Grammar. One of the many nemeses of writers. Not quite as evil as Writers Block or Post Rejection Syndrome, but one of our banes for sure. Especially for those of us who foolishly majored in engineering (or science or music or math or, well, you get the picture.) instead of English. And while good grammar and spelling do not make necessarily for good writing, they are table stakes. Necessary but not sufficient, we used to say, in one of those not-quite-useless science classes.
And Grammar is not an exact science (nor is spelling, we’ll come back to that). English as a language is evolving constantly. Furthermore, Grammar is more often bent in dialog or close-perspective narration than in business writing. Starting a sentence with And or But leaps to mind.
Similarly, spelling is also more fluid than one might think. While much is involatile (notice I got the plural of nemesis correct above), again language is evolving. Leaped or leapt, dived or dove are two of my own bugaboos (I oscillate back and forth). Add on top of this differences in American vs British English. Forgetting the big ticket items like all those excess Us in coloured armour, and the S vs Z conundrum, how about ax vs axe? While sans E is standard American English, I prefer having that E when I am writing fantasy that evokes medieval weaponry. A swordmaiden with a battleaxe feels better, at least to everyone but her enemies. And my spell checker just told me it should be sword maiden, a tip I just ignored
While Grammar enemies abound, there are some friends out there. Various spellcheckers are our first line of defense, but they pass many goobers and miss many of the subtleties, not to mention all those false alarms. Two favorite tools of mine are:
- Grammar Girl, a website devoted to answering those tricky grammar questions
- Grammarly, a grammar-checking tool that I have recently started using. It actually works–I routinely find one or two major goobers and a slew of comma faults even in well-proofed short stories. That’s the good news, bad news is that while there is a stripped-down web version that is free, the full version that works with MS Word is very expensive, sold only as a service at ~ $15 / month. Do the math–this is the cost of a new laptop every 3 years or so. For people who write for a living, great, but a little pricey for my blood at this stage.
What tools do you use to combat your Grammar demons?
Keep on writin’.
My mythica novel, Ragnarök Willie has won the 2015 Pikes Peak Writers Zebulon Fiction Award in the urban fantasy category. To say I’m excited about this would be a huge understatement, although I’m also more than a little intimidated. Besides my 15 seconds of fame accepting the award, I’ll also be querying Ragnarök Willie at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference the end of April.
I’m practicing my blurb, so here it is (more info and an excerpt on my updated Ragnarök Willie page):
When an eccentric archeologist unearths the prehistoric fortress of Valhalla, thirteen semi-mythical valkyries, an ancient pagan cult, and young Lasse Nordberg all head north. The valkyries are vying with each other over global domination. The pagans are plotting revenge for the millennium-old Christian invasion. Lasse, a university dropout and video game junkie, is looking for a job, a girlfriend who doesn’t cheat, and a decent latte.
Thrilled to find work at an obscure newspaper in the frozen armpit of arctic Sweden, Lasse is assigned to report on the dig. He wonders why his blond boss keeps a bevy of throwing axes in her desk drawer. And why the sexy druidess keeps asking him about old hunting horns. He should do more than wonder: his boss is one of the valkyries, wingless but deadly, and his druidic girlfriend is using him to find Gjallarhorn, the not-so-mythical horn of Heimdallr. Which, if blown three times, will awaken Odin’s undead warriors for Ragnarök, the battle at the end of the world.
Come Midwinter’s Day, his back to a pillar of fire, surrounded by warring valkyries, a blue-bearded giantess charging at him, Lasse has already blown Gjallarhorn twice.
Wish me luck.
It’s not enough for characters in fiction to see their enemies, hear gunshots, taste arsenic and feel the fine blade of a dagger at their throats. Onomatopoeias ( fancy word for spelling out sounds like meow or thwunk) are terrific, but characters, and readers, also need to smell the roses. And saltpeter. And rotting corpses and the fishmongers down at the wharf and cheap perfume.
I spent several hours today adding the sense of smell to several characters across several stories. Duncan and the hickory log in his old wood stove. Geira and the sweet smell of bat guano. Lasse and the not so sweet smell of his own boot burning in the fires of Muspelheim. And Buddy and the phantom scent of his murdered wife’s roses.
Overdoing smells of course also has risk–in the middle of battle a swordmaiden is unlikely to ponder if that tinge in the night air is lavender or milkweed. But still evoking all 5 senses helps the reader put themselves in the story, not just reading it.
And yes I am also a big fan of twunk. As in an ax blade sinking into a wall. Or a neck. Fictionally, of course.
This is an update of a post a few years back on words that mix us writers up.
If only Hemingway had used that for his title, maybe I wouldn’t have had a character knelling to pray in a finished manuscript submitted to a prestigious contest. I got got of course, and I won’t (probably) make that mistake again, but then again, maybe I will. It’s not exactly a homonym, but it’s one of those close-enough-that-spell-check-lets-it-pass nyms.
Recently a fellow writer pointed out that I’ve been using discrete for discreet for decades, highly embarrassing. Hopefully my errors were so discreet that no one noticed.
As writers, we try really hard to not let our bares bare arms in their bear arms, and we make little checklists of these homonyms (and other nyms):
- “There, there, they’re there,” said their father
- You bear arms in bare arms
- “Nell, pleas kneel when the bell knells,” said Neal
- It’s its…
- Hear here
- The deserter ate dessert in the desert
- The cavalry never arrived at Calvary
- “Yea, I said yeah,” (or is it “Yeah, I said yea”?)
- Who’s is whose?
- In order not to err, the heir came up for air
- Please be discreet about the discrete errors I’ve made
- Do you hale from a land with lots of hail?
- A writer must be hardy to endure the hearty laughs at his or her errors
- Some writers flaunt their flouting of rules
- I’m writing a book about the soft petals of roses that I intend to soft pedal to publishers (not really)
- It is not an everyday occurrence to use everyday instead of every day
Been burned on more than a few of these. When I was writing “The Cavalryman’s Saber,” I looked up cavalry vs Calvary a dozen times , since the cavalryman was not a Calvaryman.
As for whom the bell knells, it knells for The.
Feel free to post your personal nemeses (which is indeed the plural of nemesis, I just double checked)