Before answering the question, I should explain the background. At the end of 2016, I was asked to run a short course at Swanwick on grammar. Since this is such a vast area, I decided to concentrate during the Swanwick course on error analysis. That meant examining writing and speech from various sources to find the main mistakes. A few of the many sources I have used are:
Kindle books, writers’ blogs, writing competition entries, brochures, Facebook and Twitter posts, TV and radio programmes.
To be honest, I’m shocked at the mismatch between many authors’ creativity and their inability to express themselves grammatically. There’s nothing wrong with not being able to spell or write grammatically; there’s a lot wrong with not doing something about it.
So why does grammar matter?
Firstly, if you submit work full of grammatical mistakes and spelling errors to a publisher, you won’t even make the slush pile. How do I know that? As a fledgling publisher in need of advice, I joined the Independent Publishers’ Guild. Unsolicited manuscripts were thudding onto my hall floor like fathers witnessing childbirth. At a Guild conference on the Isle of Wight, I found myself at the bar with half a dozen old lags.
“How do you handle unsolicited manuscripts with lots of mistakes?” I asked.
“Read half a page, then send a polite refusal,” said one.
“No, forget the polite refusal,” said another. “Straight in the wastepaper basket.”
“Really?” I said. “But what if it’s brilliantly original?”
“Look, Geoff, if they can’t be bothered to get it edited properly, I can’t be bothered to read it.”
The others agreed, and that attitude hasn’t changed.
Secondly, work riddled with mistakes will alienate potential readers. This is especially true of work uploaded to Kindle, where standards are dramatically lower than those in traditionally published books. It usually takes me less than thirty seconds to see if a Kindle author has employed a competent editor.
Poor spellers and dyslexics are almost invariably aware of their problem and seek help. It may cost them a bit, but they know it’s money well spent if the finished product is polished.
A more common and perplexing problem is that of the writer who either (1) feels competent in grammar but isn’t, or (2) has had a manuscript scrutinised by a friend/relative/lover who claims to know about grammar but doesn’t.
Many Kindle novels I’ve dipped into recently have good story lines, and the writers are clearly intelligent. Typically, they don’t have twenty mistakes on the first page – just two or three. Such books have reached the first or second edit stage and have been uploaded prematurely. Once someone has pointed out the first half dozen mistakes, the author will realise the entire book needs reworking. The whole publishing process will have to be repeated.
The situation is even worse with hard copies of self-published books. A writer may be forced to stare for years at a string of mistakes duplicated in 200 or 300 copies. Is that really what we’re aiming at as authors? Isn’t it better to get it right first time round?
Punctuation and Confusables
Some writers scatter commas like confetti from a railway bridge, seemingly unconcerned about where they land. Others are mystified by colons and semicolons. Yet others, asked about the difference between a semicolon and an m-dash, foam from the mouth and are led away to lie down in darkened rooms. Punctuation terrifies many writers. The ones who don’t worry about it are often the ones who should.
Then we have the Wonderful World of Confusables: lose/loose, lay/lie, lightning/lightening, loath/loathe, principal/principle, and a couple of hundred others. Hands up if you have a problem with some of these.
In an attempt to decrease blood pressure and promote more restful sleep among my writing colleagues, I’ll be covering aspects of punctuation and confusables at Swanwick.
Is that a nagger I see before me?
What’s that? You think I’m a superintendent in the Grammar Police? Ah, sorry to disappoint you, folks, but I’m just a lowly bobby on the beat, keeping an eye out for the odd spot of trouble. The superintendents and chief inspectors are the ones like those at the Isle of Wight conference. They’re the ones you have to get past if you want to be taken seriously.