"" Rob Parnell's Writing Academy Blog: The Secret Rules of Grammar

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Secret Rules of Grammar

Dear Fellow Writer,

I read the other day that modern burglars don't case neighborhoods anymore. They don't have to.

They use the Net.

First they find people in their target area with Twitter and FB accounts and they follow the posts, waiting for messages about you being away from home... then, if they need to find your house, they ask Google where you live, get the map, study the overhead view of your property and the surrounds and print it out if necessary - and then set off with an empty swag bag...

Apparently over 60% of burglars admit to using the Net to target houses these days. Amazing - and something that never occurred to me until I read it.

Gotta be real careful about filling in your address online.

Keep Writing!


The E Files

It seems grammar is an issue for many of us writers.

(BTW, I think 'we writers' sounds dumb - and is probably incorrect these days. See below.)

Most of the rules seem to be some kind of closely guarded secret. They must be - because we often ignore them or act as though they're irrelevant!

Bad news is publishers (for all their faults) like good grammar from writers. So, here's a round up of the most common writing mistakes we all make.

Its/it’s Confusing

I saw this in a newspaper just the other day. It's is short for 'it is' - there's no apostrophe needed for its other possessive uses.

Formatting Foibles

Fiction still needs to be formatted like fiction - with indented paragraphs and definitely no line break between every paragraph. Manuscripts looking like non fiction e-books are roundly loathed by publishers, editors and agents.

Comma Clogging

Some people use too many commas, some not enough. They're used to make your writing clearer. That's all. If they stand out, you're using too many. If your sentences regularly get misread or misunderstood, it's usually because there's commas missing.

Pronoun Positioning

Eric and Ginger started the riff, then he played the guitar solo. Who's the he?

Wild Words

Effect / affect, passed / past, etc. You need to know the difference with these kinds of words because your spell checker won't help you!

Cliche Catching

Check every piece of writing for common, overused phrases. Sometimes we're so used to hearing them, we don't realize they're essentially meaningless.

Tensing Trouble

If you're writing in the past, stay there. And, if you're stuck in the present, don't jump back. Check for tense problems during your edit. You do go back and edit your work, don't you?

Dang Danglers

Where you start a sentence with an unrelated phrase. Bad fiction writers tend to do this a lot, to break up the rhythm. It rarely works well - and can lead to absurdity.

Folly Filled Fragments

It's perfectly okay to use short ungrammatical sentences for effect. Once or twice. In an entire novel.

Passivity Problems

Easy way to spot this: the use of 'was' or lots of 'ing' words. We all do it but it's better to change the sentence around to say something more direct.

Who (Whom?) Does That Relate to?

The manager's pen belongs to the manager. The managers' pen belongs to all of them.

The Perils of Punctuation

More than one or two exclamation marks per novel is too many. Don't overuse them, especially to denote humor. Similarly, the semi-colon is so easily misunderstood, it's best not to use it at all.

Are You Prepositioning Me?

Used to be that you couldn't end a sentence with words like 'to' or 'for' or 'on' or 'about'. Personally, I don't see why not. Doesn't seem to bother anyone these days. Never bothered Dickins either.

Capital Ideas

Names, titles, places, nationalities, days, months and big events are capitalized. Things that you personally think are important are often not.

Adverb Anarchy

Not all sentences need a descriptor or three. If you can't make a sentence work without an adverb, you're probably using the wrong noun. Same goes for adjectives.

It's a Big Wide World

America, Australia and the UK use different spelling for certain words. Write for one market in another's spelling and they'll think you're incompetent. If in doubt, use the US spelling - it's becoming the accepted norm (because we don't mind it being that way.)

Words Missing in Action

Okay, it's one of my own personal failings. Sometimes you just don't see there's a missing word. No matter how many times you read a piece, your brain sees the thing, even when it's not there! Use the old journalist trick: read your work backwards.

Of course there are many more little mistakes we make - but the above are a few of my favorites - and the ones I see in other writer's work most often.

Other Stuff

Pet peeve: the use of the indefinite article: IT.

Don't get me wrong, I love 'it'. It's so... indefinite.

But good writers need to watch out for its overuse because it can lead to lazy writing - not to mention confusion.

I also get confused over whether to use 'that' instead of 'which' or who - or whether to use 'who' or 'whom' for that matter, not that it's a common problem these days. Using 'whom' just makes you sound pretentious anyway.

Plus, I've never understood the insistence on 'you and I' over 'you and me'. After all, when did you ever hear anyone ask, "Are you talking to I?"

But there will always be the anal amongst us who (that?) see errors in everything.

I happen to believe the English language should be organic - and we should accept modifications to the rules when the majority of its users see no point in hanging on to an archaic convention.

Having said that, we writers are meant to be, at the very least, understood by the majority.

And just because there's a whole new way of writing beginning to emerge as a result of technology, that doesn't mean all the rules are pointless.

Far from it.

Because when we know the rules, we're in a much better position to break them, as I do - you'll have noticed in the above - all the time!

Keep writing!

Rob at Home
Your Success is My Concern
Rob Parnell's Easy Way to Write


"You've got to rattle your cage door. You've got to let them know that you're in there, and that you want out. Make noise. Cause trouble. You may not win right away, but you'll sure have a lot more fun." Florynce Kennedy

Previous Newsletter includes:
Article: "Write On Target"
Writer's Quote by Samuel Goldwyn

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