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  • Mary Deal

Hidden Grammar Flaws


As a writer, you should strive to be as grammatically correct as possible. After all the editing, writing still comes down to just words.

Listen to people, how they speak, their intonation and enunciation, and you will learn how grammar flaws hide in everyday language. Hear the words they use. Over time, as you become more aware of grammar in general, you may feel annoyed at the poor choices of words or descriptions spoken. Then remind yourself that a character in one of your stories could speak that way and it would serve to enhance his or her image or personality.

One of the words to make any grammarian flinch is the word at. People ask, “Where are you at?” Where and at actually send the reader’s comprehension to the same location. The two words used this way mean virtually the same thing. Ask yourself these questions:

Where at are you?

At where are you?

The word at is superfluous. Asking, “Where are you?” is correct. You might ask, “At which location are you?” But you wouldn’t ask, “Where’s your location at?”

When the word at is used at the end of a sentence, it is just another dangling preposition. At best, it’s poor grammar to write sentences like the mangled samples given. However, you may use sentences such as these in your character’s dialogue.

Using the word at to finish a sentence shows a lack of understanding of proper speech. English usage has become very lax and colloquialism has become the norm. While it enhances your character’s personality, when used in the narration of the rest of the story, it shows a lackadaisical attitude of you, the writer. If used to enhance your character’s mannerisms, make sure his or her dialogue is in sync and fits the character you build.

The rule is never finish any sentence with a dangling preposition. What I’m saying here is that some language is outdated. However, it may be used to fit the dialogue of the time period of your story.

Here are a few more grammar gremlins that could drive an editor to throw a submission into the reject bin, killing any chance a great plot may have:

She found out. If not out, try saying She found in. Better to say She learned or She discovered. Too, when word count matters, the latter two examples drop an unnecessary word.

A fire breaks out. This phrase stems from the fact a fire needs to be contained, so it can, indeed, break out. Or a burglar can break in. She or he can also break out of jail.

Here’s one that makes me laugh: She caught my eye. Did he really throw it? Sometimes you, the writer, must be literal. I noticed her standing there would be a better sentence.

Some poor grammar is allowed in writing. But sentences like, She woke up could make an editor cringe. If she woke up, could she wake down? Terms like woke up have their basis in slang and are a turn-off in otherwise good writing. She woke says what you want it to say. Up has nothing to do with waking, unless it implies she climbed out of bed, but in story writing, it would be best to describe how she climbed out of bed, like this: She woke, stretched, and then timidly placed her warm bare feet on the cold hardwood floor.

I’ve said this before: The only place you should use slang terminology is in dialogue, where someone actually speaks the line. In that case, the character must be created with a bent for the jargon. Any time you use up, write or say that same sentence using down and you may see that neither fits. Some examples are:

She woke up / down

Tore the paper up / down

Loosen it up / down

Build it up / down

Build the suspense up / down

As you can see from the samples, sometimes the usages are far from correct and that last word needs to be dropped. In dialogue, they may be exactly what you need.

Other incorrect or outdated grammar gremlins and their updated substitutions might be:

Ate it up–Ate it

Drank it up–Drank it

Looked it up–Searched for it

Thought it up–Conjured it

Covered it up–Covered it

For stories or other prose that have been rejected time and time again, go over them with an awareness of grammar flaws in the form of outdated language. Sometimes simple changes get a piece accepted. As an editor, the worst corrections I see that need to be made are grammar problems.

Analyze the use of up and down and other opposites in your writing and mercilessly shed those grammar flaws.

—Mary Deal

#grammar #MaryDeal

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