Tools to Tackle Grammar Gaffes

Oh my. We all have our peccadillos when it comes to English, don’t we? If I addressed them all, we’d be here til next year. So I’ll just give you the cheats…uh, tips I use most often.

Don’t be afraid of me.

Poor ol’ me has been sorely maligned, as it should be when used incorrectly. Usage such as “Jim n’ me will be happy to talk with you” stirs images of uneducated, backward folk who wouldn’t know a first-person, singular pronoun if it bit them on their knobby noses. But the answer is not to eschew me in favor of what some consider the more intelligent sounding I—not unless the usage is correct. So how do you know? Well, I could wax eloquent on subjects and objects in a sentence, but I’ve learned that there are many out there—yes, even writers– who can’t identify such in a sentence. As one such writer pointed out to me recently, grammar school was a looooong time ago. So here’s a simple test. Ask yourself, “If I took the other person out of the sentence, would the proper pronoun be I or me?” Let’s use the Jim sentence from last week: “Just give Jim and I a call” would become “Just give I a call.” Nope. Doesn’t work. So this should be, “Just give Jim and me a call…” Now let’s take Jim out of today’s me sentence: “Me will be happy to talk with you.” Unless you’re two years old, that just doesn’t work. So bring on the I! “Jim and I will be happy to talk with you.”

Myself reflects me or I.

Words like myself, himself, herself, themselves are…wait for it…reflexive pronouns. They can only refer back to the subject of a sentenc—oops. Sorry. Hmmm…how about this: Don’t worry about the why of it, just remember Myself reflects me or I. Think about it. What do you need to have a reflection? Someone looking in the window, mirror, etc. So you can’t use a self pronoun unless you’ve already used I or me  or him (and so on) in the sentence. For example, last week’s line from the commercial–“This product was tested by myself”–doesn’t work, because there’s no I or me that comes before the reflection. Now, it could say “I myself tested this product.” That’s fine, because you’ve got I to create the reflection. Should be, “This product has been tested by me and others in the medical field…” (I’m not even going to address the passive voice used in the commercial…sheesh!)

Fewer counts, less doesn’t.

If you can count the individual items you’re referring to one by one, use fewer. So in the grocery line, it’s “10 items or fewer” because you can count the individual items. Or “There are fewer steps than you imagine to getting this right,” because you can count the steps. But it’s “There’s less water in my glass than in Steve’s” because you can’t get in there and count each bit of H2O individually. Go ahead. Try it. I dare ya.

Which doesn’t matter.

Which phrases are parenthetical, meaning they’re plopped into sentences to give information you may want to know but they don’t alter the meaning of the sentence. For example, “The phrase ‘Which doesn’t matter,’ which Karen shared with us in her blog, helps you know when to use which or that.” If you pull “which Karen shared with us in her blog” out of the sentence, it still has the same overall meaning (that the phrase helps you know what to do): “The phrase ‘Which doesn’t matter’ helps you know when to use which or that.” However, consider: “The key phrase that Karen uses to know when to use which or that is ‘Which doesn’t matter.’” This sentence isn’t so much about the phrase itself, but about the fact that it’s the phrase I use. If you pull “that Karen uses” from the sentence, the overall meaning is changed and the sentence is again about the phrase, not my use of the phrase.

Okay, I think that’s enough for today. I’ll finish up next week, so feel free to ask questions or suggest issues for me to tackle.

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When Trying to Sound Intelligent Backfires

So, I’m at a writers’ conference—a professional setting, yes? With folks who are clearly well educated, especially about the use of words, yes?–and this is what I hear: “Just give Jim and I a call, and we’ll talk it over.” Cringe. Then came a recent commercial on TV, where a …

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Wordsmiths of the World, Unite!

Did you know you’re a wordsmith? If you’re a writer, you are. A wordsmith is defined by Webster’s as a “craftsman or artist whose medium is words.” That, my friends, is you. Which is why I’m coming to you today and asking you to have mercy on your readers. (Yes, …

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Editing Etiquette

Writers and editors have a love-hate relationship. Okay, sometimes it can feel like a hate-hate relationship. Writers all know they need to be edited, but getting the manuscript back with those edits can be more painful than passing a kidney stone. And editors know they need to respect the author’s …

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Chapters: How Long is Too Long?

I’ve had a number of people ask me lately how long their chapters should be. My answer has been: “As long as they need to be.” Now, it would be nice if I could give folks the “industry-standard” answer: “Chapters should be no less than xx and no longer than …

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When Editorial Errors Matter

by Steve Laube

Writers make mistakes. It happens. Often an editor’s job is to be the safety net and catch those tidbits that find their way into an early draft of a manuscript for any number of reasons.

The simplicity of “cut & paste” has created more opportunity for error than ever before. I’ve seen half sentences left in their original place because the writer failed to cut and paste accurately. Many books evolve over time with additional research or new thoughts. Errors can creep in this way. I’ve seen an author actually contradict himself between chapters. There are too many details to keep straight so the writer overlooks the inconsequential trusting the editor to fix things. I remember talking to a Bethany House editor who revealed that an author accidently brought a character back to life, forgetting that the character had died earlier in the story.

None of the above examples ever found their way into the final edition of the book and the public never knew the error was made. An editor caught it and fixed it. That is why errors found in a finished and published book are so jarring.

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Ancient Wisdom from an Ancient Editor

by Steve Laube

I came across a remarkable section in a book written around 124 B.C. The editor of the book wrote the following preface to help the reader understand his methodology and purpose. It shows the concern a good editor has for the ultimate reader. His job was to abridge a massive five volume work into an abbreviated 16,00 word document. Can anyone tell me where this comes from and the name of the editor? (Without googling the text!) I’ll reveal the answer in the comments later in the day.

The number of details and the bulk of material can be overwhelming for anyone who wants to read an account of the events. But I have attempted to simplify it for all readers; those who read for sheer pleasure will find enjoyment and those who want to memorize the facts will not find it difficult.

Writing such a summary is a difficult task, demanding hard work and sleepless nights. It is as difficult as preparing a banquet that people of different tastes will enjoy. But I am happy to undergo this hardship in order to please my readers. I will leave the matter of details to the original author and attempt to give only a summary of the events.

I am not the builder of a new house who is concerned with every detail of the structure, but simply a painter whose only concern is to make the house look attractive. The historian must master his subject, examine every detail, and then explain it carefully, but whoever is merely writing a summary should be permitted to give a brief account without going into a detailed discussion. So then, without any further comment, I will begin my story. It would be foolish to write such a long introduction that the story itself would have to be cut short.

Note a few pearls of eternal wisdom from this ancient editor:

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The Writer as Editor

As we saw in my post last week, there are any number of ways a manuscript can go wrong. Hard enough to write a novel, but then to have to dig in and edit it yourself? That’s especially tough. So here are some tips to help you be the best editor you can be.

Don’t let the editor out to play too soon

Writing and editing are very different functions for the brain. Writing is a creative process; editing, logical and detail-oriented. When writing, we need to let ourselves forget the rules and coax the story to life. When editing, we must embrace the rules as a solid foundation to help us strengthen what’s landed on the page. I’ve seen so many writers almost drive themselves crazy by trying to edit as they write, which ends up making them second-guess everything. And freezes the story in its tracks.

Puts me in mind of one of my favorite pens (pictured below). It’s a two-tip pen—black ink at one end, red at the other. The body of the pen is made of two colors of wood, one with black tones, one with red. One end for writing, the other for editing. The pen works great—so long as I only use one end at a time! Trying to edit and write at the same time would be like grabbing the pen at both ends: totally ineffectual.

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