Friday, December 19, 2014

Grammatical Pet Peeves

In the last couple of weeks, I have read query letters that clearly have demonstrated a lack of understanding, or maybe blatant abuse of basic elements of grammar. I have to say, this just frustrates me to no end. When editors and agents see grammar errors in things such as a query letter, this makes us question what the entire manuscript is going to look like.

Now, I do understand, there are many times in writing when we can successfully use grammar incorrectly. Hemingway did it all of the time. Joyce did it in Finnegan's Wake.  In poetry, we had ee cummings. The point though, is these authors knew what they were doing and why they were doing it.

For me, I really struggle with 4 mistakes that feel like fingernails down the chalkboard: Long, rambling 1 sentence paragraphs; fragments; run-ons and comma splices; and finally, the infamous semi-colon. I'm going to take some time today to talk about the issue and what you can do to fix the problems. Consider this Grammar 101 for the Holidays!

I get it. You have a lot you want to say and you are trying your best to pack all of that information into that query letter. But we have to remember the basic definition of a paragraph and why we use it, It is a block of information around one main idea (note I did not use the word topic). We also have to understand that we use it to make things easier for the readers so they can understand what you are talking about.

When we read something that goes on and on in a single paragraph, it makes us have to stop and probably re-read things. You have simply given the reader so much information, we can't hold on to it and remember it. It also creates a situation where the writing lacks fluency.

The solution for this is pretty simple. Return, at some level, to that formulaic writing of elementary school. This is when you had a paragraph that contained: a topic sentence, concrete details, commentary and a conclusion. Yes, this is pretty basic, but if you think of every paragraph in this fashion, you might find yourself with paragraphs that are easier to understand.

The second solution is to use that grammar checker on your computer. There is a setting on there to look for excessively long and wordy sentences. USE IT!

Fragments are some of the most common mistakes we see in writing. The difficulty in fiction writing is that we do speak in fragments in real life. That part is fine so I don't have a complaint about that one when the characters are speaking this way. The concern comes when the author is doing it in the 3rd person narratives and certainly in the query letters and synopses.

The definition of a fragment is simply a group of words pretending to be a sentence. To be more specific, a fragment is a "sentence" that lacks any of the following:

  1. A subject - what the sentence is about
  2. A predicate - what the subject is doing
  3. A subject AND a predicate
  4. Incomplete subject and/or predicate - missing things such as a helping verb
You have three solutions for this one.
After you have found the fragments, because you are using your grammar checker or having someone else edit it for you, or you read it out loud and it sounded terrible:

  1. Add the missing subject, predicate or helping verb.
  2. Combine it with another sentence. 
  3. Completely re-write it using new words.

Run-ons and comma splices are often associated with our people in my first pet peeve. These are also people who just let the grammar checker fix the problems for them without knowing what it is doing.

These two mistakes can be grouped together into a common category of fused sentences. These are simply situations where the author has combined two or more sentences together into one sentence. The difference between the two is how the writer has done it. For example:

RUN ON: Air pollution poses risks to all humans it can be deadly for asthma sufferers.
COMMA SPLICE: Air pollution poses risks to all humans, it can be deadly for asthma sufferers.

In other words, the only thing the person did on the second one is to combine the two sentences by using a comma.

We have four solutions for this one:

  • Make the two sentences into individual sentences.
Air pollution poses risks to all humans.  It can be deadly for asthma sufferers.
  • Use a comma and a coordinating conjunction. You have seven coordinating conjunctions to pick from (FOR, AND, NOR, BUT, OR, YET, SO)
Air pollution poses risks to all humans, and it can be deadly for asthma sufferers.
  • Use a semi-colon, colon or hyphen - I will talk about the semi-colon below.
Air pollution poses risks to all humans it can be deadly for asthma sufferers.
  • Re-write the sentence completely
Although deadly to asthma sufferers, air pollution is harmful and poses risks to all human.

Semi-colons rock! I love this punctuation mark because of the flexibility of it and what it can do to add to the complexity and depth of a piece of writing.

A semi-colon functions both as a period and a comma at the same time. In other words, the group of words on either side of the semi-colon are complete sentences. This is why this can be an option to fix those run-on's and comma splices. However, it also functions as a comma. When it does this, it is telling the reader these two sentences are carrying on the same thought and are much stronger when blended together. It tells the reader these two ideas are similar in theme and message - not just in topic.

Now here is where the pet peeve comes into play.

When we use a semi-colon to fix the run-on/comma splice problem, I personally feel if you want to make the two sentences sound like independent sentences, then use a period. If you do want to combine them, I personally recommend adding a transitional word or phrase (but not a coordinating conjunction).

Air pollution poses risks to all humans; however,  it can be deadly for asthma sufferers.

Too often, I can see authors using the semi-colon simply because the computer and their computer recommended it. Use it properly!

Just remember, using poor grammar says a lot about who you are as a writer. If you find you are getting a ton of rejections from those queries you are sending out, you might want to check the grammar. This might have a lot to do with it.


  1. Nice article Scott, but you should also add "Always proofread it too".
    Dare I mention the the closing sentence with "do do" instead of "to do".
    I'm not gloating, I have been guilty of exactly the same thing too.

  2. You dislike "run-on's" (sic). Come on! What you dislike are "run-ons" (no apostrophe). For shame!