Fabulous Faux Pas in Grammar
(but even the big publishers are doing it)
I guess you may be wondering if the big publishers are doing it why it’s still a faux pa? It’s like this, if someone told you to jump off a bridge, would you do it? There’s certain things that you see and know that a person shouldn’t be doing–then why would you copy that? There’s a particular grammar issue that I keep seeing over and over again, and frightfully, I’ve even seen it in my textbooks for college. It’s a thing that my father keeps telling me to stop complaining about, but it bugs me so. It’s basic grammar. It’s drilled into your head from the time you can write. I want to know why all of a sudden everyone is doing it? I mean, honestly, English isn’t like science–new discoveries don’t change it. Grammar isn’t a style thing either: it’s grammar. It’s set in stone. I purchased a book by a large publisher recently and was mortified by the editing. I mean mortified. This particular faux pas, isn’t the only issue I found in the book. There was the fact the month of February wasn’t capitalized, and the town in which the characters live was also not capitalized–several times! The one I found this morning was missing quotations. It makes me wonder what’s really going on. Am I perfect? I should think not, but this faux pas that I am going to write about after this short rant is SO BASIC. I’ve been asked several times in interviews about advice for aspiring writers, and time and time again I say the same thing ‘take others advice with a grain of salt and see what works for you’. There are somethings that simply aren’t advice; they are fact, i.e. grammar isn’t stylistic. There’s one thing every writer should have: a grammar book. If you want to be a writer, you want to be published, and you want to be taken seriously, grammar is extremely important. Did I nail it with my first book, NO! When I published my second book there was one thing that was for sure; I was going to use the grammar book my father had lent me. I’ll be honest with you–I’ve had the grammar book since before I wrote In Between Seasons, but I didn’t crack it open. I took AP English in high school–I took enough English courses by my Junior year that I didn’t even have to take anymore. I still did, so I thought why do I need a grammar book? Well, things get forgotten in the recesses of your mind. I saw this even more clearly when I completed my college English Comp class. I loved that class–why? It kicked me right in the butt. It said to me you know it all–no, you don’t. This difference here was that I listened, and I loved it. The grammar book that my father lent me is now dog-eared and highlighted to an inch of it’s life (Sorry Dad! I know it’s a very expensive book) and the same is true of my English Comp book. I love both of these books to death. The one section of the book that I haven’t memorized, but constantly refer to, is the comma usage section. Commas are a killer. They are very complicated, so I find that I am constantly referring to this section. The other section is the one that I thoroughly believe that some editors need to take a really big peek at: COORDINATING CONJUNCTIONS. I’ve become so irritated with this faux pas that I have memorized this section. I’ve read it that much. The reason I have read it that much? If I am going to come out here and give any grammar advice to anyone I am going to make sure it’s correct. As I said this particular one is pretty basic and was driven into my head by every English teacher that I’ve ever had (and I’ve had a lot).
The major faux pas:
Starting Sentences with Coordinating Conjunctions
Before I annihilated the book I knew for a fact you just don’t do this. Why is everyone doing it now then? I still don’t know. I think everyone needs a grammar book at this point–no PHD, just a grammar book. Please!
Coordinating Conjunctions: Use a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, nor, for, yet, so) to link grammatically equal elements such as parts of compound subjects, verbs, objects, and modifiers; phrases; and clauses. (The Longman Handbook for Writers and Readers, Second Edition, 213)
I bet you know what I am about to say? You DON’T start sentences with coordinating conjunctions. If you start a sentence with a coordinating conjunction it’s not doing it’s job or coordinating. It sticks out like a sore thumb and not only that, it weakens the sentence structure along with creating a sentence fragment (I’ll talk about sentence fragments briefly as well). The largest issue I have seen is with two of these particular coordinating conjunctions: And, But.
The first is and. I am going to be honest with you: I don’t for the life of me understand why anyone would start a sentence with AND. It’s so obviously a coordinating word, by all regards AND connects things. Let’s look at an example:
She had his same eyes. And there was something else, something else that reminded me of the other.
Really? I mean, really? I can hear the defense that ‘people think like that in their heads’. I don’t agree. How much better does this look and sound for that matter?
She had his same eyes, and there was something else, something else that reminded me of the other.
OR if the argument is that starting the sentence with AND emphasizes the other sentence (what it really does is weaken the structure):
She has his same eyes. There was something else, something else that reminded me of the other.
This is something that I have found is often the case when a sentence is started with a coordinating conjunction: removing the word strengthens the meaning of the sentence and thus, strengthens the writing and feeling of the reader.
The second and by far the most poorly used is BUT. The thing that I don’t understand about those using this is the fact that but is a hesitation, it’s passive–self-doubting even. Therefore, when it starts a sentence it instantly weakens its meaning and makes the sentence lack conviction. I’ve seen this a lot lately in book descriptions, and it truly weakens the plot depth. Let’s look at an example:
They were after us now. But I didn’t care because I was in love.
Are you love? You know that hesitation sounds like you don’t really know. How much better does this look and sound?
They were afters us now, but I didn’t care–I was in love.
Better, best, no. Here’s what’s better–removing the whole thing completely. It strengthens the sentence internally, adds force to what the character is saying and strongly, not passively, drives the point home:
They were after us now. I didn’t care–I was in love.
Now it sounds like the character knows what she wants, knows what she feels–even without knowing the story you know that this character is going to do whatever it takes to stand by her love.
Now, you can see that removing the coordinating conjunction, or just using it properly will strengthen the sentence in emotion and feeling. Here’s the point grammatically though, if you leave it be you have not only violated one tenant of grammar; you have violated two. You have also created a sentence fragment.
A sentence fragment is a part of a sentence treated as a complete sentence, with a capital letter at the beginning and a period at the end. A fragment may lack an important sentence element such as a subject or a verb, thus confusing readers and leaving out crucial information… Fragments may be phrases or clauses mistakenly asked to stand on their own as sentences. Such fragments make readers do the writer’s job, forcing them mentally to reattach a word group to a nearby sentence. (The Longman Handbook for Writers and Readers, Second Edition, 310)
Whether or not one admits it, when a sentence starts with a coordinating conjunction your mind has been trained to correct it. It reminds me of those sentences with missing letters that one can still understand even though it’s a mess. You’re a writer though, so your readers shouldn’t have to do that! It creates a different problem for me because it sticks out like a sore thumb. I stop reading, I highlight it, and I huff in my head a bit. It’s such a minor mistake, so why wasn’t it fixed? The last thing a writer wants is a BUT to stand in the way of having a powerful sentence.
On a side note, I must mention that dialogue is different. We don’t talk in proper English 100% of the time so a character speaking with a sentence that starts with a coordinating conjunction is a completely different matter. I’m not perfect, and I am quite sure there are some comma issues in this post, but I try to master the basics while getting the more complex down. Practice makes perfect–thanks for letting me practice!
Thus, I beseech you to remove the BUTs and ANDs from the beginning of your sentences! Empower your characters through proper English! What, say you?
- Grammar Hammer: In Search of the Elusive Semicolon (prnewswire.com)
- New Online Grammar Course, GrammarCamp.com, Launched (prweb.com)