Creative writing is the heart and soul of Writing Forward, but working at the craft and consistently producing better writing is what really makes this blog tick.
Today, we sing the praises of good grammar with a round-up of articles and resources to help you master the mechanics of grammar, spelling, and punctuation.
If you’ve ever wrestled with the rules of language or struggled to differentiate between good grammar and bad grammar, then you’ll find many nuggets of wisdom in this article.
Now, let’s take a little tour through some of the grammar-related posts that have been featured here at Writing Forward over the years. Read more
A while back, I was chatting with a friend when she casually mentioned she had plans to spend an evening helping out another friend of hers with some work that needed to be done. I asked, “What kind of work?”
“She’s an English teacher. I’m going to help her grade papers.”
I experienced a moment of envy. “That sounds like fun,” I said. I love perusing written documents in search of typos, misspellings, and other grammatical mistakes. What can I say? I always endorse good grammar.
“These papers are written by teenagers,” she responded, “not so fun.”
Good Grammar is Fun and Education Should Be Too
I considered this, then remarked, “Yes, judging by the amount of writing errors I see coming from adults, those papers will probably be more red than white by the time you’re done.”
“Oh no,” she exclaimed. “No mark-ups. She just grades them. She says there are too many errors and she doesn’t have time to mark every single mistake.”
Well, if that’s the mentality of today’s English teachers or schools, it’s no wonder the written word is treated with such complete and total disregard. I said as much to my friend and then we moved along to other, less disturbing topics.
What’s Happened to Our Education System?
Since that conversation, I’ve spent ample time wondering what, exactly, the English and Language Arts teachers are teaching students, if not good grammar. Looking back, I realized that I hadn’t had a decent grammar lesson past fourth grade. My spelling and punctuation skills were largely inherited from the massive amounts of reading I did, so I didn’t need grammar lessons necessarily, but it sure would have been nice to have graduated high school knowing the difference between farther and further.
During high school, I had an English teacher who found time to teach the class dating etiquette, which was supposed to prepare us for prom. We learned things like how to step out of a car, which arm to fold your coat over, and which forks to use for salad and the main course in a fine restaurant. While I found the lessons interesting, and the teacher was one that I liked very much, I look back with much chagrin, because we really should have spent that time mastering split infinitives.
A year later, I had a teacher who proceeded to read the entire novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest out loud, in class, for several weeks, when the class should have read the novel at home and spent time in class writing about and discussing the novel.
Teachers Have a Hard Job To Do
I have a friend who teaches high school science, so I’m not completely without insight as to the many challenges that teachers must overcome: delinquent students, overbearing parents, oversized classes, and ridiculous requirements handed down by a politically-driven school board. Don’t even get me started on the bureaucracy in the public school system. So let me clear: I’m not blaming teachers. The school system itself is broken and that responsibility belongs to all of us.
Is there a solution? Why are we letting these kids down? What’s wrong with a system in which a teacher cannot mark up her students’ papers in an effort to teach them good grammar? And if this is a problem for an English teacher, what are math, science, and history teachers skimping on? Are the kids getting shortchanged?
How will those kids ever learn how to communicate effectively if they don’t learn how to read, write, and master grammar, spelling, and punctuation? In a world where written communication is becoming more and more critical, where will these kids obtain the skills they need to succeed? Or is good grammar only to be relegated to the privileged, the talented, and the self-starters?
When we’re writing, we run into a lot of technical issues. Where do the quotation marks go? When is it correct to use a comma? How should titles be formatted?
Some of these questions are answered by the rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation. But other questions are not addressed by grammar. There’s no official rule for how to format a title.
We writers need trusted resources that we can use to resolve all of these issues, especially if we want to produce work that is both grammatically correct and stylistically consistent.
Style guides answer grammatical questions and provide guidelines for consistency. But there are lots of different style guides, from the The AP Stylebook to the The Chicago Manual of Style. Which one should you use?
Who Uses Style Guides?
- Students, scholars, and other members of academia
- Scientists, doctors, and those who work in specialized fields such as law or government
- Journalists and reporters
- Any writers who want their work to be consistent should use a style guide
What, Exactly, is a Style Guide?
A style guide is a manual that establishes rules for language, spelling, formatting, and punctuation. Within academia, these guides also provide standards for citations, references, and bibliographies. Many disciplines have their very own style guide, such as the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association.
According to Wikipedia, “…consistency is the major purpose of these style guides. They are rulebooks for writers, ensuring consistent language.”
These manuals promote good grammar and ensure consistency in areas where grammar is unclear. Style guides answer all those burly writing questions that are absent from the rules of grammar. Yet at the same time, the average style guide also answers those questions that deal specifically with the rules of good grammar. Basically, it’s an all-purpose writing resource.
Where Do I Get One?
You should be able to pick up any standard style guide at your local library or bookstore. University libraries and college bookstores should have a greater selection of specialized style guides. Of course, you can always order through Amazon or the online book seller of your choice.
Many large companies and corporations use their own internal style guides, so if you are writing for a such an organization, they may need to provide you with their own style guide.
When is a Style Guide Appropriate?
A style guide is almost always appropriate. Since a style guide’s primary function is to render a work consistent and ensure good grammar, any work will benefit from its application. That includes creative writing, freelance writing, and blogging!
In many cases, a style guide is not only appropriate, it’s mandatory. If you’re writing for submission, it’s a good idea to check a publication’s submission guidelines to see if they require writers to use particular style guide.
Why Should I Use a Style Guide?
A style guide will make your work more consistent. Did you use a serial comma in the first paragraph, but leave it out in the third? Have you used italics in one post to refer to a book title, but in another post used quotation marks?
By establishing standards, a style guide will help you streamline your work. After you’ve used a particular set of guidelines for awhile, the writing process will flow more smoothly since you won’t have to stop and deliberate on grammar and style. Your readers will be pleased too, since inconsistency causes confusion.
How Do I Choose?
In many cases, the matter of which style guide to use is not left up to the writer. As mentioned, publishers will provide guidelines explaining which style guide is required.
Most newspapers adhere to The Associated Press Stylebook on Briefing on Media Law (often called The AP Stylebook), whereas a small press publisher might ask you to use The Elements of Style (often referred to as Strunk and White). Professors and teachers generally require students to use the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, Sixth Edition.
What about freelance writers, bloggers, fiction writers, and everyone else?
The most popular style guide for general use is The Chicago Manual of Style, and this is also the style guide commonly used for manuscripts (i.e. novels and anthologies). Many other writing guides are based on Chicago or will defer to it for any areas of style that they do not specifically address. It covers formatting, includes rules for good grammar usage, and provides a roadmap that ensures your work is mechanically consistent.
For general use, Chicago is by far one of the best writing resources on the market, and for me, it’s been one of the best investments I’ve made for my own writing career.
Which Style Guide Should You Use?
If you’re writing for a newspaper, you might want to go with AP. I’m not a big fan of AP because much of their style is dictated by saving space for the printing press (thus the absence of the serial comma). I think Chicago is more useful for freelancing and copywriting as well as authoring and blogging.
However, having both won’t hurt, and any serious writer would be wise to start building a collection of style guides that might prove useful throughout the course of one’s career.
So, do you use a style guide, and if so, which one? Are there other writing resources that you can’t live without? Share your favorites in the comments.
Let’s get technical for a minute. What, exactly, is grammar?
According to Wikipedia:
In linguistics, grammar is the set of structural rules that govern the composition of sentences, phrases, and words in any given natural language. The term refers also to the study of such rules….Linguists do not normally use the term to refer to orthographical rules, although usage books and style guides that call themselves grammars may also refer to spelling and punctuation.
Technically speaking, in linguistics and academia, spelling and punctuation are not components of grammar. When we discuss the mechanics of writing, we don’t refer to grammar. We refer to grammar, spelling, and punctuation because they are separate components that provide the rules for written language.
So how is grammar meaningful if words aren’t spelled properly and if punctuation isn’t applied correctly in a piece of writing? Aren’t spelling and punctuation critical to the structure of written language?
Grammar and Orthography
There are two common ways that language manifests. It is either spoken or written. Grammar deals with how we structure the language, and it is applied to both speech and writing. Orthography, on the other hand, addresses the rules of a language’s writing system or script.
Orthography deals with spelling and punctuation because these elements are only relevant when the language is written.
After all, when you say a sentence aloud, you don’t say period, question mark, or exclamation point at the end. However, if you’re reading the sentence aloud, you need these punctuation marks to help you navigate the text, and they also provide cues that inform the way we stress words or inflect the reading.
Proper Grammar and Popular Grammar
I’m not a linguist. I’m a writer. I’m interested in linguistics and etymology, but only to the extent that these fields of study inform my writing and can help me better understand how to use the tools of my craft.
Grammar addresses how we structure our language and includes concepts such as tense agreement, modifiers, sentence diagramming, word order in a sentence, and sentence order in a paragraph.
But when we’re dealing with written language, proper spelling is just as essential as tense agreement. It would be quite difficult to get through a written text that was not punctuated or if the majority of the words were spelled incorrectly.
Spelling, Punctuation, and Good Grammar
Oddly, I’ve found that spelling and punctuation are misused far more than structural (or grammatical) elements in writing. Most people know how to put their words in order and a writer of average skill is usually good at verb and tense agreements and other aspects of writing that would be construed as grammatical in nature.
Yet plenty of folks struggle with orthography (punctuation and spelling) even if their grammar is in good order. This makes sense because we are primarily exposed to spelling and punctuation through reading and writing. But the structure of our language comes to us through listening and speaking as well.
In other words, we writers are probably far more immersed in grammar than we are in orthography.
Putting it All Together
Technically speaking, grammar may not include spelling and punctuation, but without all of these elements in our writing, proper grammar does not equate good grammar. We talk about grammar, spelling, and punctuation because these are separate, but related, elements that work together to produce a mechanically coherent piece of writing.
“I don’t like to end sentences with prepositions,” my friend said while we were discussing ways to restructure a sentence.
“But it’s fiction,” I told her, “In college, as a creative writing major, I was taught to learn the rules, then break them.”
In this case, it sounded unnatural to write the sentence without ending it with a preposition. Following the rules too rigidly is especially problematic in dialogue. Nobody would say “To which store are you going?” No. We say, “Which store are you going to?”
Writers need to value good grammar, but sometimes it makes sense to break the rules.
Good Grammar vs. Breaking the Rules
There are countless arguments for sticking to the rules of proper grammar, just as there countless reasons to break those rules.
Ultimately, each writer has to decide whether or not to be a stickler for good grammar. Some writers intentionally toss out the rules and develop a writing style outside of those rules. Others adhere to proper grammar strictly and evenly.
Maybe there’s a nice spot in the middle — where you learn the rules and then figure out when it’s appropriate or desirable to break them.
Grammar is Good
Practicing proper grammar has its advantages:
- Adhering to strict grammar rules demonstrates superior language and writing skills.
- A thorough knowledge of grammar is a sign of intelligence in a writer.
- Accurate grammar indicates a writer who has mastered the craft.
- Following grammar rules all the time adds an interesting challenge to the writing process.
- Practicing good grammar keeps the language consistent and concise with well-defined rules.
Rules Are Made to Be Broken
If you do break the rules of grammar, it sure helps to know them first. Otherwise, your writing might come off as amateurish. If you’re planning on letting your good grammar go bad (or at least naughty), then make sure you know the difference between good grammar, lawless grammar, and plain bad grammar.
- Since spoken language rarely adheres to proper grammar, writing that relieves itself of the rules can be easier for readers to absorb.
- Dialogue that sticks to the rules of grammar often sounds unnatural.
- Taking creative license with one’s art means breaking the rules.
- Bending the rules adds punch,; one example would be starting a sentence with a conjunction.
- Ignoring the rules, or tweaking them, can help a writer develop a personal style.
Your Thoughts on Grammar
Do you think good grammar is important for writers to master? Should we even bother with all those annoying rules? Many writers feel that we should focus on voice or story and leave grammar to proofreaders and copyeditors. Others say that understanding proper grammar is a basic writing skill.
What’s your position?
Share your thoughts on good grammar and breaking the rules of grammar in the comments.
I recently started relearning how to play the guitar after a rather long hiatus. It’s not like I ever learned how to play it properly in the first place — so I’m a true beginner. And at times, I find it frustrating. I just want to pick the thing up and rip out a song, but I’m constantly tripping over my own fingers, and let’s not even talk about the pain that comes from pressing your fingertips against thick metal strings, repeatedly and for extended periods of time.
Writing’s not so different from playing the guitar. Sometimes we get hung up on the technicalities of the language, and the creative flow is hindered. It’s not easy to rip out a short story when you’re worrying about whether you can end a sentence with a preposition or whether your terminal punctuation marks go inside or outside of the quotation marks. These kinds of setbacks can be painful.
Learning the rules is a drag when you want to fly, but to master any craft, it’s essential to build a solid foundation. Learn the basics; memorize and practice them until they become second nature, and then you can really take off.
Good Grammar and Writing
You don’t have to learn good grammar in order to write — not the way you have to learn chords and strumming patterns to play the guitar — but it sure helps. Your poem might be captivating, your short story compelling, and your essay might be a veritable masterpiece… when read aloud. But if in writing, the grammar is shoddy, you’re going to have a hard time getting published or finding readers.
Even with years of practice and learning, questions about grammar continue to arise. I’ve seen college professors (who taught English) wonder about the rules of good grammar or turn to a handy reference book to look something up.
That’s why I believe that good grammar is a commitment, and for writers, it’s a lifelong commitment. It’s not what makes a writer, but lack of good grammar can definitely break a writer.
The Grammar Lifestyle
I’ve always been interested in grammar and being able to write well. But since I launched this blog back in 2007, I’ve become increasingly dedicated to understanding grammar. Oh, I break the rules from time to time, but I least I know which rules I’m breaking and why.
Today, I thought I’d share some tips for making good grammar part of your daily life. These tips are taken from my own experience, habits, and practices. All of them have helped me expand my grammar skills and become a better writer.
- Stop being lazy: When you’re not sure if the way you’ve written a sentence is correct, take a couple of minutes to look it up instead of rewriting it or hoping for the best.
- Invest in writing tools and resources: These include reference books that deal with grammar and style. My personal favorite is The Chicago Manual of Style.
- Make it a chore: Some chores you do every day, while others can be tackled weekly or monthly. Set a schedule for regular grammar lessons and stick to it. They don’t have to be long. You can learn something valuable in five short minutes!
- Talk about it: Turn your grammar questions into conversations. Ask others how they use language. Oddly, I find that even non-writers have interest in basic grammar questions. And if you can’t find anyone who wants to discuss good grammar, take your conversation online. Remember you should always use a credible resource, but discussing grammar-related issues is an ideal way to learn the nuances, intricacies, and to gain broader understanding.
- Put it to practice: Every time you learn something new, incorporate it into your writing until it becomes second nature. When I learned that it wasn’t traditionally correct to end sentences with prepositions, I stopped completely until it was as natural as putting terminal punctuation marks inside of quotation marks.
- Bonus! Don’t be OCD: Well, you can be OCD if you want. I like to break the rules sometimes. Eventually, I returned to ending sentences with prepositions, but only when it was the best way to communicate an idea.
Good Grammar for Writers
Writing isn’t really about grammar; it’s about communication. A writer’s job is to share ideas, inform, and entertain. Yet grammar is essential to clear writing. If you write without understanding grammar, it’s like playing a game without learning the rules. You’ll be all over the place, your performance will be a big mess, and you won’t have a very good shot at winning.
So, make good grammar a part of your daily life. Get it into your routine, and embrace it as part of the work you have to do in order to write well.
Every writer I know has a different perspective on just how good grammar needs to be. Some are sticklers and insist on adhering to the highest standards of the literary order. Others are comfortable taking creative liberties and believe that breaking the rules is an art unto itself and a practice that should be embraced.
Me? I’m somewhere in the middle. I believe that a writer who is dedicated to the craft will take the time and invest the energy required to master the most basic tools, grammar being foremost among them. But I also believe there are situations in which it’s best to break the rules — as long as you know which rules you’re breaking and why.
Too many times I’ve heard aspiring writers shrug off good grammar, saying they’d rather focus on the story or characters, they’d prefer to use a natural, unlearned approach to keep the writing raw, or they will simply hire an editor to do the dirty work.
I have a hard time buying into those lines of reasoning. Refusing to bother with grammar is just plain lazy, especially for writers who yearn to be more than hobbyists.
10 Good Reasons to Pursue Good Grammar
So, I’ve been thinking about the reasons why writers should embrace grammar rather than make excuses for ignoring it. Here are 10 reasons why good grammar should be a central pursuit in your writing efforts:
If your work is peppered with grammatical mistakes and typos, your readers are going to have a hard time trudging through it. Nothing is more distracting than being yanked out of a good story because a word is misspelled or a punctuation mark is misplaced. You should always respect your readers enough to deliver a product that is enjoyable and easy to use.
Some musicians learn to play by ear and never bother to learn how to read music. Many of them don’t even know which notes and chords they’re playing, even though they can play a full repertoire of recognizable songs and probably a few of their own. But get them in a room with other musicians and they’ll quickly become isolated. You can’t engage with others in your profession if you don’t speak the language of your industry. Good luck talking shop with writers and editors if you don’t know the parts of speech, the names of punctuation marks, and all the other components of language and writing that are related to good grammar.
3. Getting Published
How will you get that short story, essay, or blog post published if you don’t know the basics of grammar, spelling, and punctuation? Sure, some managing editors will go over your work and clean it up for you, but most reputable publishers have enough submissions that they can toss grammatically weak work right into the trash can without thinking twice.
4. Working with an Editor
I love it when writers say they can just hire an editor. This goes back to communication. If you can’t talk shop with other writers, you certainly won’t be able to converse intelligently about your work and its flaws with a professional editor. How will you respond to feedback and revision suggestions or requests when you don’t know what the heck the editor is talking about? Remember, it’s your work. Ultimately, the final version is your call and you won’t be able to approve it if you’re clueless about what’s wrong with it.
5. Saving Money
Speaking of hiring an editor, you should know that editors will only go so deep into correcting a manuscript. It’s unseemly to return work to a writer that is solid red with markups. Most freelance editors and proofreaders have a limit to how much they will mark up any given text, so the more grammar mistakes there are, the more surface work the editor will have to do. That means she won’t be able to get into the nitty gritty and make significant changes that take your work from average to superior because she’s breaking a sweat just trying to make it readable.
6. Invest in Yourself
Learning grammar is a way to invest in yourself. You don’t need anything more than a couple of good writing resources and a willingness to take the time necessary to hone your skills. In the beginning, it might be a drag, but eventually, all those grammar rules will become second nature and you will have become a first-rate writer.
7. Respectability, Credibility, and Authority
As a first-rate writer who has mastered good grammar, you will gain respect, credibility, and authority among your peers. People will take you seriously and regard you as a person who is committed to the craft of writing, not just some hack trying to string words together in a haphazard manner.
8. Better Writing All Around
When you’ve taken the time to learn grammar, it becomes second nature. As you write, the words and punctuation marks come naturally because you know what you’re doing; you’ve studied the rules and put in plenty of practice. That means you can focus more of your attention on other aspects of your work, like structure, context, and imagery (to name a few). This leads to better writing all around.
Some people don’t have it. They charge through life completely unaware of themselves or the people around them. But most of us possess some sense of self. What sense of self can you have as a writer who doesn’t know proper grammar? That’s like being a carpenter who doesn’t know what a hammer and nails are. It’s almost indecent.
10. There’s Only One Reason to Abstain from Good Grammar
There is really only one reason to avoid learning grammar: you’re just plain lazy. Anything else is a silly excuse. Like I said, I’m all for breaking the rules when doing so makes the work better, but how can you break rules effectively if you don’t know what the rules are?
No matter what trade, craft, or career you’re pursuing, it all starts with learning the basics. Actors learn how to read scripts. Scientists learn how to apply the scientific method. Politicians learn how to… well, never mind what politicians do. We are writers. We must learn how to write well, and writing well definitely requires using good grammar.
Share your favorite reasons why writers should embrace good grammar by leaving a comment. Feel free to recommend useful writing resources and grammar guides. And keep on writing!
Can you imagine a nutritionist who eats exclusively at fast food restaurants? A personal trainer who never exercises? A writer who can’t be bothered with grammar, spelling, and punctuation?
In most professions, best practices and tools of the trade are mandatory. If you want to be a doctor, you have to have a PhD. If you want to land a job in accounting, you need math skills. But writers can easily finagle around best writing practices, especially with the increasing accessibility of web- and self-publishing.
Basic grammar skills used to be mandatory — not just for writers but for all high school graduates. These days, you can get out of college with a degree but no clue how to properly structure a sentence or differentiate between they’re, their, and there.
I’ve lamented about the fact that grammar is absent from education. But I’m even more saddened by the absence of good grammar among self-proclaimed writers.
Good Grammar Habits for Writers
I’m not going to rehash all the reasons writers should practice good grammar. It all boils down to being a professional and showing respect for the craft of writing and for your readers.
Learning grammar — mastering grammar — requires making a long-term commitment. You don’t have to spend hours every day poring over grammar guides and dissecting sentences, but you do need to develop a few basic grammar-related writing habits.
These are the habits that I’ve adopted in my own writing practices. Through experimentation, trial and error, and sheer willpower, I’ve managed to turn these practices into ingrained habits.
- 1. Know What You Don’t Know
- Nothing chaps my hide like a self-proclaimed author/writer/editor/proofreader who doesn’t understand the basics of grammar. I frequently come across blogs (and comments) that promise writing tips or expertise but offer more in the way of promoting mistakes. I suspect these writers don’t realize that they’re getting it wrong (and spreading bad grammar like a disease). Take a step back and figure out what you do and don’t know. And before you offer advice, make sure you know what you’re talking about.
- 2. Collect Resources and Build Your Arsenal
- Got a friend who is a grammar geek? Is the Chicago Manual of Style still sitting on your wish list? Do you have a bookmarks folder packed with reputable grammar websites? Round up your resources so when questions arise, you can quickly and easily get (correct) answers.
- 3. Look it Up
- When you’re writing and come across a grammar question, take a few minutes to go in search of the answer. Don’t write around it or put it off for some future writing project. Stop and look it up right now. And remember that every time you look something up, you just increased your worth and skill as a writer.
- 4. Read Well and with a Sharp Eye
- If you read nothing but blogs and ninety-nine-cent, self-published e-books, you’re not reading well. Make time in your reading schedule to read books that you know are well written — books that have gone through the tried-and-true editing and proofreading processes. Also, read with an eye for grammar. Be on the lookout for questionable sentence compositions.
- 5. Polish Your Work
- Most writers whose work demonstrates bad grammar actually know the rules but haven’t properly edited and proofread their work. All the learning and resources in the world won’t matter if you don’t double check every writing project and fix all those pesky typos and grammar mistakes that you made as you rushed through the first draft.
This is by no means an exhaustive list since it’s based solely on my own experiences, so if you have any good grammar tips or best practices to add, please share by leaving a comment. Keep practicing those good grammar habits and keep on writing!
I’m a writer, but before I’m a writer, I’m a human being. And as a human being, sometimes I make mistakes.
Let’s face it, we all make mistakes, some big, some small. Today, I want to talk about what happens when we, as writers, make a mistake in our work: a typo, an incorrectly structured sentence, or a misspelling.
When writers make mistakes like these, it can be embarrassing. Occasionally, when I’m going through old posts here at Writing Forward, I’ll come across some typo or mistake and I’ll fix it. I do everything I can to ensure that this happens as rarely as possible; I proofread everything I write from my blog posts to my comments, tweets, and emails. But sometimes, mistakes slip past.
There was a time when I’d catch one of my own (published) mistakes and be completely horrified. I could feel my neck and face turning red from embarrassment and even though I’d fix the mistake, it would haunt me for hours. Did it cause me to lose a reader or a client? How many people noticed it? I just wanted to crawl under a rock — even if was just one little tiny typo.
In time, I learned to be more forgiving. After all, a typo is not the end of the world. I’ve found them in some of the most prestigious publications in print and online. And in the larger scope of the world, getting bent out of shape over a grammatical, orthographical, or typographical error seems pretty petty.
Sometimes, my mistakes are brought to my attention by someone else — a friend, a friendly reader, or a complete stranger. These corrections have arrived via email or a comment on the post where the perceived mistake appears.
The first time this happened in the comments here at Writing Forward, I didn’t know what to do. This was years ago, not long after I started blogging. Of course, I immediately made the correction but wondered whether I should delete the corresponding comment on the post. Did I want to leave permanent proof that I’d made a (gasp!) mistake?
I decided that yes, I would leave the comment in place, thank the person, and move on. Let that stand as evidence that to err is human and I’m okay with being a mere human.
To Err is Human
Usually, when someone tips me off to a mistake, the message is thoughtful; I get a clear sense that it’s just one writer trying to help another writer out, which I greatly appreciate. One email I received recently had the subject line “Because I’d want someone to tell me…” I appreciated this person’s tact, understanding, and most of all, his candid approach.
Since I started this site, I’ve received such corrections occasionally, maybe once or twice a year.
Not long ago, I started receiving an onslaught of corrections — several in a single week. Oddly, most of them were wrong. They were confused about the difference between grammar and style issues or were nitpicking over semantics. Very few of these had a helpful or thoughtful tone. In fact, they mostly came across as chastising (Ha! You made a mistake, and I found it. Therefore, I’m better than you!).
Um, aren’t we all writers here?
To me, the whole reason for practicing good grammar is to show respect for the craft and for one’s readers. Publicly correcting other writers with a berating tone is pretty contrary. Why bother with good grammar if you’re going to run around insulting other people with bad manners?
The Internet provides anonymity that we’ve never seen before on public forums. Most impolite comments, tweets, and emails that I’ve received have definitely been anonymous. So, I get the feeling these people know they’re being rude.
Conversely, just about every time someone has sent me a thoughtful and friendly heads-up to let me know something was wrong with my site — whether it was a typo or a broken link — they’ve used their real name and email address and often included a link to their own website.
To Forgive is Divine
In today’s increasingly interconnected world, I think these situations will continue to arise more and more frequently, especially for writers and bloggers who put themselves and their work in front of the reading public.
As with any critiques, our initial response to a thoughtful or friendly correction might be defensive or emotional. You might think you didn’t make a mistake at all or you might be offended that someone is criticizing your work even though you didn’t ask for their advice or feedback. And when the correction is wrong or the delivery is nasty, there’s an even bigger likelihood that you’ll be offended (and rightly so).
On the other hand, as you travel around the web, you might see mistakes on other people’s blogs or you might come across them when you’re reading books. Should you stay mum or help a fellow writer out?
Good Grammar Manners
How can we handle nasty or haughty criticisms that are incorrect, uninvited, or just plain rude? And what do we do when we are faced with the question of whether to let someone know that we’ve found a mistake in their work?
To answer some of these questions for myself, I did an online search, wondering if there were any protocols in place for this sort of thing. I was pleased to find that Grammar Girl has addressed the issue quite well in her post “Grammar Manners.” The first question is whether you should correct someone at all.
If the person whom you wish to correct is your child, student, or employee, you should, of course, feel comfortable (if not obligated) to correct his or her grammar . . .
That makes sense. But what if it’s someone you don’t know or barely know? What if it’s someone who is your peer or even your boss or teacher?
If you do wish to correct the grammar of someone whom you truly believe would welcome and appreciate the correction, then start by asking them if it is OK to offer a suggestion . . .
I think the key phrase here is “someone whom you truly believe would welcome and appreciate the correction.” Most sensible and serious writers want to know that they’ve made a mistake in their writing. But most people, especially non-writers, don’t particularly like to be criticized or corrected.
With writers, I don’t think it’s necessary to ask whether it’s OK to offer a suggestion. Actually, I think sending a friendly email (instead of leaving a comment or issuing a tweet) is the way to go. This keeps the matter private and will help you build a relationship with the person in question, who will likely appreciate your approach.
Grammar Girl makes another important point:
And of course, be certain that you understand the specific grammatical rules and how to apply them before making a correction.
Normally, I wouldn’t even mention this because it’s unimaginable to me that one would go around correcting people without being 100% sure of the rules. Yet, I’ve received several such corrections. I have also seen incorrect corrections in the comments sections of other blogs. I imagine the only thing more embarrassing than making a mistake is being wrong when you try to publicly correct someone else for making one.
Coping with Corrections
How can we deal with people who offer corrections and criticisms?
Personally, I always try to be polite, whether someone is friendly and heartfelt in their correction or rude and snobbish. Of course, if the correction is wrong (and I’ve looked it up to double-check that my usage was proper), I will defend my work and explain the rule and my source to my critic.
I’ll leave you with a few final words from Grammar Girl:
A more subtle approach can be just using correct grammar yourself—not in a pedantic way but just as a good example.
That’s my motto!
How do you feel about making public or uninvited corrections on other people’s writing? Has anyone ever corrected you or have you ever corrected someone else on a blog, social media, or public forum? How did you handle it? What do you think is more important — good grammar or good manners? Leave a comment and pitch in your two cents!
There’s good grammar and bad grammar, proper grammar and poor grammar. Some writers have fun with grammar and for others, grammar’s a bore. But in order to communicate effectively and for our writing to have a professional (and publishable) quality, we all need reliable grammar resources.
There is no grammar authority, no supreme court of grammar where judges strike down the gavel at grammar offenders. Grammar is not an exact science (in fact, it’s not a science at all), and even among the most educated and experienced linguists, some of the rules of grammar are heavily debated.
Of course, there are some basic rules we can all agree on, and these can found in any good grammar resource. There are gray areas, too, which are skillfully handled by style guides.
As writers, we need these resources. They help us navigate language so we can use it effectively. Good grammar ensures that our work is readable. And we all know that bad grammar can make a piece of writing unreadable, unprofessional, and sloppy.
In today’s world, with so much information at our fingertips via the internet, it can be challenging to find good grammar resources that are reliable and that come from credible sources. Google any number of grammar-related search terms and you’ll find page after page of articles and advice on grammar, many of which contain some of the worst grammar mistakes, a clear indication that such resources are neither reliable nor credible.
So, when you choose your resources, choose wisely and make sure the author or provider is reputable and in a position to be postulating about grammar.
Writers must also choose resources that are appropriate to what they write. If you’re writing for a particular publication, make sure you check to see which style guide they use, and then adhere to it.
Ten Good Grammar Resources
Here are ten resources to get you started. These are a mix of websites, podcasts, and books. Some are free, others require an investment, but keep in mind that when you invest in resources like these, you’re investing in your writing.
- Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing is a fun and accessible book packed with grammar tips and geared toward writers. It’s a grammar book, but it doesn’t read like a textbook! Author Mignon Fogarty has a B.A. in English, an M.S. in Biology, and has worked as a magazine and technical writer.
- Before the book, Grammar Girl’s podcast made her an online sensation. Her website features full written transcripts of her podcast for folks who prefer to learn via reading. If you’re listener and learn well via audio, be sure to subscribe to her podcast via iTunes.
- Washington State University’s Paul Brians has been maintaining a massive list of common errors in English, which is well worth checking out. This list is a great starting place if you want to check off your basic grammar skills to see if your writing is on the up-and-up.
- The Chicago Manual of Style is the most widely used style guide in publishing and includes a variety of rules on grammar as well. This particular guide is perfect for general writing, including fiction and creative nonfiction.
- Schoolhouse Rock is a beloved series of animated short films that gave kids growing up in the 70s and 80s a basic education in grammar. One of the most popular installments, “Conjunction Junction” is available online and you can search YouTube to find plenty more treasures from Schoolhouse Rock’s vintage collection.
- Dr. Charles Darling was a professor of English at Capital Community College for over 35 years, and his Guide to Grammar and Writing is available online in loving memory of him.
- This online Grammar Handbook from the University of Illinois is clear, organized by subject, and easy to peruse.
- The Gregg Reference Manual is widely used among professionals and in business. It has been called “the most up-to-date, authoritative source on grammar, usage and style for a variety of business documents.”
- There’s an app for that! Depending on your platform or device, you can find tons of grammar apps, so that the answers to your grammar questions will be at your fingertips, anytime, anywhere! I’m a fan of the app “Grammar Guide” (for iPhone). But it’s pretty stripped down — it simply gives examples and no detailed information. Check your app store for a good grammar app that works for you and your device.
- Don’t go to Wikipedia to learn grammar, but if you’re trying to remember one of those pesky rules you’ve forgotten, it can usually do the trick. Note that Wikipedia is not recognized as an academically acceptable resource, but it includes sources at the bottom of each article, and these can put you on the path toward finding great resources on any subject, including grammar.
If grammar frustrates you, you’re not alone. Writing is enjoyable for most of us, but there are some aspects to it that are hard work. For some writers, grammar is a major struggle, but one that can be overcome with commitment and the right resources. So, commit yourself to making good grammar integral to your writing and soon, you’ll feel comfortable and confident about grammar.
As a writer, how do you feel about grammar? Love it or hate it? How often do you look up the rules? Do you have any favorite grammar resources to add to this list? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment, and keep on writing.