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.

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