Sunday, March 04, 2007

Structure, Part Two: Grammar

When someone begins writing with an eye toward storytelling and creativity, it's generally assumed that they have some skill with the language. I won't attempt to teach anyone grammar with this segment, but I'll go ahead and cover some of the topics that are likely to come up.

In the most objective terms, grammar is only important insofar as it allows people to understand each other. If reduced to it's basic level, grammar is “accurate enough” if the reader or listener is able to understand what is being written or said. However, as creative writers, we'd like to shoot a bit higher than that. We want our grammatical structures to not only be understandable, but graceful.

The primary concern of good grammar is to properly convey our ideas to the next person. If the grammatical errors in a story are so prevalent and serious as to cloud the point or put off the reader, we'll need to figure out how they occurred and take steps to keep them from happening again.

In this section, I'm going to include spelling errors, commonly mistaken words, and other common micro-structural errors. This will not be an exhaustive list, but it will give us somewhere to start.

Spelling Errors: With the modern word processor, it's difficult to have a lot of patience with misspelled words in a finished document. Other than proper names and technical jargon, a competent word processor should have the ability to find most spelling errors and suggest the proper correction. A spelling checker, however, will not catch all errors. While we are going to discuss word choice issues later in the course, we still have some ground to cover here. Primarily, the errors that will evade detection are those regarding word misuse and false cognates. For instance, if you meant to say “abject”, but write “object”, the computer will not find this. Any word that is only one or two letters away from another one is likely to have this happen sometimes. Another easy word misuse issue will come from small typographical errors. When you're typing quickly, it's easy to type “the” instead of “they”. While people will often read right over this, it can still be a distraction, and can call your editing skills into question. A false cognate is a word that sounds similar or the same as another one, but has a different meaning. Examples of this would be “pacific” and “specific”, or “climactic” and “climatic”. Beware false cognates, as they are another difficult-to-find error. Finally, we have words that are frequently mistaken, such as the “to, too, two” group, “their, there, and they're”, and so on. These are errors that can hang around through draft after draft if you're not careful.
While the occasional spelling error is not going to doom you, it's bad to have more than one spelling error per page. You should shoot for having the very minimum number you can manage. Whenever you think you've read over the story enough times, go ahead and do it again.

Bad Sentence Structure:
1.Sentence Fragments: Any sentence is considered a fragment if it lacks some of the constituent parts of speech normally found in a full bodied sentence. All a sentence in English really needs is a subject and a verb. “Frank ran,” is a grammatical sentence. Lacking a subject or a verb leaves the sentence incomplete. It sounds like a difficult thing to do—this missing a critical part of a sentence—but with a complex sentence structure, it's really not that hard. There are times in creative writing when it's not so bad to have a fragment here and there. Sometimes, a very tense passage of writing can seem even more immediate with a few fragments thrown in. It's vital that you take these liberties on purpose, though. Mistakenly writing fragmented sentences will cause you to look unprofessional to an editor or a reader.
2.Subject/Verb Agreement: In general, this is an issue with enumeration. That is, the verb you use needs to agree with the “number” of your accompanying noun. If the noun is plural, you'll need to be sure that the verb form is plural as well. This can be tricky with complex sentences, where you might lose track of what noun the verb is supposed to agree with. You'll see a trend here. The more complicated the sentence, the easier it is to lose your way and make a mistake.
3.Pronoun clarity and agreement: If you write, “He turned around, looking back for Rebbecca,” you'll need to be sure the reader knows who “he” is. In general, you won't mistake the “he” from the “she”, but it's possible to use a plural like “they” when you shouldn't. Even when trying to be gender-neutral, it's not a great idea to use “they” to describe an individual. That goes back to the enumeration issue mentioned above.
4.Comma Splices: It's easy to get tricky and try to use a comma to fuse two entirely different sentences together. Don't do it. Maybe Falkner could get away with sentences a full page long, but you probably can't. If a sentence reads “ugly”, the easiest way to cure its ills is to cut it into two or three pieces. Without all the swimming prepositional phrases, it'll be a lot easier to keep your grammar straight.
5.Tense Shifting: A sentence needs to have a clear sense of time. An event can take place in a finite number ways in English. It will happen in the future tense. It is happening in the present tense. It was happening in the past tense. It had happened already in the past perfect tense. Keep in mind that there are irregular verbs like “to drink” and “to swim” that can be nettlesome when you get into the past and past perfect forms. Shifting tenses on the macro scale is a bigger issue, but for this segment, simply keeping a clear “time signature” in each sentence is our concern. Once more, it's easiest to keep your tense straight in a simple sentence.
6.Punctuation and other mistakes of diacritical notation: Make sure that, if a sentence has a pause, you go ahead and put a comma in there. Don't over-use them, but a missing comma can really change the meaning of a sentence. Here's an example: “Turning around, Jim pulled his shooting iron and fired.” as opposed to “Turning around Jim pulled his shooting iron...” Is his name “Turning around Jim”? Is in an action figure who is forever craning over his shoulder? No. The comma is essential. Another big issue is the confusion between a possessive, a plural, and a contraction. “It's dark” is not the same as “Its dark”. A good word processor will sometimes catch these errors, but not always. It can't determine your intentions.

Some suggestions:

1)If you're using non-standard grammar, remember that it should be a choice, not an accident. All questions of grammar are put aside when writing dialog, which should reflect the way the character talks (within logical boundaries, of course), not how written word is rendered.
2)If you're having trouble with a passage, try simplifying your sentence structure. Compound complex sentences can be too unwieldy at times. Don't be afraid to break them up. Hemingway is a great example of a successful writer who didn't rely on complexity to make his point.
3)If your story seems to lack a spark, look and see if you're using passive voice. Passive voice generally crops up when the subject of the sentence is not doing something, but instead enmeshed in a process of some sort. Any sentence where the subject doesn't really do anything is considered passive. Here's a little example: Passive: Bob's eyes were wide with fear. Active: Bob's eyes widened in terror. Passive voice is static. It states a fact, but denotes no change or alteration. It's boring. Active voice shows movement, change, dynamism. It gives the reader a moving picture, rather than a still life.
4)Have someone who's a detail-oriented person read over your work after you've edited it for grammar. They may find a few mistakes you would read over every time, since you already know what you want to covey with the story. If you can't find anyone to help you, put the story away for several days, then come back and read it with fresh eyes. This isn't as good an option, but it's better than nothing.
5)Don't let trivial grammar and punctuation errors sink your story. Crafting a good tale is too much work to have it go for naught because you couldn't bring yourself to do a good line-edit.
6)If you're really having trouble with grammar in your work, there's no shame in going back and doing a brush-up of your elementary grammar lessons. Style books such as Strunk and White and the Chicago Manual of Style will also have a great collection of suggestions for you.

Next Time: Clarity (Really, it'll be shorter, I promise!)

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