There’s an old joke that most of us have probably heard at some point, and it goes something like this:
“Today I met a man with a wooden leg named Smith!”
“So what’s the name of his other leg?”
Misplaced modifiers often lead to unintentional humor.
And my seventh-grade English class sat down on our first day, looked up at the board, and found the following sentence:
Woman without her man is nothing.
That sentence was our first punctuation lesson of the year. With the addition of a colon after woman and a comma after her, the meaning of the sentence changes completely.
Spelling, grammar, and punctuation (SPaG) matter because they are what make a language universal to all its speakers and readers. As a writer, you want your SPaG to be as perfect as you can make it before sending out your manuscript. A copyeditor can fix mistakes, but agents don’t get paid a salary and have to budget their time carefully. Time spent fixing your SPaG is time I may not be able to spend working with you on the important things like characterization and plot. I have passed on manuscripts that sounded like a good fit for my list but were full of punctuation errors. Bad SPaG makes a manuscript hard to read even if the story is great. (Language variations like dialect, accents, and slang don’t count as errors, even though heavy use of dialect can make a manuscript hard to read.)
The two grammar things that will earn you an automatic rejection from me are incorrect punctuation in dialogue and the misuse of apostrophes. Unless you’re Cormac McCarthy, your dialogue is going to involve a lot of punctuation. Fixing periods that should be commas or moving quotation marks to their correct places in a work of commercial fiction is too time consuming for an agent to handle. As for apostrophes, I can forgive the confusion around the use of the possessive ‘s at the end of a name that ends with s but not much else.
I’ll be updating the Fuse Tumblr from time to time with grammar tips and tricks, but in the meantime, here are some resources that should help with some of the complexities and frustrations of English grammar.
Spelling: If you’re ever uncertain of a word’s spelling, use Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, currently in its eleventh edition, to confirm it. Merriam-Webster has a wonderful website that allows you to look up spelling, pronunciation, word origin, and more. Fun fact: writers are more likely to misspell a word if it contains at least one set of double letters. This is so common that words like sheriff, occur, and vacuum often appear on copyeditor tests.
Grammar: Mignon Fogarty is the brain behind Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing, a site that can answer just about any grammar question you have. Fogarty also hosts a delightful Grammar Girl podcast. If you like having a paper reference handy, I recommend Woe is I by Patricia T. O’Conner. The most useful things you’ll find in Woe is I are lists of commonly misused or misspelled words and phrases. With this book at the ready, your characters will never jump off of a cliff again. Another free and incredibly useful resource is the Chicago Manual of Style Hyphenation Table. Many writers send me queries that tell me their character is a sixteen-year old, or is sixteen-years-old, and neither one of these is correct. This guide provides examples for just about every situation where you should use hyphens, and some where you think you should but you actually don’t.
Hiring a copyeditor: If you’re never sure where to put the quotation marks in dialogue, or if English isn’t your first language (or if it is and you’re writing American characters but your English is British), or the use of lie vs. lay is a perennial thorn in your side, consider hiring a proofreader to look at your work before submitting it to agents. One place to start is the Bay Area Editors’ Forum (disclaimer: I am a member), where you can find editors with varying areas of expertise. I promise that no editor will ever judge you for asking for help with your grammar. In terms of qualifications, you can look for people who hold a professional certificate in editing from a school like NYU, Emerson, UC Berkeley, or Chicago, or you can ask to see a portfolio.
Get started on learning (or refreshing) great grammar with Weird Al: