one on occasion myself. Usually for a purpose, though, to indicate jumbled or pedantic thinking/characters. But too many of them, bleh! :-)

Good for you, Charles! Somebody needs to take a stand on this stuff, instead of the current "As long as they're expressing themselves in writing it doesn't matter how good it is" fashion, which is shameful IMO and sets civilization back decades.

December/Stacia said...

Oh, Michele, that kind of know, one of the best things about language is its color and flexibility. Of course a car can be overexcited; what is the point of writing if no irony, allusions, comparisons, etc. are permitted? WTF?!
Although I'm of two minds about commas for pauses. Sometimes I use them for a shorter pause, but only in dialogue, and only on occasion. I do prefer to keep my commas to a minimum whenever possible.

It's very simple, Elizabeth. "Its" is possessive. "Its place", for example. "It's" is a contraction of "it is": "It's me."
If you're using "it's" for "it is", you need the apostrophe. If not, you don't.

Ah, McKoala, phase and faze. Yes indeed.

Oh YES, Written, I hate people who get nasty about my fragments. Sometimes they are necessary, dammit! Prose should have rhythm, and rhythm that varies. And while I prefer "said", yes, it is perfectly acceptable to use other tags! I'm a tag Nazi and even I do use things other than said at times. :-)

Robyn, I have to admit, "lose" and "loose" is one of those that makes me think the writer just isn't very smart. I can accept typos for some of them, but that one just looks so wrong to me!

Hee, Kerry, you win the nitpickiest prize! Oh, I adore you for that. :-) I totally get what you mean though. That doesn't bother me, but I think we all have a particular nitpick or quirk. I know I have several--one just flashed through my head and I lost it, but I know it's there.

The thing is, V95, it isn't just that she didn't stand up to his Dad. It's that she did nothing. She did nothing to take care of her children when he disappeared, she just sat around feeling sorry for herself. She had no sense of humor--shit, his Dad drank but seemed like a pretty cool, good dad otherwise--but she was just a lump. If my husband left me and there was no money, I'd get a job. I'd do whatever I had to do, even if it meant giving blow jobs for a quarter or whatever, because that's what you DO when you have kids and you need to feed them. So she bugged me, because I thought she was too wrapped up in herself to be a decent Mom.

Anonymous said...

Ah, I'm not talking pauses in dialog, I'm talking using them to break up a sentence, but not always as replacements for parenthesis. It's sometimes appropriate and sometimes not based on the sentence. However, I've been assured by a number of writers that I truly respect (including by not limited to John Scalzi and Jay Lake) that they do that too, and it's technically incorrect, but acceptable for fiction as a stylistic thing.

December/Stacia said...

That's very true, Michele. The sentence itself is what determines whether or not something is correct, and it's silly to be so pedantic about any one rule.

laughingwolf said...

i have no quarrel with this post...

btw - your site is now linked from mine, as per your request ;)