This is an article I wrote back in 2005. I feel sure I posted it somewhere, but couldn’t tell you where now. In any case, it bears repeating. ~ Dellani
Growing up the daughter of an English professor and a school teacher has its drawbacks. On one hand, I learned a great deal about the English language and what not to do when writing. On the other hand, I learned how miserably I expressed myself and how badly I spelled. There is nothing like writing a letter to your father and having it sent back with corrections made, to make you realize that you are doing something wrong.
Can I spell well even now? Well, let’s just say that spell check is my best friend in the whole world and my second best friend is Dictionary.com.
I recollect telling my mother on more than one occasion, “But they KNOW what I mean! Why do I have to spell?” I hear the same thing from my children, and I give them the same answer my mother did, “Because not everyone will understand what you are saying and they will think you are an ignorant person if you don’t learn the right way.” (Paraphrasing a bit, she was nicer about it than I am.)
Spelling is important, but can be easily corrected with the use of a spell check program or a good dictionary. Not so easy to correct are those pesky grammatical errors which we hear and see every day on the radio, on TV or in conversation. One of the most obvious offenders? Star Trek! “To boldly go where no man has gone before.”
Of course this sounds much more impressive than the grammatically correct version, but let’s face it. Wrong is wrong! Gene Roddenberry split an infinitive, a major grammatical no-no. The corrected version would be: “To go boldly where no one has gone before.” (That’s also the politically correct version.) Falls kind of flat, doesn’t it? In creative writing, split infinitives are not as big a deal if used sparingly and for effect. However, to do so consistently might not be a good approach.
I often thank Mr. Frakes, my high school English teacher, for needling me about all things mechanical. I learned a lot from his badgering. It really struck home when I got a paper back and written at the top in his sloppy, bold handwriting was my grade. “For creativity, A. For mechanics, F.” In a nut-shell, grammar counts.
I had a teenager read part of my first sci-fi novel. His main remark was that it was good, but, “There seemed to be a lot of grammatical errors in it.” My reply was, “I don’t make grammatical errors.” But in a panic, I went back to further examine my work. After going through the pages I had sent to him, I didn’t find any grammatical errors—and I’ve got a degree in English education. Going back to him, I asked for him to site examples. He did so. I sat back and laughed, what he had found as errors were, in fact, the correct way of saying things. He found three infinitives which were not split, two instances of prepositions not at the end of the sentence and the correct usage of a semi-colon.
Sometimes the errors are intentional, done for effect, or used in dialog. I decided a long time ago, my characters could not come out sounding like some stuffy English professor to whom life spoke not in real American English, but in textbook language. Webster’s Dictionary is wonderful. The Encyclopedia Britannica is an amazing collection of knowledge. Does this mean my hero, a self-educated genius, and ex-Marine is going to speak like Shakespeare? No. He speaks like a man who intends to get the job done, not make it sound pretty. He has no time or energy for flowery language, watching his infinitives, or taking charge of his prepositions. He’s got a war to fight, dammit!
The conclusion: anything goes in dialog.
However, in basic text, one must be more careful. A major grammatical offender is the verb “Lay.” Lay, laid, lie, lying. . . consistently misused by nearly everyone. The exceptions to this—stuffy English professors and most high school English teachers.
I know the connotations for the word laid. However, there are perfectly acceptable usages and to over correct is worse than using them wrong. I have seen this mistake in several novels, probably the most recent offender I’ve come across, was the author of the Harry Potter books. I do not recall the exact quote, but laid should have been used and lay was employed in its stead.
Examples of this error: “He lay the book on the table.” “She lay her hand on his shoulder comfortingly.”
I also spot the opposite of this offense, the use of laid where lay should be used, and vise versa.
Examples: “He laid down on the bed.” “I’m going to go lay down.”
My own husband and children say this and it drives me crazy! I’ve given up with my husband, he’s too old to change. My older son and daughter self-correct, the two youngest ones need prodding. I have not given up this fight!
Split infinitives, bad spelling and verbs aside, one of the most prevalent grammatical errors, of which I myself am a great offender—Ending a sentence with a preposition. Oh, if the great English scholars could read my writing, they would spin in their tombs for eternity! We all do it. It is sometimes unavoidable. If we use this one correctly, our sentences come put sounding like Yoda! Whose idea was this anyway? I really want to know! Had to have been someone who had absolutely nothing else to do with his time but sit around and make arbitrary decisions about how we are to speak and write.
The most famous (or infamous) example is from Winston Churchill. He had sent something to an editor, only to have it come back with each of his prepositions neatly inserted inside the sentence. Apparently the elder statesman did not like this effrontery on the part of the editorial staff. He sent back a rather terse reply: “This is the sort of English, up with which I cannot put.”
I could go on for hours on the subject of grammar, ask any of my former students. How something is said, is as important as what is being said. Although a certain amount of grammatical errors can be glossed over and allowed for effect, too many interrupt the flow of the document and cast a shadow of doubt on the writer.
Suggestions: print out your work and read, re-read, and read again looking for errors. Have others look it over, read it carefully and give you specific feedback. Telling them to let you know how they like it, is not going to get you the critique you need. Give it to an English teacher, if you have access to one, and ask for a thorough assessment of your work and try not to take it personally. Write, write, write and then re-write and edit with a heavy hand.
“This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”—Hamlet, Act I, Scene III.