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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!
Participle phrase misuse
By far the most common grammar problem we encounter in critiques is participle phrase misuse. It’s so frequent that we have a separate article on it.
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.
Don’t: 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.
Do: 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.
Don’t: My dog Barfy ate his dinner. Super fast. Then Barfy barfed.
“Super fast.” is a sentence fragment.
Do: 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”.
Don’t: “I were running in the woods. I thought monsters was chasing me.”
Do: “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.
Don’t: “The gray dog, that is, the oldest one of the hundreds of sled dogs, were resting inside his dog house.”
Do: “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.
Don’t: “Stan and Bill went fishing. He caught a red snapper.”
In this case, we don’t know WHO caught the red snapper.
Do: “Stan and Bill went fishing. Stan caught a red snapper.”
Don’t: “The Bloods and Crips were ready to rumble. Then they ran off.”
Which gang ran off?
Do: “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.
Punctuation is invisible to a reader, up until it strays from the standards of the English language. At best, poor punctuation 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 punctuation to be a successful writer—no matter what your definition of success is!
This is by far the most common punctuation issue in fiction writing. English has standard methods for punctuating dialogue.
In nearly all of the world, dialogue is set off with double quotes “like so” and not with single quotes.
You should always create a new line (hit enter on your keyboard) for each new speaker or actor. This helps prevent the reader from getting confused as to what is happening or who is speaking.
If you have a speaker tag (“he said” or similar) then you need to end the dialogue line with a comma. Don’t capitalize the speaker tag—it’s all one sentence.
Don’t: “Put down the rocket launcher.” He said.
Do: “Put down the rocket launcher,” he said.
Even when ending with an exclamation point or question mark, don’t capitalize the speaker tag.
Don’t: “You put yours down first!” She replied.
Do: “You put yours down first!” she replied.
If you don’t have a speaker tag, then use a period (or !/? mark) and capitalize the next line.
Don’t: “I want a divorce. To the max,” she pulled the trigger.
Do: “I want a divorce. To the max.” She pulled the trigger.
If you have a speaker tag in the middle of a line (as often happens), don’t break it into three sentences.
Don’t: “Once I find my organs.” He muttered. “you’re gonna be sorry.”
Do: “Once I find my organs,” he muttered, “you’re gonna be sorry.”
If you’ve got a long paragraph of dialogue, put the speaker tag as close to the beginning as possible so that the reader knows who is speaking.
Don’t: “You see, there’s no way out. Now let me explain my villainous plan. <several more lines of dialogue>,” Goldmember said.
Do: “You see,” Goldmember said, “there’s no way out. Now let me explain my villainous plan. <several more lines of dialogue>.”
The modern convention is to write dialogue tags with the speaker first.
Don’t: “Ahoy,” said Jim.
Don’t: “Ahoy,” said he.
Do: “Ahoy,” Jim said.
Do: “Ahoy,” he said.
Overuse of exclamation points
One exclamation or question mark per sentence is enough, and exclamation points should be saved for when they are truly necessary.
Don’t: “You lost the launch codes?!!?! Dammit!! We’ve got to nuke them first!!!!”
Do: “You lost the launch codes? Dammit! We’ve got to nuke them first.”
In general, exclamation points should only be used for exclamations, which are sudden cries or remarks that express a feeling or reaction (e.g. “Hey!” and “Stop!” and “Get him out of there!” and “Dang it!”)
Comma splices (run-on sentences)
When you have two complete sentences that can stand on their own, they must be joined in one of three ways: a new sentence (1), a coordinating conjunction with a comma (2), or a semicolon (3).
Don’t: “That dog is vicious, he bit my grandma.”
Do (1): “That dog is vicious. He bit my grandma.”
Do (2): “That dog is vicious, and he bit my grandma.”
Do (3): “That dog is vicious; he bit my grandma.”
(1) Usually splitting into separate sentences is the best approach.
(2) Coordinating conjunctions you can use include the “FANBOYS” – for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so. For example, “That dog is vicious, so he bit my grandma.” Note that these can change the meaning of your sentence.
(3) In general, you should avoid the use of semicolons (and colons) in contemporary fiction writing. Unless the reader can parse these esoteric punctuation marks automatically, they will break the reader’s immersion in the story.
Too many commas, or not enough
Use commas only when needed to make the meaning clear. Comma use is a broad topic, but in general use commas for the following purposes: to separate items in a list, to join a dependent clause to an independent clause, and to separate absolute phrases.
Don’t use too many commas
Don’t: “I put on my black, wool, ski mask, and walked, into the bank.”
Do: “I put on my black wool ski mask and walked into the bank.”
Use commas to separate items in a list
Don’t:“I robbed the bank with a gun a knife and a T-shirt cannon.”
Do:“I robbed the bank with a gun, a knife, and a T-shirt cannon.”
Use commas with introductions or endings
Don’t: “Well I don’t believe you.”
Do: “Well, I don’t believe you.”
Don’t: “That bank story is a joke Billy-bob.”
Do: “That bank story is a joke, Billy-bob.”
Use commas for interjections and non-essential bits of info
Don’t: Billy-bob who was rather tired today sighed heavily.”
Do: Billy-bob, who was rather tired today, sighed heavily.”
These are the most common issues, but there are many more rules on comma use.
Hyphens versus dashes
Fiction writing typically uses three sizes of dashes and they all do different things:
Hyphen (-) is used for certain compound words, such as compound adjectives and compound adverbs. When in doubt, use a dictionary to look up the compound word to see if it’s hyphenated. More details here.
Don’t: I am twenty one years old today, and my stupid ass friends are coming over to party
Do: I am twenty-one years old today, and my stupid-ass friends are coming over to party.
En-dash (–) is wider than a hyphen (the width of the letter N) and is used in specific situations: separating numbers, and showing opposing sides. You can make an En-dash with Alt+0150 on your keyboard (Option+0150 on a Mac). More details here.
Don’t: The score of the Brazil-Germany soccer game was 7-1.
Do: The score of the Brazil–Germany soccer game was 7–1.
Em-dash (—) is very wide (the width of the letter M) and is one of the most versatile punctuation marks. You can make an Em-dash with Alt+0151 on your keyboard (Option+0151 on a Mac). They are typically used with no spaces on either side, as shown below. More details here.
Em-dash in place of a colon
Option 1: My family only eats one thing: stale beans.
Option 2: My family only eats one thing—stale beans.
Em-dash in place of parentheses for emphasis
Option 1: Ronald lit a cigarette (the one I had poisoned) and took a deep drag.
Option 2: Ronald lit a cigarette—the one I had poisoned—and took a deep drag.
Em-dash in place of commas for emphasis
Option 1: I returned to the scene of the crime, ten years later, and dug up the jewels.
Option 2: I returned to the scene of the crime—ten years later—and dug up the jewels.
Em-dash to show someone being cut off by another speaker
He got down on his knees. “But honey, I’m sorry, I…”
She cocked the revolver. “Shut your face!”
He got down on his knees. “But honey, I’m sorry, I—”
She cocked the revolver. “Shut your face!”
Note how the use of the em-dash changes the effect of each sentence. Also, while em-dashes are fun, make sure not to over-do it. Like exclamation points, make sure to use them sparingly so that their impact isn’t diluted.
Colons versus semicolons
In general, you should avoid the use of semicolons and colons in contemporary writing unless you absolutely have to. Many readers can’t parse these esoteric punctuation marks automatically, so a colon or semicolon risks breaking the reader’s immersion in the story. Writing is often stronger and easier to read if it’s broken up into separate sentences instead of joined with colons and semicolons.
That said, here’s how to use them correctly.
Use semicolons to link together related ideas.
Join two related sentences (independent clauses):
Don’t: Clifford bent down the branch, he wanted to launch the trapped cat.
Do: Clifford bent down the branch; he wanted to launch the trapped cat.
Connect list items that contain commas to avoid confusion:
Don’t: Watch out for hazards, namely, potholes, children, pets, and animals, zombies and ghosts, and angry police officers.
Do: Watch out for hazards: potholes; children, pets, and animals; zombies and ghosts; and angry police officers.
Use colons only after a complete sentence to define an example or a list.
Don’t: I dislike: dogs, frogs, logs, and bogs.
Do: The things I dislike all rhyme: dogs, frogs, logs, and bogs.
Do: I dislike dogs, frogs, logs, and bogs.