Warning! Grammar Police Checkpoint Ahead!

We’re ready to examine Rule #2 of The 7 Reasonable Rules of Writing: Good grammar. Notice that I said good. You’ll recall that the ideal communication goal for spelling may be perfection, but that we settle for excellence, because of Murphy’s law. However, good grammar is sufficient to achieve the goal of our Art, which is communication.

PSCprenticehallWriters who have difficulty communicating on real or virtual paper would be well-advised to consult some specialists. They include dictionaries (use an old one and a newer one), and grammar books. These are two from my reference library.

The grammars you use don’t have to be the most current editions. Anything that was published before or during your lifetime will work; but in order to learn what has stood the test of time, and will help you communicate best with the largest number of readers, consult only general grammars that were published at least 20 years ago, and cross-reference with your reasonably new dictionary, to verify current usage.

Specialty grammars, like this one, are helpful, too.lamb Book age will be an issue if you’re dealing extensively with historical matters that require usage from a specific period.

Also, note my use of the term, “consult.” Learn or review the rules that these books advocate, but the acid test is to choose the form of usage that suits your voice, category of writing (fiction or non-fiction), topic or genre, setting and character development.

The-Elements-of-StyleFor example, most writing gurus and gatekeepers swear by Strunk.* I can live with much of what he and his student, E. B. White, had to say – when I’m writing academic papers. It’s important to know that Strunk’s book was a rubric he wrote for students in his classes to follow: it details his own pet peeves and preferences about parts of speech and their usage. Making up rules is the prerogative of teachers, and obeying them is the responsibility of students: You must learn how to be a successful follower before you can assume the role of an effective leader.

Unfortunately, Strunk has been canonized by the gurus and gatekeepers, and his dicta and dogma are enthusiastically enforced by the Writing Art’s fifth column known as the Grammar Police – and largely misapplied. It’s kind of like the Framingham Heart Study: If you’re aged 30-62, it might be advisable to adopt recommendations based on the study’s findings, but if you’re an infant or an elderly person, your needs are very different to those of the study’s cohort.

Here’s an interesting take on why the diet and exercise regimen prescribed by Strunk & White may be bad for your writing health: http://chronicle.com/article/50-Years-of-Stupid-Grammar/25497

Strunk (with or without his partner in crime) can be a very helpful reference for non-fiction writers to consult, in order to achieve the appearance of correctness that’s so important to academia. If you’re writing for that audience, by all means, adhere to what Strunk himself called, “the little book.” It will fill that limited bill.

lesfindingcoverBut if your Art is Fiction, your writing voice is your best judge. If you’re not sure what your writing voice sounds like, this book may help.

So, if you’re past the stage of learning – and you’re not writing for the inhabitants of Planet Strunk – but you find that your writing voice has become unnaturally squeaky, gravelly, or you’ve developed literary laryngitis, then you need to break the prescriptive and proscriptive bonds of the Grammar Police. Just use grammar that communicates.

Balabolka

Download Balabolka

Occasionally, we all need to review the basics, especially when what we’ve written doesn’t seem to make sense. If you don’t have access to feedback from trusted and capable alpha and beta readers, read your writing aloud, and have it read aloud to you. If you don’t have a willing and able reader, send your writing through the Balabolka text-to-speech converter. Reading aloud usually clears up things.

floreySometimes, the best method to refresh your thinking is to diagram a few sentences. Wait! I heard you draw that deep breath! Before you start screaming, try this short, entertaining book.

The Author as an Artist communicates by painting pictures with words. Spelling and grammar make up the paint we use in our Art. The next time we revisit the Rules, we’ll talk about how the paint is applied.

* Before reading Strunk, first read the last 5 paragraphs of E. B. White’s Chapter V in the revised edition (pp. 69-71 in the Macmillan 1959/1962 paperback, twenty-fourth printing, 1971).

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Can Ya Hear Me, Now?

See the Sample Chapters menu for a special edition Audiobook chapter!

OriginalNipper

Original Nipper

His_Master's_Voice

Nipper Redux

There are probably easier ways of doing this, but they also probably cost a lot of money. Because this is a no-budget production, I have to do the best I can with freeware – and some wonderfully dedicated volunteer Beta readers!

Like Nipper’s portrait, this project is still subject to editing. Please send any suggestions that can help improve the playback, via the Guestbook & Feedback page, above.

I hope to have a longer preview at PureVolume, and perhaps publish the complete book at Podiobooks. Sorry, no ETA yet for the complete book, but we’re getting close!

Testing … testing … one, two, three …

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Enough Rope to Hang Ourselves

Today we finally tackle the first of The 7 Reasonable Rules of Writing: Excellent Spelling.* My focus is on writing books, but spelling can complicate  blogging, too: I land the lollapaloozas in the first draft in MSWord; some hiccups happen when I transfer text to the blog editor; more mistakes surface during draft previews; and the last problems pop out after going live. This discussion also includes usage that affects spelling, and mainly applies to one’s native tongue, but I’ve lumped writing in other languages under the Spelling rubric.

Hangman-0I know just enough about several other languages, to be dangerous, so I don’t fault non-native-English speakers for occasional gaffes (most of them speak my language far better than I speak theirs). If we choose to use more than one language in our writing, we should make every effort to do so correctly. (The last spelling mistake I was able to detect in the Beta editions of Irish Firebrands was in a word in Gaeilge.) Occasional written excursions into other languages can help establish setting, and can add detail to character development, but they should be as brief as possible, and should include a translation. An example of how to do this is Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. (In Irish Firebrands, I used a modification of that technique.)

Hangman-1

Individual tolerance varies for finding spelling errors in writing that’s in one’s mother tongue, but for me and many others, poor spelling can be a cover-closer. Inappropriate usage is also a huge problem: I’ve seen a frighteningly large number of manuscripts and books that seem to have relied entirely on the spell-checker. What a spell-checker does best, is to hand out hangman’s nooses to unwary writers.

The spell-checker is not our friend, because it can’t always catch correctly spelled but misused words. The MSWord spell-checker must be told to “Check Grammar & Style,” for it to catch many (but not all) usage-spelling mistakes. Those who use other word-processing or desktop publishing programs should make sure the settings are appropriate.

Hangman-2But if we want to ensure that our books won’t resemble that ridiculous spell-checker poem composed of usage mistakes, we need to keep handy a dictionary, a thesaurus and a list of homophones. My dictionaries are a 1941 Webster’s Collegiate (for American English and some Commonwealth usage) and a current Oxford Concise English (for Commonwealth English and some American cross-references). My thesaurus is a 1958 New American Roget’s College. Many of these kinds of resources are just a mouse-click away, online. (For the same reason, it’s unnecessary to dumb-down writing by avoiding big words, because using a comprehensive vocabulary is a compliment to readers’ intelligence: they’re smart enough to get the meaning from the context, and sensible enough to consult their dictionaries, when in doubt.)

It may be a temptation to disable the spelling and grammar checker entirely, because of those annoying colored squiggles. Even touch-typists get them: I’m good at the keyboard, but I’m not that good, probably for the same reason why, despite being half French and half Polish, I can’t play the piano like Chopin did – my fingers are too short to cover an octave with one hand.

Hangman-3If you do disable the checker, when you turn it back on, your manuscript will light up like a Christmas tree. Even under the best circumstances, MSWord’s full grammar and style checking can be terribly tedious, if you try to do it all at one sitting. The solution is to save chapters as separate documents, and to turn on only a few proofreading criteria at each of several editing sessions.

Because the spelling and grammar checker can’t be relied upon to catch words spelled correctly but used wrongly, I double-check my chapters by converting them to Adobe PDF, and using the Search function (not the Find function). The resulting hit list shows the requested words in their position in all the sentences in which they appear, which simplifies evaluating their context.

Hangman-4

Then I can go back into my document and use the Find and Replace function to fix any usage-spelling faux pas. Other word-processing or desktop publishing programs undoubtedly have a similar capability. If you can’t find it on the toolbar or in a Help search, look for an online forum discussion for your software. Somebody has probably already published what you need to know there.

Now, for “non-standard” spelling: I write my blogs in North American (US) English, but the settings and subjects of my current novels make it feel more natural for me to use Commonwealth English. I add spelling variations to my spell-checker dictionary, so I’m not hassled by squiggles when I turn it on to look for simple typos. (Additional dictionaries also can be imported.)

Hangman-5

I don’t try to write in dialect, however, because I believe it adds nothing to character or plot development. Most attempts to transcribe a brogue or other strong accent are illegible, anyway, making it necessary for the reader to slow down and try to sound things out. As with lengthy untranslated passages in other languages, some readers will skip over dialect. This is a major impediment to communication.

The same can be said for names and passages in fantasy languages, too: Tolkien pushes the envelope, on this one. For best results, model your fantasy language’s spelling, grammar and pronunciation on the basic rules of Spanish, which evolved in ways that wisely smoothed out many rough patches that Anglophones often find in other tongues. Don’t throttle yourself with unnecessary complexity.

Hangman-6As Artists, our primary artistic goal is to communicate. Sending into the cold, cruel world a book with spelling problems, is like making it the guest of honor at a necktie party.

* Perfect would be nice, but we do have Murphy’s Law to contend with.

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Filed under Fiction, Literature, Novels, Reading, Uncategorized, Writing