It is a truth universally acknowledged (here at DGLM) that I am the resident grammar narc. Although, by and large, I’m a fairly “live and let live” type, I can be downright dictatorial when it comes to clean, polished prose. Of course, in my line of work, I have had to learn some forbearance. If I got worked up over every typo, I’d be living in a padded cell and re-reading William Safire columns ad infinitum. That said, I still find it baffling how much material is submitted to us that is sloppy, poorly proofread, and full of grammatical and syntactical mistakes.
This blog is rife with palaver about how to get published, how to get an agent, how to craft the perfect query letter, etc., but we seldom discuss the fact that bad grammar and syntax can end your publishing career before it ever gets started—even if your ideas are fresh and good and your writing actually decent or even great. Although agents and editors are trained to see beyond simple errors that can easily be fixed in copyediting, most of us have to wade through so many submissions that we sometimes can’t get past our irritation with an author who uses random capitals everywhere or who chooses to spell phonetically rather than correctly. These days, it seems that writers are in such a rush to send off their queries the minute the manuscript is finished that they omit the part where they check to make sure that their work is ready for prime time.
Some of the things you may want to be on the lookout for before you hit the “send” key:
Don’t begin sentences with numerals. Ever.
Put the hyphens in the right place when referring to a character’s age: it’s “a four-year-old boy” but “the boy was four years old.”
Don’t use a semi-colon in place of a comma or period…or just because you think it looks sophisticated.
Keep your possessives and your contractions straight. “Its” and “it’s” mean very different things, so do “your” and “you’re.”
Read up on prepositions and their objects. There are songs that make my teeth itch when the singer wails about the love “between you and I.”
However you feel about the serial comma, use it. Doing so will help you avoid a great deal of unnecessary confusion. (I direct you to my friend Jim Donahue’s blog post on this subject—he’s a big grammar geek too.)
I don’t care how much country music you listen to, it’s not “anyways.”
There is a difference between a hyphen and an em-dash—one separates two words that are linked to make one concept, the other is used for parenthetical asides. Hint: in that sentence the hyphen is in the word “em-dash” and the em-dash is right after it.
Ellipses, when overused, are the equivalent of heavy breathing and invariably communicate an inherent laziness on the part of the writer who is overusing them.
Check out The Chicago Manual of Style on numbers usage. It’s very distracting to see a lot of numerals (especially single digit numerals) in non-scientific text.
And, finally, please refrain from repeating the same word or phrase in close proximity unless it’s for a very specific effect.
You know I could go on and on here, but I’m pretty sure you all get the gist. Investing in a couple of good reference books on style and grammar will pay huge dividends. Having someone who’s just a little nitpicky proofread your work will as well. Of course, once sparkling clean prose becomes second nature, you can go ahead and subvert all of the rules—because sometimes the correct way of saying something just doesn’t sound as good. Remember Winston Churchill’s clever comeback for a pedant? “Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.”
*Dr. Seuss said the key to good writing is “meticulosity.” Clearly, I agree.