Commas in the New Yorker fall with the precision of knives in a circus act, outlining the victim. - Elwyn Brooks White
I’m not going to talk to you about comma rules, but I am going to make a point about the role of grammar in contemporary writing. It counts. Still. Yes, sentence fragments have become common. Really. Especially in kidlit. Infinitives are permitting themselves to be ruthlessly split from time to time. And sentences are allowed to begin with conjunctions and end with prepositions when the occasion warrants.
However, to misquote Churchill, there are certain errors up with which I will not put.
I recently read a quite excellent story that was blemished only by two grammar errors, like chin zits on a lovely face. First, there were misuses of lie versus lay, one each way. Lie was used for lay, and lay was used for lie. Elsewhere in the manuscript they were used correctly, suggesting that the author and editor and copy editor had the ability to get it right, but not consistently.
If this usage isn’t second nature to you, I beg and implore you to learn the difference. It is the single most common error in written and spoken English (no citation--just experience).
The second error was another that has become rampant in spoken English on TV and radio--misuse of the past tense forms of verbs. I drunk a glass of water. Those of you screaming, “Noooooooooo!” may be excused from class now. Those saying, “Huh? Isn’t that right?” may benefit from a refresher. Reading “my heart sunk” is like hearing fingernails on the board to anyone who had Mr. Erickson for middle school English. Just remember the Grinch: “Stink, stank, stunk.” And remember that the Titanic SANK into the sea, and, after several days, all hopes of finding survivors HAD SUNK.
Grammatical errors, even more than typos, throw the reader out of the narrative to the sound of their own gnashing teeth. SImple errors can even generate a smidgen of distrust in the bond between audience and storyteller.
Fortunately, I have tackled both of these all-too common errors in a quick, easy, and lighthearted way that I hope will stick. Rather than repeat myself, I invite you to follow these links:
Let me know if there are any other grammatical points you’d like explained in my inimitable way, and I will add them to my grammar rants.
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Liz Coley writes young adult novels and science fiction/fantasy short stories for anthologies and magazines.
Her novel Pretty Girl-13 from HarperCollins Katherine Tegen Books will be debuting in 2013. There are secrets you can't even tell yourself.