Grammar might sound like an issue you last had to worry about in junior high, but it’s easy for the “simple stuff” to jam us up sometimes. If you hope to go the traditional route of publishing, of course there will be professional editors who go over your manuscript with a fine-toothed comb before it goes to print, but…you have to get a publishing deal before that happens. This means you’ll need to send a spit-polished manuscript to agents and editors. Of course, if you self-publish, you want to put out content that is as professional as any other book on the market. Your future audience will depend on it. To get there, you’ve got to have a great story, well told. And grammar? Well, that’s part of it.
You Can Break the Rules if You Know the Rules
When it comes to writing advice, there’s an exception to every rule. It’s all suggestions, and you’ve got to decide which pieces of wisdom you’re going to use and which ones you’ll discard. The same goes for grammar rules. There are formal rules for professional writing, but in fiction, sometimes the rules need to be tossed out the window. What’s “correct” for an academic paper or a professional email does not necessarily work in fiction when the style and tone can be much more casual and conversational.
For instance, sentences aren’t technically supposed to start with conjunctions (i.e., and, or, nor, but, for, yet, and so). But yet: here’s one anyway (lol). In this example, I know the rules, but I chose to ignore them to facilitate the flow and tone I want to convey in this post. The same thing goes for your book. You should never feel hamstrung by grammar. However, there is a huge difference between intentionally breaking the rules and being unaware of what they are. The truth is, some grammar rules can be broken, while ignoring others will reflect poorly on you, the writer. You need to know the difference.
Some Rules are in Stone
Some rules, like subject-verb agreement, are pretty much in stone. If a verb isn’t conjugated correctly, it stands out and makes the writer appear ignorant. It might not be a fair conclusion, but it’s true. Here’s an example that throws many people off because it’s common verbal usage.
Correct: He went to the store.
Correct: He had gone to the store.
Incorrect: He had went to the store.
There is no world where anyone had went anywhere. However, that is such a common mistake you might not notice it. Believe me, your readers will. Unless you are writing in the voice of a character who would use language this way, make sure you nail the basics. Subject-verb agreement is a basic.
If you struggle in this area, take a class, get a book, or do drills. I can’t cover every specific grammar mistake. If you’re getting dinged in this area—take charge and fix it with a comprehensive refresher.
Passive versus Active Voice
While it’s not technically incorrect to use the passive voice, your manuscript will seem easier to read and be “cleaner” if you use the active voice. This just means making sure a person (subject) is doing things (verb) instead of things being done to your character. Here’s an example.
Active voice: John wrote a book.
Passive voice: A book was written by John.
Both of these sentences convey the same information. In the first, John (the subject) was doing something (writing, the verb). In the second sentence, the subject is now a book. What’s more interesting? A person? Or a thing? All books are about characters, so you always want to keep people the focus, even at the level of sentence structure. There are times and places for passive voice, but a good rule of thumb is to scan paragraphs looking for this common misstep.
Pick a Style and Stick with It
Some elements of grammar are subjective because grammar, like anything else, changes through time and with actual users. We don’t talk the way Shakespeare’s characters talked, but we’re all speaking English. The same thing goes for other conventions, like comma use. A big debate is whether to use the serial comma (or Oxford comma)…or not. It’s the comma that separates three or more things in a list. For instance:
Serial (Oxford) comma: I gave my baby new foods today. They were apricots, rice, and beans.
New style: I gave my baby new foods today. They were apricots, rice and beans.
In the first example, the writer is saying a mom gave her baby rice and then, separately, gave the baby beans. She did not necessarily give the baby the dish rice and beans. The comma after the word rice makes it clear that rice is a separate food from beans. If the writer had not used the Oxford comma (as is the style of most newspapers these days), it would not have been clear if the mom had given the baby rice, then beans, or if she’d made a mixed plate.
Some people say this is splitting hairs. It isn’t. Not using the Oxford comma makes the sentence ambiguous. If you were a new mother searching for information about how and when to administer solid foods for the first time without causing allergic reactions, you’d want to know if that mom had given those foods on separate occasions or on the same occasion. The world would never know without the serial comma.
Perhaps that was more of a full-throated argument for a comma than you needed today! But, when it comes to grammar, always err on the side of clarity. That advice goes for more than punctuation. Consider it the golden rule of grammar too.