Wednesday, November 17, 2010


by Miriam

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 startedeven 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 subjecthe’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-dashone 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 rulesbecause 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.


  1. How do you feel about authors who publish electronic books without bothering to edit? I've come across several "best-selling" eBook authors whose novels are rife with error.

  2. Shalon Sims17/11/10 1:57 PM

    Thanks Miriam for your great advice. I can also recommend which is non-profit, free and gives great advice on grammar and style--I find myself using it all the time!

  3. What I find most irritating is reading best-sellers that have a lot of typo's in them. There is a reason why typesetters send proofs to the publisher - it is so that they can re-read the text and eliminate these errors.

  4. You, me, and Dr. Seuss. Great post! :)

  5. Great post! This could be really helpful for writers going through and editing their manuscripts. Luckily, I am at this step so I'll be referring to this quite a bit.

  6. Advice for writers: never just self-edit. You're too close to the material and you will miss the fact that certain words are misspelled or missing altogether.

  7. As you can imagine, Anonymous, I hate the fact that numerous e-books are being published with little or no editing. One of the reasons we keep harping on the need for agents and editors, even in this brave new electronic world, is our worry that while e-books might make for a more egalitarian publishing process, their being put out there without structural and line editing will also lead to a lowering of standards of quality. Personally, I don't think that's good for anyone. Having said that, I bet that as e-book publishing becomes more prevalent readers will demand a better product and that side of the business will begin to police itself better.

  8. I found this post informative, not due to the fact that spelling and grammar are important but because of the admission that "even great" writing can be tossed on the reject pile if the syntax isn't perfect.

    While I can appreciate the annoyance of submissions filled with errors a ten-year-old probably manages to avoid, isn't it the agent's and editor's job to look beyond that? Aren't agents there to assist talented writers with these easily amended problems? Grammar and punctuation can be remedied whereas a page-turner cannot be sucked out of an immaculately crafted style guide. .

  9. I'm laughing. My daughter's boyfriend recently called to ask for her hand in marriage. He uses incorrect grammar (writing and speaking). He writes, "Where are you going to be at?" He says things like "supposably" and "besides for" and "Valentimes" Day.

    Will I survive?

  10. Yes, Lucy, as I think I mentioned, we do try to look beyond the typos and grammatical errors and, certainly, there are some brilliant writers out there who can't spell and can't type. But, when you're considering 150 queries at a sitting, the brilliance really has to be at supernova levels to make you want to wade through all the sloppiness. And, Teri, I feel for you....

  11. Reading the Churchill quote reminded me of the slight controversy surrounding it. Did Winston say it, or did he not?

    Anyway, if you're a nit-picking historian, as I am, you might enjoy this article. :-)

    What Churchill May Have Said ... or Not

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  13. @Lucy: There are so many writers trying to get published, though, that it becomes a numbers game. If you were an agent, wouldn't you be more attracted to the manuscripts that had a great story and great grammar instead of just one or the other? Yes, exceptions might be made if the story were really fantastic, but I'm thinking that if I were in that situation and had two equally good stories in front of me, but one had a lot of grammatical errors (not just a few typos), I'd go with the one that needed less fixing.

    I'll also second the OWL site from Purdue. It's basically the APA style guide online and is a very useful resource.

  14. Thank you! Now every time someone tells me that numerals can be used, I'll point them here! Although, I do still tend to screw up the it's/its thing. Not on purpose (I really do know the difference. :) ), but I generally catch them during my edits.

  15. Amen! Even published authors need help with making their writing gooder. Narc it up, sister! ;)

  16. I would probably make the worst agent/editor considering the fact I am extremely impatient. And I do have great respect for all you professionals wading through piles of crap (bad spelling and bad writing)

    Anyone who has read this post will certainly take the advice to heart. I will be sure to pass on the advice. It's much appreciated.

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