How to Write Well: A Writer (and Reader’s) Grammar Pet Peeves

I have always thought that writing killer fiction takes two things.

  • You need an intriguing story and good characters.
  • You need to be able to tell that story in a intriguing and understandable way.

I don’t write much about grammar here, but grammar is important because it’s a major, major factor in the second bullet point above. There are others as well, of course: pacing, transitions, readability. But grammar has a huge impact on how effectively you tell your story. I have seen SO many reviews of self-published authors who don’t have good grammar and didn’t use an editor, reviews that say things like, “The story was good but I couldn’t really get into it because the grammar mistakes distracted me.” Or, even worse: “I couldn’t even finish it the grammar was so bad.”

I can't believe I just read that. Or that I wrote it. DID I WRITE THAT?

I can’t believe I just read that. Or that I wrote it. DID I WRITE THAT?

Here are the grammar mistakes I particularly freak out about when I find them in my writing, and the mistakes that, if appearing consistently, will bring me to put down a novel.

  1. DANGLING MODIFIERS. I might need to devote a whole post to this one. Dangling modifiers are so horrible because when you use them, you’re not saying what you think you’re saying. Never forget that when you start a sentence with a gerund clause, the subject of that gerund (an -ing word) must come directly after that clause. So, if I say, “Peering through the room, the windows had dark curtains and the furniture was clearly secondhand,” what am I saying? I’m saying the windows are sentient and are looking around. Seriously. It has to be, “Peering through the room, he noted…” or something like that. (The plus side of dangling modifiers is that they can be really amusing!)
  2. ITS and IT’S. For some reason, confusion between “its” and “it’s” bugs me a heck of a lot more than “two/to/too” or “they’re/there/their.” This gets confusing because English often uses an apostrophe to mark possession. Still, “its” is the possessive. “The dog raised its paw.” “It’s” is a contraction for “it is.”
  3. COMMA SPLICES. These make me want to rip my hair out, and I’m not sure why. They just do. I’ve had to stop reading a blog with really interesting and moving content because I could not get past the invasion of the comma splices. I’m not proud of it, but it’s the truth. So remember, commas don’t join two independent clauses, or sentences. Semicolons do that. If you want to use a comma, you need a conjunction (and, but, or) to follow. So you really shouldn’t write, “The carriage was broken and the driver couldn’t take it out, the duke would just have to wait.” Make that comma a period, or insert “so” behind it. Conjunction Junction: Let’s all go to there!
  4. DIRECT ADDRESS. When someone’s speaking to someone and uses that person’s name or title, proper punctuation is to set that name off with a comma. Thus: “I’ll see it done, Mr. President.” “Jane, what are you talking about?” “I’m telling you, Maud, I just don’t know what’s happening these days.” Also, as to mother and father, mom and dad: when you’re talking to that person or about that person and using those titles as a proper name, they’re capitalized. But only in that instance. So, you get “Tell your father” and “Tell the girl’s father,” but “Tell Father.” Somewhat confusing, but worthwhile to get straight.
  5. IRREGARDLESS. This is not a word. Regardless of what many think, it is not a word. Please, in the name of all that’s holy, don’t treat it as one!

Looking at the list, over half are matters of punctuation. I admit I’m a stickler for punctuation, but that’s because I respect it. I think we should all respect it. After all–like that e-card going around Facebook says:

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52 responses to “How to Write Well: A Writer (and Reader’s) Grammar Pet Peeves

  1. forgingshadows

    This is one thing that really gets to me when I go on broad story-sharing sites. A lot of people out there have good ideas, but they have absolutely no idea how to communicate them.

    • It’s sad but true! I know some people personally from college who have interesting ideas for stories but never really read, and I think that’s the problem. Reading teaches you grammar and vocabulary by osmosis. You can’t write well without reading a lot.

  2. You’re so right. Dangling modifiers are often very funny but unless they’re deliberate (and I don’t see how they could ever be so in anything that’s not a grammar book) they jolt your ‘suspension of disbelief.’ Once that’s gone, it can be impossible to get back.

    All writers make mistakes. I think this is where we need to respect the need for an editor.

    Thanks for the list. Good reminders. πŸ™‚

  3. Hey Victoria,

    I have a couple of grammar habits that are questionable, and I was hoping you could help me figure out how to fix them.

    1) I often use a dash to separate two parts of a sentence, where the 2nd part of the sentence refers to the last word of the 1st. That probably sounds confusing, so here are some examples:

    “She was young–perhaps late teens.”
    “Charlie felt herself being swallowed by a visceral anguish–one she had tried to repress for too many years.”
    “Charlie elected to walk home–ten miles from the studio in Burbank.”

    2) I tend to use a comma to serialize certain aspects of a sentence (often for impact).

    “She felt almost real, almost human.”
    “Humans have the ability to converse, to forge meaningful connections.”
    “He was leading them down a dangerous path, opening himself up far too much.”

    Again, the second part of each sentence functions as a clarification of the first. (So I guess these two habits are pretty similar).

    Thoughts?

    • Glad your comment came through here, Peter!

      For number 1, you can actually use a comma. That’s what I’d do in those instances. Sometimes a colon is also appropriate, especially if one part of the sentence isn’t a full sentence in itself and going into more detail, making a list of characteristics.

      Number 2 is perfect in my eyes. I do the same thing. Commas are great for that! As long as you don’t have a full sentence in its own right after the comma you don’t need a semicolon or comma plus conjunction. Those aren’t comma splices.

  4. Your #1 pet peeve is also mine. I cringe when I come across a dangling modifier in a published work, because it’s a clear mark to me of an amateur who didn’t hire an editor. Finding one such mistake puts me on the alert for more, distracting me and thus diminishing my enjoyment of the work.

  5. So true! One of my pet peeves is when someone uses an apostrophe in the wrong place, i.e., the Brown’s house instead of the Browns’ house.

    • OOOH that one really gets under my skin!!! Thanks for dropping by. I forgot to mention it in the post! I don’t know how. That one really, really gets to me. Punctuation errors just kill me!

  6. Food 4 The Soul 93

    “With either or, neither nor, not but, or or, the verb agrees with the nearer subject.” Good writing starts with a firm grasp of grammar!

    Good job!
    Skip

    • thanks! and thanks for sharing that rhyme. It’s new to me and I love it, haha!

      • Food 4 The Soul 93

        “And, but, or, nor, for, and yet. These are the verbs of being…” My grammar teachers were tough on us in school!

        I won’t say how long ago it was that I learned those rules…

        Take care,
        Skip πŸ™‚ xo

  7. Poor grammar bugs the hell out of me, too, although I may be guilty of it sometimes.
    I agree, it can be distracting when reading something, that otherwise I might have enjoyed. This, I think, is a particular problem with some self-published books. Because they might not have gone through any kind of editorial work, the grammar goes unchecked.
    I have self published two novels in the past, and paid to have both of them copy edited. It wasn’t cheap, but it was worth it for my peace of mind, and knowing that I was putting out a polished piece of work for potential customers’ consideration.
    Having said that, my last novel, I self-edited (is there such a word?) because I was getting paid a flat fee for it, but not enough that I could afford to pay for it to be copy edited.
    Another interesting post. Thanks!

    • you’re welcome!!! It definitely helps to someone else who understands grammar as much as(if you’re a real pro) or even better than you. It’s definitely a big problem in the indie industry, sadly. 😦

  8. I like to think I do a pretty good job with grammar and punctuation but I am sure I make my fair share of mistakes. Such an interesting post and I think so true for many writers. Grammar errors are irritating and it always amazes me when I see professional writers misusing there,their and they’re and other such words like to, too and two.

  9. toninelsonmeansbusiness

    I was just having a discussion on how we write like we speak. Sometimes it’s not grammatically correct so we have to be careful! That’s why I had a friend who’s a teacher look over the final draft of my book:)

  10. Pingback: G is for Great Gobs of Gramma’s Grammar Goodies and Goofs | JaniceHeck

  11. This is a great article!
    Its/it’s, whose/who’s, your/you’re… As a German I find myself mixing up those homophones, although I surly know the difference. Weather/whether is another example.
    I’m curious: How you deal with the serial comma, a.k.a. Oxford comma?
    There was a discussion among my fellow co-workers about the pros and cons and weather(sic) it would be favorable to introduce it to the German language (we don’t have it). I know this comma can help resolving ambiguities, but it can also introduce them.
    see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serial_comma

    • Great point, Mias! I love the Oxford comma and I definitely use it. I find it clarifies, organizes, and introduces a natural-sounding pause. (haha…. I used one right there!)

  12. Hi Victoria, great post.
    you have hit the one thing that i find most difficult about writing, grammar and punctuation (there see, 2 rather than 1 lol)
    i have even resorted to getting a kindergarden poster for my wall (you know, the cat sat on the mat type of thing) but i am still getting it wrong. I have found that i am a “speed reader” and simply can not spot my mistakes, even with the old red and green squigely lines under them. It is words that are words but are the wrong word, eg, were and where, so no line says it’s wrong. can you offer any simple, and i mean super simple help or guides?
    thanks and keep writing, for you know you have too…..

    • Hmmm. The Elements of Style by Strunk and White is a good one. And “Eats Shoots and Leaves” is good too (if a bit uppity). Those are books I’ve read.

      As for were and where… remember “were” is the verb, each 4 letters. “where” is a “place,” each 5 letters. And don’t forget to have an editor and to really mark the changes/corrections he or she makes. That’ll help you zone in on the rules.

  13. Musings on the writing life

    very useful post for someone like me, who’s first language isn’t english! Thanks!

    • I’m so glad you found it helpful!!! I know what it’s like to struggle with grammar in a second language…. I learned Spanish in school and from spending some time in Spain, and every time I had to write an academic paper in Spanish…. UGH! So frustrating!

  14. “You need an intriguing story and a good characters.”
    That sounded strange on my text reader (which I use because I’m dyslexic).

    We all have our pet peeves. The one that bothers me the most is urine splatter on a public toilet. My sister, who made her living teaching effective writing skills, has the same pet peeves you do. She’s the one editing my book. Not many people have that level of good fortune. She looks at it another way–payback for all those years (she thinks) she was mean to me.

    • hahaha! that’s awesome you have someone so close to you able to edit your work. And if that segment you mentioned sounded weird it’s because I accidentally edited an error into it. GRR… I hate when I do that! Thanks for point it out so I can go fix it right now πŸ™‚

  15. Most people read past words such as “a” and “of.” When I use a text reader, if those words are out of place they hit my ears like a car tire over a pothole. Unfortunately, I have no such auditory radar for grammar and punctuation. If you would like a peek into what my sister experienced as she helped me edit my book, feel free to read this entry in my blog:
    http://rantingalong.wordpress.com/2012/12/22/writing-when-you-aint-quite-right-part-1/
    It’s 4 parts, but each part is only 1 -2 pages long.

  16. Irregardless. That one bugs me every time I hear it. I want to correct the person saying it, but I’ve managed to hold my tongue this long.
    I dislike typos. They interupt my involvement in a story. I absolutely detest bad grammar and the improper usage of words, and I would swear you’ve touched on every one of them here. Glad to know I’m not the only one. πŸ™‚

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  22. That line about self-published writers and bad grammar stung because I have received reviews just like that. If only I wasn’t so arrogant back then, or read this blog post.

    I’m with you on comma splices. There was this one book I reviewed that I couldn’t truly enjoy because of all the comma splices.

    • Comma splices drive me CRAZY! oh my gosh. I can handle them in small doses, but I can definitely understand not enjoying a book because there were too many comma splices.

  23. Katherine E Bland

    I, too, cringe when I hear or see poor grammar being used. However, it is usually when I hear misspoken words from reporters, etc. that I am most bothered. I hold professional communicators to a higher standard. A common error is when someone uses “less” v. “fewer.” If you can count whatever you describing, then you should use “fewer.” Otherwise, use “less.”

    • Oooh, less vs fewer is a HUGE one.

      And I think you are absolutely right to hold reporters and professional communicators, in the professional writing and interactions, to a high standard of grammar. I definitely do that to. πŸ™‚

  24. Victoria, I am so happy I found your blog. I’m sure I’ve transgressed in all of the areas you mentioned above πŸ™‚ I particularly have issues with semicolons and dashes. I’m not sure when to use them. I’m glad you mentioned, “its” and It’s”, because for some reason, I had forgotten the difference and starting questioning what I was writing.

    • Glad I could help!!! Punctuation is really tough….but “Eats, Shoots, and Leaves” is a great punctuation guide (even if the author does get a little bit snarky/pedantic). You might check it out!

  25. This was a helpful post. I’ve always struggled with grammar, but you make it crystal clear. Thank you.

  26. Hi Victoria! I’m new to creative story writing, and find this very helpful! Though, I’m a bit confused by your take on dangling modifiers. Is it necessary to say who is ‘peering’ if the subject is already known to the reader? I would think the sentance starts with a gerund in the first place because the subject is known. Also, it may be a stretch to fear the readers thinking the windows are sentient. Again, I’m a beginner who’s only confused. Grammar is one of my weak points, so I wouldn’t dare correct you. Well, except for this; in the second bullet point you say ‘a intriguing’ instead of ‘an intriguing’. XD

  27. Hi Victoria! I’m new to creative story writing, and find this very helpful! Though, I’m a bit confused by your take on dangling modifiers. Is it necessary to say who is ‘peering’ if the subject is already known to the reader? I would think the sentance starts with a gerund in the first place because the subject is known. Also, it may be a stretch to fear the readers thinking the windows are sentient. Again, I’m a beginner who’s only confused. Grammar is one of my weak points, so I wouldn’t dare correct you. Well, except for this; in the second bullet point you say ‘a intriguing’ instead of ‘an intriguing’. XD

    • Hi! Grammar can definitely get confusing. You are right to think readers would naturally know who was peering and that it’s not the windows πŸ™‚ The way that sentence is written, though, it’s an error because even though the writer and reader understand the meaning, grammatically it’s not saying what we understand it to mean. Whenever a sentence starts with a gerund phrase, grammatically that phrase modifies the subject of the sentence, which in that case is “windows.” that’s why it’s called a dangling modifier. I hope that helps!

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