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Grammar is invisible to a reader, up until it strays from the standards of the English language. At best, poor grammar will confuse your readers; at worst, it will annoy and frustrate them.
In the same way that you need to know traffic rules to successfully drive a car, or you need to understand music notation to be a successful composer, you need to understand grammar to be a successful writer—no matter what your definition of success is!
Sentence fragments are also known as incomplete sentences. Sentences can be as short as one word, but they need to have a verb and a subject. It may be tempting to write without using complete sentences because. It. Feels. Dramatic. but it will quickly annoy or confuse your reader.
One-word sentences, like “Move!”, have only a verb (action word), and the subject (usually “you”) is implied.
Wrong: Bob pushed Tim away from the soda machine. Hard. “Move!” he yelled.
“Hard.” is a sentence fragment—it is not a complete sentence. Only verbs can be one-word complete sentences.
Right: Bob pushed Tim away from the soda machine. “Move!”
“Move!” is a complete sentence—it’s a verb issued as a command.
Two-word sentences have a verb and a subject.
Wrong: My dog Barfy ate his dinner. Super fast. Then Barfy barfed.
“Super fast.” is a sentence fragment.
Right: My dog Barfy ate his dinner super fast. Barfy barfed.
“Barfy barfed.” is a complete sentence because it contains both a subject (Barfy) and a verb (barfed).
This is very simple stuff that can usually be caught by reading your story aloud. Most people know this stuff intuitively because it will “sound wrong”.
Wrong: “I were running in the woods. I thought monsters was chasing me.”
Right: “I was running in the woods. I thought monsters were chasing me.”
Long sentences with large separations between subject and verb can still be troublesome.
Wrong: “The gray dog, that is, the oldest one of the hundreds of sled dogs, were resting inside his dog house.”
Right: “The gray dog, that is, the oldest one of the hundreds of sled dogs, was resting inside his dog house.”
Pronoun antecedent problems
Pronouns are words like “he” and “she” and “they” and “it”. They are used as placeholders for another word (usually a person, place, thing, or idea). When in doubt, play it safe and re-use the original word rather than the pronoun.
Wrong: “Stan and Bill went fishing. He caught a red snapper.”
In this case, we don’t know WHO caught the red snapper.
Right: “Stan and Bill went fishing. Stan caught a red snapper.”
Wrong: “The Bloods and Crips were ready to rumble. Then they ran off.”
Which gang ran off?
Right: “The Bloods and Crips were ready to rumble. Then the Bloods ran off.”
Mismatched verb tenses
A verb is an action word. The “tense” of a story is usually past or present. The tense affects the form of the verb that you use. Make sure to be consistent throughout the story and stick to one tense unless you need to change it to be clear about when something happened.
Past tense: “The judge sentenced me to twenty years. I swore my revenge. I broke out of jail, found the judge, and threw a pie in his face.”
Present tense: “The judge sentences me to twenty years. I swear my revenge. I break out of jail, find the judge, and throw a pie in his face.”
Future tense: “The judge will sentence me to twenty years. I will swear my revenge. I will break out of jail, will find the judge, and will throw a pie in his face.”
Note that the past perfect tense is used when describing an event that happened before the current point in time in a story.
Past tense: “I took my dog outside to poop, and he dropped a big one.”
Past perfect tense: “I had taken him out to poop the day before, but he didn’t go.”
Using the wrong word
We can all think of examples that sound foolish, but we’ve also all been guilty of either mistyping or misunderstanding words. There are so many of these, but here are a few of the most common:
Affect – a verb (action word). – The movie didn’t affect me.
Effect – a noun (a thing). – I loved the movie’s special effects.
Could of, would of, should of – these are wrong
Could have, would have, should have – these are correct
i.e. – means “that is”. – He was a moldy soul, i.e. he never bathed.
e.g. – means “for example”. – He was rotting, e.g. mushrooms grew on his toes.
It’s – a contraction of “it is” or “it was”. – It’s cold out today.
Its – a possessive pronoun. – The dog chased its tail.
Lie, lay, lain – to recline or to rest.
I lie on the couch. I lay on the couch. I had lain on the couch.
Lay, laid, laid – to put something down.
I lay a new asphalt driveway. I laid a new asphalt driveway. I had laid a new asphalt driveway.
Lose – a verb meaning to misplace something. – Don’t lose your marbles over this.
Loose – an adjective meaning sloppy or untied. – His necktie was too loose.
To – specifies a direction, or is used with an infinitive verb. – I flew on my dragon to the castle. It is nice to have a dragon.
Two – the number (2). – My dragon burnt up two soldiers at the gates.
Too – meaning “also.” – The king and queen got torched too.
Their – indicates possession. – Their house is falling down.
They’re – a contraction of “they are.” – They’re the weirdest people I know.
There – a place. – Don’t go in there, honey.
Then – indicates what happens next. – We went in the mausoleum then the crypt.
Than – used for comparison. – The zombie was nicer than the mummy.
Weather – what the climate is up to. Hey Larry Bird, how’s the weather up there?
Whether – indicates a choice. – Larry couldn’t decide whether to ball or retreat.
Your – indicates possession. Your dog is ugly.
You’re – contraction of “you are”. Therefore, you’re ugly too.
Participle phrase misuse
Misuse of present participial phrases (PPP) may be the most common beginner writer problem that we see in our critiques. They can make your writing seem amateur at best, or at worst, nonsensical. To become skilled writers, we must understand what these phrases are, when to use them, and how to use them.
What is a present participial phrase?
A present participial phrase is, essentially, when a phrase is tacked on to a core sentence, and that phrase contains the present participle form of a verb (usually a verb ending with “-ing”). Example:
Pablo smelled the roses, savoring the scent.
The first part before the comma is the core sentence: subject (Pablo) does verb (smelled) to an object (the roses).
The second part is the present participial phrase: verb-ing (savoring) the object (the scent).
The key thing to understand about a present participial phrase: when we use one, it means the two linked events (smelling and savoring) are happening at the exact same time.
In Pablo’s case, we have no problem. We can smell flowers and savor them at the same time. It’s a good use of the present participle.
Here’s a misused present participial phrase:
Bad: Granny Millicent heard glass break in the living room, dropping her glass of milk.
This may seem okay on the surface since these two things could happen simultaneously. The first problem is that the participle verb (dropping) is very far away from the noun it modifies (Millicent). This is called a “dangling” or “misplaced” modifier. The second problem is that it feels amateurish because the cause (window breaking) should come before the effect (dropping milk). Let’s fix it:
Better: Granny Millicent heard glass break in the living room and dropped her milk.
Better: Glass broke in the living room and Granny Millicent dropped her milk.
How about this one?
Bad: Millicent rummaged through the kitchen drawer for her revolver, fumbling with the ammo as she loaded it.
This has a clear cause-and-effect issue: she can’t simultaneously rummage for the gun and load it. How can she load it if she hasn’t found it yet? It’s also a bit bland because it summarizes instead of dramatizes. Let’s fix it:
Better: Millicent rummaged through the kitchen drawer for her revolver. Her hand touched cold steel. She found the ammo box and began to load it, fumbling with the bullets as someone began to pound on her front door.
That’s better. Note that in the second sentence, we have three things happening simultaneously (loading, fumbling, pounding on the door) but we have correctly used the present participial phrases to communicate to the reader what is happening and in what chronological order.
Let’s try another one:
Bad: Running into the living room, Granny Millicent shot the intruder dead, sweating profusely as she did so.
Here we have another misused present participial phrase and some pretty amateurish writing (the two tend to go hand in hand). I have a hard time picturing a sweating granny shooting someone dead while she’s running through the house. Three things are happening at once, and it seems a bit silly. Let’s take another shot at it:
Better: Granny Millicent lifted the revolver with both hands. Her arms shook from the weight of it as she stepped softly through the kitchen in her bunny slippers. Her hair curlers were soaked in sweat and sliding down her neck. The first shot had to kill—there was no way she’d be able to hold her grip on the pistol after it fired. The front door opened and she squeezed the trigger.
Now that’s better. We fixed the participial phrase problem, we’re showing the action instead of telling it, and we got rid of that cliche “sweating profusely” and that unnecessary filler “as she did so”. Note that the order of events is clear and logical, even though we used participial phrases.
In general, overuse of the present participles (-ing) verbs is a hallmark of amateur writing, and many editors will scrub them out of your manuscripts, sometimes to the point of removing them entirely. If you learn how to use them correctly, you can save them for when you actually need them: when two things happen at exactly the same time.
Disembodied body parts
This surprisingly common problem occurs when a person’s body parts seem to have minds of their own, or worse, do impossible things.
Unfortunately, this problem has existed for so long (see Philip K Dick’s 1953 essay) that it’s become normalized, especially for readers of low-quality fiction. Many of these errors have become idioms, such that a lot of contemporary writers don’t see a problem, and even vigorously defend the use of these phrases or other freewheeling grammar abuses in the name of creativity.
If you’re one of those people, consider instead that these expressions are also cliches and synecdoches—that is, they are dull and overused figures of speech that don’t add much to your story and may even detract from it, depending on your reader.
That said, the most common nonsensical body parts are roving and flying eyeballs.
Wrong: His eyes moved from Jane to Janet. Which twin was which?
Right: His gaze moved from Jane to Janet. Which twin was which?
Wrong: His eyes darted around the room.
Right: He glanced around the room.
The second most common is disembodied limbs that seem to have a mind of their own.
Wrong: His hand opened the door.
He owns his hand; it doesn’t decide to open things.
Right: He opened the door.
Wrong: His arm slowly reached out and then his hand opened the door.
Did his arm and hand have minds of their own?
Right: He slowly reached out and opened the door.
Wrong: His arm carefully reached out and his hand unfurled to reveal its fingers, which grabbed the the knob and turned it, opening the door in a sudden exertion.
Yes, I’ve seen writing this convoluted.
Right: He carefully grabbed the knob, turned it, then yanked the door open.
Wrong: He walked to the store using his muscular dancer’s legs.
Did he have several other legs to choose from? Unless he’s a cyborg, then no.
Right: He walked to the store, wearing short shorts that he knew would show off his muscular dancer’s legs.
Wrong: His fingers drummed on the table.
Did the fingers have a guitarist too, or was it just a drum solo?
Right: He drummed his fingers on the table.
If you believe that an animal has the same bodily autonomy that a human does, then this issue applies to animals too. (On the other hand, if you or your character is more of a sociopath that views animals as a conglomerate of involuntary stimulus-response mechanisms with no centralized intelligence, then it’s not an issue.)
Wrong: The dog’s tail wagged.
It didn’t wag itself; the dog has a mind and controls its tail.
Right: The dog wagged its tail.
This concept of “who has the mind” or “who is in control” also applies to inanimate objects that people control, but these types of errors are less common for native English speakers.
Wrong: Randy’s car drove to the beach.
Unless he has an autonomous car, this doesn’t work because the car has no mind.
Right: Randy drove his car to the beach.