Writing is a tricky business. There are so many elements to consider – developing wonderful characters that grow as your plot moves forward, writing realistic yet entertaining dialogue that moves your plot along, developing a plot that keeps your reader enthralled and desperate to learn more, penning breathtaking scenes, inventing beautiful metaphors. Oh, and grammar. That last one isn’t that exciting is it? And it’s one of those things that can be a bug-bear for many writers – no matter how wonderful their writing is, many just can’t get a grip on the grammar. After all, grammar has nothing to do with creativity, does it?
Well I think it does. Grammar is an intrinsic part of writing; without its rules and regulations, that wonderful scene you’ve written detailing someone’s heartfelt passions, their devastating grief, or their soaring joy may very well be for nothing. One incorrectly placed apostrophe, one wrong word, one incomplete comparison or dangling modifier and your reader will be put off, unimpressed, doubtful of your ability or so irritated that they take to Amazon to give you a heart-breaking one star review. And, possibly worse than that, your beautiful, carefully crafted words may very well make no sense.
So grammar is something you need to get your head round. As a writer I have made plenty of grammatical errors in my work – everyone does, and, as an editor, I see them all the time. But the more you read about common errors and the more you work on avoiding them in your work, the easier it becomes to write and to write well.
One of the most common errors people make is to use the wrong word. And I’m not just talking ‘their’, ‘they’re’ and ‘there’ here. There are plenty of others. Here are a few examples I see all the time when I’m editing.
Who and Whom
This is one that I’ve always found particularly annoying and difficult to get my head round. ‘Who’ is a subjective pronoun – it’s used when the pronoun is the subject of a clause. Other examples of subjective pronouns are ‘he’ and ‘they’. ‘Whom’, on the other hand, is an objective pronoun, used when the pronoun acts as the object of a clause. Other examples of objective pronouns are ‘him’ and ‘us’. ‘Whom’ should also be used after a preposition. Confused? Take a look at these examples:
1) Who made the cakes? (Who is the subject of the clause)
2) She asked whom the film was about. (Whom is the object of the object of the clause)
Try substituting different pronouns to see if you need ‘who’ or ‘whom’.
1) Did he make the cakes?
2) She asked if the film was about him.
1) Did they make the cakes?
2) She asked if the film was about us.
As for the usage of ‘whom’ after a preposition, here’s an example;
‘To whom do you wish to speak?’
Fewer and Less
This is the one that got Tesco into trouble. They received a bad grammar award for a statement that appeared on their toilet roll packaging proclaiming:
‘Same luxury, less lorries.’
Perhaps they were going for the alliterative qualities of the phrase, but someone in marketing should surely have realised that grammar perfectionists and know-alls, rather than feeling quietly smug (you know you did!), would complain. So what’s the problem?
Less should be reserved for when you are describing hypothetical quantities – something that can’t be counted.
‘This book was less successful than my last one.’
‘He’s less interested in football than I am.’
Fewer is used for things that are quantifiable; things that can be counted.
‘I sold fewer copies of the book than you did.’
‘He has been to fewer than ten games this season.’
So, technically Tesco’s lorries could have been counted, so there were fewer lorries, not less lorries.
Disinterested and uninterested
When I was studying for my Masters in Creative writing, I once spent hours on what I thought was a wonderful piece about love and romance all set in a beautifully exotic location. I had everything right – my descriptions were evocative, my words beautifully crafted, the dialogue and imagery heavy with meaning. I was actually looking forward to receiving my tutor’s critique, something that usually terrified me. My tutor was a successful, lauded poet and publisher and he was harsh (but fair). He completely tore me to shreds for writing that my hero was ‘disinterested’ rather than ‘uninterested.’ I was mortified. In all my years of reading and writing, I’d never known the difference before. But when it was (stringently) pointed out to me, I realised it was completely obvious. ‘Disinterested’ means impartial – like a judge is supposed to be. ‘Uninterested’ means not interested in something. Simple really, isn’t it?
Lead and led
You might not think this is very common, but believe me, it is. The trouble seems to be that the two words can sound the same. But they are very different. When you pronounce ‘lead’ the same way as you pronounce ‘led’, what you are actually referring to is a soft, heavy, ductile bluish-grey metal, the chemical element of atomic number 82, used in roofing, plumbing, ammunition, storage batteries, radiation shields, etc. (according to the dictionary). So:
‘He lead her to the bed’ is wrong.
‘He led her to the bed’ is right.
Remember ‘lead’ (rhymes with ‘bead’) refers to being in charge or in front, or to what you put around a dog’s neck (in England). ‘Lead’ (rhymes with ‘bed) is the metal.
Its and it’s
This is one that causes confusion because it goes against normal rules. It’s is the shortened form of ‘it is’ or ‘it has’. Its is the possessive form of it. It’s confusing (see what I did there) because normally we use an apostrophe to show possession:
‘The dog’s birthday was last Tuesday.’
‘The man’s wife was leaving him.’
‘I gave the dog its birthday present.’
Only ever use ‘it’s’ if you can substitute ‘it has’ or ‘it is’, so:
‘It’s been raining all week.’
‘It’s ten weeks until Christmas.’
These are just a few of the common errors I see every day. In my blog post next week, I’ll be looking at a few more.
What elements of grammar do you find most tricky to master? What common errors drive you mad? I’d love to know.
I am a UK-based writer, editor and independent novelist. I love reading and I love to write. These are the two great passions of my life. Find out more about my editing services here. I am currently offering discounts to new clients – do get in touch to discuss how I can help you to make your book the best it can be.
Find out about my historical novels ‘Blackwater’ and ‘The Black Hours’ here.