Does grammar matter, and will it?

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Does grammar matter, and will it?

Postby Doug Pardee » 03 Mar 2011, 14:00

These questions are for discussion purposes. I'm not looking for an official ruling.

Q1: Do you think that proper grammar has any effect on a manuscript's potential success?

At a different site, an aspiring fiction author who'd asked for comments on something he'd written objected to my pointing out a grammatical error—a common error that could easily be corrected without affecting the original writing. His objection was that he was unaware of the grammatical rule, and that his writing was understandable as it was. I agree that it was understandable as it was, but is correct grammar now so irrelevant that a simple correction isn't worthwhile?

Q2: Do you think that self-publishing is going to affect the rules of written English?

I read a lot of self-published e-books. Even though I don't bother with the 95% that are junk, most of the ones that I do read still have glaring errors in their written English. However, I'm fairly picky about these things—yesterday I was checking CMoS 16e to see what the rules are for apostrophes on the genitive case—so I'm far from your typical reader. I suspect that most of the errors that are glaring to me would be overlooked by most American readers. Certainly I've seen a lot of "loved the writing" comments from others on books that I couldn't finish because the English was so poorly constructed.

The Web is already laden with non-standard English. If self-published e-books become popular, will that be enough to push the accepted rules of written English to accommodate the mod modes? With bunche's of e-book's having apostrophe's in their plural's, will editor's and teacher's have to change their standard's to conform to the author's's style's? (Ow, that hurt to write. Ow ow ow.)
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Re: Does grammar matter, and will it?

Postby polymath » 03 Mar 2011, 14:10

I cut my editorial eye teeth on the issues of prescriptive grammar and discretionary grammar. Standard Written English I know as well as the next dicatorial grammarian. Variants have one guiding principle: Does it work effectively without being disruptive?

If it calls undue attention to itself, it's poor grammar.
If it's appropriate, timely, artfully and rhetorically contributory, it's exquisite grammar.

I've been around long enough, closely read and widely read enough to note appreciable changes in language, grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Change is vital to a living language. New cultural influences effect change. Prose publishability is more a matter of effectiveness than rigid adherence to a set of prescriptive rules.
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Re: Does grammar matter, and will it?

Postby cheekychook » 03 Mar 2011, 14:36

I read a ton---traditionally published novels, e-pubbed novels, self-pubbed novels---I'm frequently shocked by the language (out and out errors or simply overuse of a word, or sloppy use of adjectives) that seem to skate by editors/writers without notice. I don't know why that happens so often.

I'm all for using language that is natural and enhances the voice and tone of a book. Sometimes you have to end a sentence with a preposition to make it sound the way people talk and think in day to day life. Some grammar rules are going to get broken in the process of writing (at least commercial) fiction. That said, other errors are just that, errors. Either made by carelessness or lack of attention, or possibly lack of knowledge. I don't consider myself to be an expert by any means, so if I'm catching things in published work I'm sure there's more that is escaping my notice.

Not related to your question, but I'm compelled to add that agents are frequent offenders when it comes to grammar/punctuation. In blogs, in emails, in tweets---everywhere. It proves that they're human, and I think that's a good thing---I want a human agent...but it's a little maddening when our query letters and manuscripts are supposed to be 100% error-free and the one or two lines they respond with or the blurbs they post contain language use that would result in an automatic reject of our stuff. Or maybe I"m just jaded. That's probably it.
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Re: Does grammar matter, and will it?

Postby Louise Curtis » 03 Mar 2011, 14:53

My grammar's not fabulous, but it's decent (enough that I can tutor uni students in essay writing). Bad grammar pulls you out of the book, and that's a sin. A few sins can be forgiven (more so in email or blogs), but not many. If you have three mistakes on the first page of your novel, it is perfectly fair for you to be rejected. That many mistakes is just RUDE.

In my opinion, you need to spell words correctly (and/or use a spell checker - but know enough to recognise the correct word when you see it), get your apostrophes right (for some reason apostrophes are especially grating), get your homonyms sorted (they're their there/where we're wear were etc), use speech marks correctly, and stick with just one tense. Oh, and capitalise your "i" when it refers to a person, or I'll slap you.

That's enough to scrape by. Any less makes you look like an idiot - a rude idiot. The purpose of grammar is to let others enjoy your writing for what it is (rather than having to struggle through a jungle of unclear prose). Sidebar: You can get away with more when writing in the first person.

I wrote a sarcastic poston grammar (and a few other annoying habits), which covers the basics.

Grammar DOES change over time, and the net etc WILL change certain things. But there's always been a difference between written and spoken English, and between notes and novels. Now the net/SMSes are (mostly) just another thing with their own dialogue - and with predictive text, SMS speak will mostly fade away.
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Re: Does grammar matter, and will it?

Postby Sommer Leigh » 03 Mar 2011, 16:59

polymath wrote:I cut my editorial eye teeth on the issues of prescriptive grammar and discretionary grammar. Standard Written English I know as well as the next dicatorial grammarian. Variants have one guiding principle: Does it work effectively without being disruptive?

If it calls undue attention to itself, it's poor grammar.
If it's appropriate, timely, artfully and rhetorically contributory, it's exquisite grammar.

I've been around long enough, closely read and widely read enough to note appreciable changes in language, grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Change is vital to a living language. New cultural influences effect change. Prose publishability is more a matter of effectiveness than rigid adherence to a set of prescriptive rules.


I agree with everything Polymath said.

Striving for correct grammar is important, but some grammar, word use, voice, and even punctuation can be wobbly because of the constant organic, changing nature of language. Language is beautiful and brilliant and exciting because of its ever changing nature, and no matter how much grammar-purists hate it, there is no stopping that speeding train.

I expect published writing will change and shift as language does. I don't think poor grammar is going to ever become acceptable, but some things will change. There are plenty enough people willing to argue over the use of the oxford comma, plenty of people who still swear two spaces after the period is correct while others (like me) are horrified by the idea. Some people will violently object to the verbing of words that are traditionally non-verbs while others (like me) get a thrill from a drive-by illegal verbing. Some people notice grammar more readily and will be more put off by it than others who can read without trying to pick out mistakes. Some people don't care if there are errors in emails, texts, forum posts or blog posts, some people find it unprofessional no matter where the words are typed out.
Last edited by Sommer Leigh on 03 Mar 2011, 18:47, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Does grammar matter, and will it?

Postby Quill » 03 Mar 2011, 17:39

I think we are entering the era now of anything goes; if you can make out the meaning then it's all good by most people. Grammar is going the way of the buggy whip as a relevant concern.

Random apostrophes, rampant verbicizing and adverbicizing are just the beginning.

Twitter and texting are leading the way to the new, truncated visual language. Symbols, such as emoticons, will increasingly replace words. Graphic novels are the wave of the future. Graffiti is the new cave drawing.

Certain bastions will hold out for a while, traditionally published books among them, but others, even middling ones like online news writing, have already begun the transition.
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Re: Does grammar matter, and will it?

Postby polymath » 03 Mar 2011, 18:15

These discussions came up in the past accompanying technological innovations. Wood pulp paper and machine-made mass market books and pulp digests raised a firestorm of controversy among authoritarians and commercial interests and other vested interests airing their opinions. Culture settled down into a new normal within a few decades.

I've seen hints the same kind of debate raged after the introduction of the press and cotton fiber paper. The transition from handwritten leather parchment and vellum leaves to printed paper foolscap leaves illustrates the temper of the debate. I imagine the transition from stone and clay writing to leather and papyrus were equally contentious. Language changes parallel reflections of and influences upon the cultures of the times. Not too coincidentally, they were also eras of significant departures from their respective literary cultures' pasts.

The Booyah Boomerang Effect moves cultures ahead great leaps while resistance to change pusmi-pullya's back. Somewhere in between will settle down into a new normal.
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Re: Does grammar matter, and will it?

Postby Margo » 03 Mar 2011, 20:04

Doug Pardee wrote:Q1: Do you think that proper grammar has any effect on a manuscript's potential success?


Yes. I think poor grammar (that is, when it bears no relation to voice or intent and is just there because the writer doesn't know any better) occuring so often that it's habit will lower the overall expectation people have of the writer -- indie or traditional. It might still be successful on one level or another, but I don't think it will be as successful as it would have been had the writer learned his craft -- all of it rather than just the parts he liked.

Doug Pardee wrote:Q2: Do you think that self-publishing is going to affect the rules of written English?


No. I've seen plenty of indie writers dressed down for poor grammar. I've also noted a trend (for whatever that is worth and however long it lasts in an industry evolving this quickly) with indie authors getting a bit of success behind them and choosing to hire editors for the next book. A larger audience also brings more critical readers who aren't so enamoured of discovering a new author that they won't call the writer out on shoddy work.

Doug Pardee wrote:The Web is already laden with non-standard English. If self-published e-books become popular, will that be enough to push the accepted rules of written English to accommodate the mod modes?


I will always write business correspondence in jargon-laden passive voice. I will always write blog and forum posts in my particular rural Cali beach bunny voice. I will always use correct grammar in my fiction unless it leads to a stilted sentence. It's not a matter of having to choose one and throwing the rest out. It's about being audience-appropriate.
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Re: Does grammar matter, and will it?

Postby Sommer Leigh » 04 Mar 2011, 01:20

Quill wrote:I think we are entering the era now of anything goes; if you can make out the meaning then it's all good by most people. Grammar is going the way of the buggy whip as a relevant concern.

Random apostrophes, rampant verbicizing and adverbicizing are just the beginning.

Twitter and texting are leading the way to the new, truncated visual language. Symbols, such as emoticons, will increasingly replace words. Graphic novels are the wave of the future. Graffiti is the new cave drawing.

Certain bastions will hold out for a while, traditionally published books among them, but others, even middling ones like online news writing, have already begun the transition.


I shudder over the idea of emoticons in fiction. Unless you're Lauren Myracle. But there is only one of her.

I am very excited over these exceptional graphic novels we've been seeing over the last few years - Persepolis, Blankets, and American Born Chinese to name a few. They are as rich and thematically complicated as any traditional fiction I've read. My husband teaches Persepolis and American Born Chinese in some of his English classes.
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Re: Does grammar matter, and will it?

Postby longknife » 04 Mar 2011, 11:50

Yes, I think grammar is VERY important!
But, it also depends upon the genre of the story.
I think a story written for teens should be in the idiom used by teens.
A historical novel would be written differently, but heed must also be paid to the grammar/style of the period.
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Re: Does grammar matter, and will it?

Postby cheekychook » 05 Mar 2011, 09:36

I don't think "May I have a cheeseburger?" would have made any cats or humans LOL.
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Re: Does grammar matter, and will it?

Postby Sommer Leigh » 05 Mar 2011, 09:54

cheekychook wrote:I don't think "May I have a cheeseburger?" would have made any cats or humans LOL.



I know one thing, *I* sure LOLed when I read this :-)
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Re: Does grammar matter, and will it?

Postby Margo » 05 Mar 2011, 21:21

cheekychook wrote:I don't think "May I have a cheeseburger?" would have made any cats or humans LOL.


I love that site. On the other hand, have you tried reading the lolcat bible translation? Not as funny in really large doses. Which also applies to bad grammar in fiction. :)
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Re: Does grammar matter, and will it?

Postby paravil » 15 Mar 2011, 06:18

I know I'm late to the discussion, but two things:

1. It sounds like the writer you corrected has an attitude problem and just didn't appreciated being told something he didn't know. Honestly, only someone who did not care at all about the craft of writing would say that grammar doesn't matter. If your tools are words then you better know how to use them correctly. And you can only get away with misusing them when you're doing it on purpose.

2. The day plurals with apostrophes become acceptable in literature will be the day that I stop reading and learn a new language.
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Re: Does grammar matter, and will it?

Postby eaks0685 » 18 Mar 2011, 19:36

I believe grammar matters in most situations. If the attempt is to play with language through using various types of -nyms, -phones and -grams, then I think it is ok, as long as it is understood as intentional. I feel the same way with syntax in 'poetic prose'(attempted or functioning), in a conscious choice for inversion, or in an effort to grant a certain voice or stylistic atmosphere depending on the scene described: one in a setting of teenagers, urban settings, etc., where the narration feels enhanced by the 'free range grammar.' In most other senses, I believe grammar does matter. For me, I try to play on mistakes in word choice, grammar or syntax on purpose, but I am horrible with grammar, punctuation, etc, which makes it difficult to edit. As one of my college professors once said, '"I suggest you consult a grammar book, and edit if you want an A." I settled for the B(the beginning of my bad habits. I do write with one sitting on the kitchen table now, but unfortunately do not write in the kitchen.)
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