Monday, April 8, 2013

Writing A Novel - Grammar

When writing a novel we are communicating through words in order to telepathically send our imaginings to an audience we may never meet. However, the words that we use follow some rules of their own and if we elect to ignore them, our story can be lost in translation.  

The Importance of Grammar

Grammar is the foundation of the universe(s) we build.  A strong foundation leads to a strong structure, a faulty one leads to any number of unforeseen problems. The back cover of my copy of Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss demonstrates this perfectly with the following joke:
A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air.
"Why?" asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes he way towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.
"I'm a panda," he says at the door. "look it up."
The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation.
"Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like animal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves."
This is ridiculous and hilarious, but it clearly shows how powerful something as little as a comma can be .And while you may feel that you have complete mastery over the comma, what about the semicolon, the hyphen or the gerund? If your confidence is wavering, then you need to take some time to deepen your knowledge of grammar.

Grammar Weaves Your Bag of Tricks!
When I was a teacher and math coach I was always thinking about my "bag of tricks" - that included all the stuff brought to the profession each day. In my eyes, my content knowledge is what the bag was made of, so the stronger my knowledge of mathematics was, the more "stuff" I could put in the bag: teaching methodologies, behavior management techniques, creative and unique lesson plans, et cetera. I feel the same way about writing. Every writer has his or her own bag of tricks that they bring to the page, however, as your knowledge of the language we use deepens, you become even more capable of sculpting the perfect story.  The more you understand how our language works, the more power you have over it!

Where To Learn About Grammar
What happens to all the people who didn't have Ms. Sussuma (or someone like her) for Language Arts who made my class tirelessly diagram sentences (we had one notebook dedicated to this act alone) and sing the preposition song to the tune of "Yankee Doodle Dandy"? Or, what if - like me - after an elementary education full of such tortures, you turned a blind eye to all grammar and swore to never ever think about it again? Where do you go now that you've decided you are going to write a novel? So far, I have found three excellent resources:
  1. Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss - The subtitle of this book is "The Zero Tolerance Approach To Punctuation" and that is what it is. While Truss wrote this book for her fellow "sticklers" that cringe at the sight of misused apostrophes in media, storefront windows and the such, what she does for non-sticklers in reviewing all of the infractions is lead us down an entertaining path showing us how to clean up our own grammatical messes. By the end of the book, not only will you be shocked that you actually enjoyed a book about grammar, but you may even grow a couple of stickler-tendencies yourself! (*Note: There are some variations in American Grammar versus British Grammar. Truss is British and does a good job in her American version of this book to point out the points of debate, however I think it is important to reiterate here.)
  2. The Big Ten of Grammar by William B. Bradshaw, PhD - This quick read takes you through the ten most frequent grammatical errors. Not limited to punctuation, this book attacks some mistakes that are so common, the correct way of doing things sounds more wrong than the mistake. Although sections about rules you are already familiar with will feel overly repetitive (for me, unfortunately, this was Chapter one), once you reach your personal Grammatical Everest, the repetition is enormously effective (I finally "get" what a gerund is!). The ten chapter titles, summarizing the common errors are:
    1. The Number One Mistake: Misusing "I" and "Me"
    2. Working With "He" or "Him" and "She" or "Her"
    3. Quotation Marks and Other Punctuation
    4. The "ing" Thing
    5. "That" or "Which" and Some Other Things
    6. Misusing the Apostrophe
    7. Troublesome Verbs -- "Lie," "Lay," "Laid," "Lain"
    8. "Less" or "Fewer"
    9. Commas or Semicolons in a Series
    10. Commas Between Adjectives
  3. Grammar Girl Quick and Dirty Tips - If you'd rather hear about grammar than read about it, then Grammar Girl's for you (although every post has a written version on the site as well!). Also, if you are ready to stretch beyond the common mistakes of grammar and you are ready to really reinforce your bag of tricks with all levels of grammar knowledge, then she's your go-to-gal. Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips podcast runs the gamut. You can search her archives for the more common grammar issue or, like this week's post exemplifies, you can learn about Bad Portmanteau Examples (I just learned something new!). 
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't mention reading, in general, as a source for furthering your grammatical education.While many authors break some of the rules (or just make up their own) when writing their novels, for the most part you will learn a lot from those who went before you.

Thanks for reading!
Where did you learn your grammar rules?
Is there one piece of punctuation or type of word you are still unsure of?
Are you a "stickler" for proper punctuation, do you cringe at public errors? 


  1. Pandas are going to get a bad reputation with that book. Too funny! I've heard of the grammer girls book, but not the other two. Going to pick them up.
    Visiting from the A to Z.

  2. I've had the "Big Ten" book for a while, but didn't read it until last night. It is really awesome!

  3. This is so cool! Thank you for the reading list - I have SUCH respect for people who can take a subject as dry and intimidating as grammar and make it accessible, fun, and relevant. Clearly I've got some books to order!

  4. I haven't seen it myself, but the "Eats, Shoots and Leaves" book has somehow been transformed into a picture book. I have been meaning to check it out just for the fun factor!