The greatest novel in the history of the universe will never reach publication if the author does not have a decent command of the English language. If your grammar needs a brushup, consider taking a grammar course at your local college, or at least invest in a good grammar text and study it. Most of the manuscripts we as editors see have decent grammar. However, there are still some common mistakes that pop up too often. We’ve compiled the following grammar tips to help you improve your writing.
- Maintain tense. Changing from past tense to present tense within a scene is (almost) never acceptable.
Check spelling. With all the spell check features available, there is no excuse for misspelling words.
- Don’t always trust spell check. Many spell check editors remove hyphens between compound adjectives that precede a noun, such as “well-known writer.”
- Most of the time, punctuation goes inside quotation marks. “Learning the correct grammar,” Sandy said, “can be interesting.” But there are exceptions.
- Use double quotation marks for dialogue. When it is necessary to make a quote within dialogue, use single quotation marks. “Sandy said, ‘Watch using single quotes.'”
We also see certain words misused with some frequency. These include:
- Lay/Lie. Definitely the most common error we run into. And no wonder. In present tense, lay means to cause to lie down or to place. It requires an object. Example: “He laid his hat next to his gloves,” where laid (past tense of “lay”) is the verb and his hat is the object. Lie means to be or to place oneself in a reclining position. Example: “He lies on the bed pretending to sleep.” There is no object, nothing that further explains what or who lies, because the verb lie modifies the subject of the sentence (in this case, he). But it is past tense that trips up 80 percent of the writers we work with. The past tense of lay is laid. No sweat. BUT — the past tense of lie is lay. Ugh! (Any wonder we get confused?) Examples:
- Present tense: She lays the book on the table.
- Past tense: She laid the book on the table.
- Present tense: She lies on the sofa and enjoys the breeze.
- Past tense: She lay on the sofa and enjoyed the breeze.
- Alright/All right. Alright is no longer considered an acceptable word. All right is the only correct spelling.
Then/Than. Then means a time or accordingly. Than is a comparison.
- Affect/Effect. Affect is usually a verb meaning “to influence.” Effect is a noun, meaning “result.” Drinking does not affect his personality. If fact, it seems to have no effect at all.
- Conscience/Conscious. Conscience is a noun meaning having a sense of right and wrong. Conscious is an adjective meaning to be aware of.
- Have/ Of. Use have, not of, after helping verbs such as could, would, should, may and might. I should have (not of) known that. Usually this confusion occurs because of the pronunciation of the contracted have (‘ve). So, our example sentence could have been written: I should’ve known that.
If your grammar exceeds the seventh-grade level, you make take literary license and “adjust” the grammar as you see fit as long as it serves an artistic purpose. Such as using sentence fragments like this one for emphasis. However, if it doesn’t serve a purpose, use correct grammar so your reader (and publisher) will realize that you do understand the proper way of doing it.
One important exception is dialogue. It’s always okay to write dialogue the way in which characters speak.
All of our editors have a superb grasp on grammar. Review our editorial services to see how we can help improve your writing.
For additional tips, worksheets, and discussions, order your own copy of the The Plain English Writer’s Workbook.
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