What Big Teeth You Have, Grammar – Part 4

Here’s the next post about the wonderful world of grammar, he says to accompanying groans. Actually, it can be a fascinating world. No, really. I’ve been recently engaged in editing for indie authors, which I enjoy, and it’s been having a beneficial effect on my own understanding of how grammar works.

My grasp of grammar comes from a lifelong love of reading and writing. I can read something and instinctively know when a grammatical mistake has been made. However, I didn’t study English at a high level (my degree is in law) and so my ability to explain the error is lacking, especially when it comes to using the correct technical terms. Yet, when editing, I often find myself having to explain the reason for a suggested correction. That is when I turn to the style guides—I use Chicago and Oxford style manuals—and then try to couch the reason in layman’s terms.

I thought it might be fun (yeah, yeah, I have a strange idea of fun) or, at least, useful to explain some of the more common errors I come across while reading and/or editing indie work. (Not, I hasten to add, that these errors are entirely confined to books by independent authors, but I think most people would accept that they are much less commonly found in traditionally published works since they tend to go through more rounds of professional editing.)

I’ll deal with two of the more common ones I come across in this piece. There are plenty of others to discuss in future instalments. (Seriously, stop groaning.)

Run-on Sentences

The humble comma has a multitude of uses. It separates items in a list, it can be used for parenthesis (where a stronger break as indicated by an em dash isn’t required), it punctuates speech, it breaks up wordy sentences into more easily readable chunks, it denotes a slight pause. There are more uses, but that’s enough to be going on with.

What is not a function of the comma is to join two complete sentences. That is the job of a semicolon (sometimes a colon) or em dash, or conjunctions such as ‘and’, ‘but’, ‘then’, etc. I see this sort of construction regularly:

John was exhausted, he fell over.

‘John was exhausted’ and ‘he fell over’ are two complete sentences. You could rewrite the example properly as, ‘John was exhausted. He fell over.’

The author has tried to make the comma do the work of the semicolon. It’s sometimes known as a ‘comma splice’. There are plenty of ways to merge these sentences without abusing the poor comma:

John was exhausted, so he fell over.

John was exhausted and he fell over.

John was exhausted; he fell over.

John was exhausted—he fell over.

More creatively:

John was so exhausted, he fell over.

Since John was exhausted, he fell over.

You get the point (and I’m fed up of writing about John and his problems).

Another incorrect use of the comma is to use it to splice two clauses linked by adverbs such as ‘nevertheless’ and ‘therefore’. So, the grammatically correct translation of the famous philosophical statement attributed to Descartes is not ‘I think, therefore I am’, but ‘I think; therefore I am’. On that profound note, let’s move on.

Like v As

Consider this (admittedly lowbrow) sentence:

I felt scared, like I was about to shit myself.

Not the most edifying of sentences, but is there anything wrong with it grammatically? The answer is, technically, yes.

Ah, technically. So here, according to Chicago, is the technical reason:

‘[Like’s] traditional function is adjectival, not adverbial, so that like governs nouns and noun phrases.’ There’s more, a lot more, but you’ll have to look it up yourself.

In essence, traditional grammar dictates that ‘like’ shouldn’t be used before a verb phrase, such as ‘I was about to shit myself’. Instead, the conjunction should be ‘as if’ or ‘as though’:

I felt scared, as though I was about to shit myself.

On the other hand, this would be grammatically correct:

I felt scared, like a man about to shit himself.

‘a man about to shit himself’ is a noun phrase (i.e. ‘man’ is a noun and the remaining words modify it) and so ‘like’ can properly link it to the preceding clause.

I imagine some writers reading this and shaking their heads, thinking, “What the heck is he wittering on about? I use ‘like’ all the time in the way he’s condemning without any problems.”

Such is your prerogative. However, far better to break grammatical rules through educated choice rather than ignorance. In other words, know the rules before deciding to break them. At least, then, if an irritated reviewer tears you a new one, you’ll know why.

And I’d strongly recommend breaking them sparingly. You’re far more likely to run foul of a disgruntled reader through constant disregard of the rules than by the occasional informed decision to break them.

That’s enough about grammar for today. No doubt there’ll be another post along in a while. Groan away—I can take it.

Utter Bunkum and the Suspension of Disbelief – Part 1

I’ve posted a few serious pieces in recent months—marketing, editing, etc.—so thought it was time for a bit of light relief; something more frivolous, a little tongue in cheek. What follows are my random musings on the believability, or not, of the stories I enjoy reading, watching and writing.

Most of the stories I write are utter bunkum. Complete tosh. They are, at best, highly unfeasible. If readers took me to task and claimed that some of the scenarios in my tales are totally impossible, quoting scientific evidence to support their position, I’m not going to argue with them. Why would I? They’re right.

But then, we don’t expect horror or fantasy tales to be necessarily possible, though there are still unspoken rules to do with internal consistency and logic. On the other hand, many readers of science fiction expect stories labelled as such to at least be possible if feasible technological advances were made, or if certain conditions pertained that don’t exist here but that might exist in a solar system or galaxy outside our own.

The human brain is marvellously complex. It operates on many levels. (That’s got me thinking about Shrek, insisting to a sceptical Donkey that ogres have layers, like onions.) When we settle down to read a horror novel, or to watch The Walking Dead or a Harry Potter film, we do so in full knowledge that what we are about to read or watch is, from a rational viewpoint, a load of nonsense. Utter bunkum. Yet we lap it up and go back for more.

Yes, it’s known as suspending our disbelief. Although on some level we are fully aware that the storyline or plot device is far-fetched, that it ought to make us pull a face like the cat in the photo above, we’re willing and able to believe in it for the purposes of being entertained. Or, at least, we’re willing to not so vehemently disbelieve it that it would prevent us from continuing to watch or read.

I think there’s a line, the placement of which will vary from person to person, beyond which our willingness to suspend disbelief becomes stretched to breaking point. At that moment, what we are being asked as readers or viewers to swallow becomes too much, it becomes too ridiculous, and we’re no longer willing to play along. The best fiction writers and screenwriters, the best TV and film directors, are those with the ability to embroil their audience in the work so completely that the line is pushed farther and farther away. Perhaps so far away some of us may never reach it.

And there’s this: no matter how incredible something may be, it can be exciting to allow yourself to imagine it’s possible. We all realise that dolls can’t be possessed by evil spirits, that immortal humanoids living off blood don’t exist, that aliens don’t live among us waiting for a signal to trigger our extinction. We know that people who have died don’t get up and walk around—the thrill lies in supposing, but what if they did?

Not sure what you’d call that level which allows us to be enthralled by fantastical stories. Fanciful? Imaginative? Whatever you want to call it, it’s the part of me I most cherish. It’s the part that takes over when I pick up a Stephen King novel or turn on the TV for Game of Thrones. It’s also firmly in control when I sit at the computer to write.

When I allow my imagination free rein, I picture my rational side shuffling off to a corner to sit with arms folded, pretending to sulk. But really he’s watching what I’m up to, ready to leap to his feet like a lawyer in an American courtroom drama and yell, “Objection! That’s too ludicrous even for you!” When that happens, I usually take notice. Usually.

That’s one of the good things about being a writer. Particularly a writer of the sort of speculative fiction usually pigeon-holed as horror or fantasy or science fiction. It’s make-believe taken to the extreme. If I want to have my characters able to travel beyond the speed of light, or journey through time and space in an elevator, or encounter ghosts or zombies or a vampire masquerading as Father Christmas, I can. It’s fiction. It’s made up. It’s utter bunkum.

The aim for us writers is to spin the yarn in such a way that the reader is willing to come along for the ride and is able to overlook the bunkumness (is that even a word?) of the story. It’s what makes successful authors successful. Especially in the speculative fields I mentioned earlier: horror, fantasy, etc. I mean, when you strip them back to the bare bones, many celebrated novels of those genres are, at their core, utter bunkum. Yet, they’re massively popular, and rightly so because they’re so well written and entertaining.

In Part 2, I’ll take a look, for a bit of fun, at some of my favourite works of utter bunkum.

Till then…