Creative writers sometimes mangle grammar on purpose or get creative with punctuation. At the drafting stage, we keep a dictionary and style manual at hand. When slips are unintended, we count on our copyeditors to catch them.
But at some point, most of us get advice on punctuation or grammar from a friend, relative, or strangers on social media. Sometimes friends or beta readers read our draft and point out what they believe to be errors.
The problem is, they’re often wrong.
Just because someone loves us doesn’t mean they won’t go to the mat for a grammar rule they believe is true. Online “friends” are even less likely to budge. Last month I saw a Facebook post where all seventy-nine (79!) commenters told a writer that “breathe deep” was incorrect, as opposed to “breathe deeply.” No one cited a dictionary or other source. No one mentioned flat adverbs, much less CMOS 5.160.* In short, no one got it right.
I’m not saying there was no value in that boatload of bad advice. More on that later. But first, here are three reasons why someone who criticizes your grammar might be wrong, followed by three ways to respond.
Reason 1. They’re wrong because they don’t take your story and character into account.
When we ask a friend or spouse a grammar question, we usually keep it short. Same online. We don’t always provide enough information about the character, the location, or the historical moment for someone to judge what’s appropriate. The right grammar in creative writing is a slippery fish. From page to page it can change depending on level of formality, dialect, character, and tone. Good editors ask questions before answering. But people without editorial training aren’t always put off by lack of context. To many, there’s only one right answer, no matter what.
Reason 2. They’re wrong because they’re using old information. (“That’s what I was taught.”)
Someone who bases grammar advice on what they learned back in the day might coincidentally give good advice, but when their stated reasoning consists only of “That’s what I was taught,” it’s not good enough.
The problem today is when people start doing things a certain way, suddenly it becomes acceptable.—Facebook comment on grammar*
People love to hate changes in language, but to experts, change is not a problem. This is language at work. I don’t know about you, but I’m glad English is self-adjusting. I’m glad we no longer have to decide whether to address someone informally as “thee” or “thou” or use the formal “you.” I’m happy not to type a hyphen in “to‑day” or “e‑mail.” I’m glad “Ms.” exists as an alternative to researching and revealing a person’s marital status.
See below for a few examples of rules many of us learned in school that were wrongheaded back then and are still wrong today.
Reason 3. They’re wrong because they’re just making it up. (“It doesn’t sound right.”)
People can argue forever about what “sounds right.” It’s the least compelling reason a grammar critic can give. Don’t fall for it as a sole deciding factor. A critic’s intuitions can be warped by reasons 1 and 2. And seventy-nine people can agree and still make a bad call if they don’t know what sounds right for your specific narrator or character.
On the other hand, if more than one person says your sentence is iffy, it might help to read the passage out loud and literally listen to how it sounds.
What to Do
When someone reads your work and tells you something isn’t correct, sometimes they’re right and you know it. You can fix it. But what if you believe your original wording is right, whether it’s standard English or not? Here are three good options.
Break the rule. If you’re certain you wrote it the way your character or narrator would say it, grammatical or not, go ahead and break the rule. Leave it the way it is. Don’t force the sentence into formal English.
Check the facts. If standard English would be expected of your character or narrator, and you believe your phrasing achieves it but your critic says it’s bad grammar, ask them to point you to the rule. Maybe they’re right—or maybe their source is out of date. Keep a dictionary and stylebook on your desk or bookmarked online. If in doubt, get professional help. An experienced copyeditor’s intuition comes from an informed knowledge of style guides and fiction-writing practices, and you can bet they’ll examine the context before judging.
Make a change. Consider rewriting your sentence even if you suspect you’re being stickled. After all, if one reader thinks it’s wrong, others might too. The best outcome is a sentence that doesn’t draw focus away from what’s happening.
- By all means take advantage of any help you can get while you’re writing. You’ll get both good and bad advice. It all has value even if you’re not sure of the final answer, because it tells you how readers interpret your words. That’s worth knowing.
- When you’re finished drafting, hire a good copyeditor. Your submitted works will get a better reception from agents and editors.
Bonus: Popular Grammar Beliefs
Here are some bogus rules people love to enforce, along with some paragraphs in CMOS you can cite if you choose to push back.
Claim: “Mary said” is correct; “said Mary” is incorrect.
Why it’s not true: “Because it’s demonstrably silly,” said the copyeditor. “And inconvenient,” added the intern.
The grain of truth: “Said” followed by a pronoun (“said she”) is more at home in poetry or highly lyrical prose. Maybe the myth arose from an unwarranted extrapolation from those contexts. A better use of a writer’s editing time than taking out the “said Marys” would be to get rid of any “X saids” and “said Xs” that aren’t actually needed. If the identity of a speaker is obvious, their speech might stand without a dialogue tag.
Claim: Forms of “to be” should be deleted.
Why it’s not true: It would be nearly impossible to write a book of any length without regular use of forms of “to be.” It’s preposterous to imagine taking them all out. In fact, “to be” (“is,” “are,” “was,” etc.) often provides the simplest and most elegant way to write something.
The grain of truth: I can think of two.
Grain 1. Writers are often told that simple tenses are more dynamic than progressive ones, and progressive tenses begin with a form of “to be.” Hence the antipathy for “to be” verbs as “undynamic.” Eradicating the progressive tense would be extreme. But when progressive-tense verbs proliferate, experiment with changing them to simple past or present:
I was sliding headfirst down the chute, and the crowd was going wild. [Past progressive.]
I slid headfirst down the chute, and the crowd went wild. [Simple past.]
Grain 2. The passive voice also involves using “to be,” and avoiding the passive in favor of the active is a famous rule for writers. It’s said that the passive deadens writing because it obscures the actor in a sentence:
The award was announced before I arrived. [Passive]
The treasure had been hidden in the tree for generations. [Passive]
The car hogging my spot was parked practically sideways. [Passive]
The reader is left wondering “Who announced the award?” and “Who hid the treasure?” and “Who parked the car?” But when we can’t know or don’t care who dunnit, an active construction rarely improves things:
Someone announced the award before I arrived. [Active]
An unknown person hid the treasure in the tree generations ago. [Active]
Whoever hogged my spot parked their [or worse, “his or her”] car practically sideways. [Active]
Claim: You can’t have a semicolon in dialogue, because people don’t “speak” semicolons.
Why it’s not true: People don’t “speak” commas or periods either, yet no one seems to favor banishing them from dialogue.
The grain of truth: Many readers claim to be distracted by semicolons, especially if they appear too often or aren’t used correctly. Yet some successful writers use them with abandon. In a New Yorker essay, Mary Norris considers replacing a semicolon in dialogue with a period (“She looked at me; I was lost for words”) but resists, because “the semicolon keeps the words above water: because of that semicolon, something about her look is going to be significant.”† It seems to be a matter of personal style. Employ semicolons appropriately and sparingly and in tune with your voice, and you’ll be fine.
Claim: The word “that” should be deleted throughout your manuscript.
Why it’s not true: “That” is often essential. That’s why it’s a word. You already knew that. (See also CMOS 5.60.)
The grain of truth: “That” can slow things down when it’s unneeded or repetitious. Although it would be rash to delete the word everywhere without consideration, it’s a good word to keep an eye on, case by case.
Claim: You can’t start a sentence with “But.”
Why it’s not true: It’s never been true, and it’s not now (see CMOS 5.203). Anyone who claims it’s a rule should be asked to prove it.
A situation where it’s true: It’s awkward to start a sentence with “But” if the previous sentence or clause began with one. There’s usually an easy edit:
I promised to be there, but the train was delayed. But it didn’t matter.
Better: I promised to be there, but the train was delayed. It didn’t matter.
* The post about “breathe deep” and the comment about “The problem today” took place in a private group for writers, so I won’t share the thread here. I retain the documentation. At the time of this writing, the comment count on “breathe deep” had reached 295.
† Mary Norris, “Semicolons; So Tricky,” New Yorker, July 19, 2012.
Top photo courtesy Pxfuel.
Fiction+ posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.
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