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This post is part of our special series that will unpack the criteria we consider when evaluating manuscripts. Today is the second of three parts on the tools of the English language. Read part one here. Whether you are in the midst of writing, or have already received feedback from us, our hope is that this series will provide the insight you need to make your manuscript even better. View the full series here.
In the previous post
in this blog series, I began a discussion about the importance of mastering mechanics—the vocabulary, grammar, and punctuation of the English language.
Now, I get it—the word “grammar” doesn’t exactly scream fun. And when you set out to write a book, grammar isn’t the first thing you’ll be thinking about. (Unless you’re writing a book about grammar!) Rather, your imagination will be caught up with ideas for how to exploit story, character
, and perhaps great dialogue
And don’t get me wrong—you need to do well in all of these categories in order to write a successful book, whether fiction or non-fiction.
But if your grammar is bad, your project might not have a chance to achieve its fullest potential.
In grade school, you might very well remember sitting at a desk as a teacher explained the parts of speech—or alternatively, the parts of a sentence. These are the building blocks upon which all language is constructed.
Can you name them? Well, we’ve got nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections.
When it comes to nouns and verbs, the trouble mostly arises from authors failing to make sure they “agree” with each other. Also, verbs come with a healthy share of stumbling blocks. Are they conjugated correctly? Have you used the correct tense? For example, many authors struggle to understand when to use past perfect tense instead of past tense—the difference is important, and confusing them can be disastrous.
Pronouns can be tricky, but here too there are landmines to watch out for (and yes, as you can see, sometimes it’s perfectly acceptable to end a sentence in a preposition, despite what you may have heard). You need to always make sure it’s clear from context which pronouns refer to which characters; if you have a room full of characters all of the same gender, this may not be as simple a task as it seems.
A few months ago, I wrote a blog post about the many intricacies involved with correctly using adjectives. Did you know that adjectives must appear in a certain order
? Chances are you’ve been subconsciously following the correct order all along, and you didn’t know it. The correct order has been internalized by most English speakers.
According to rules of grammar that have been in place since time immemorial, adjectives should be arranged according to: (1) opinion, (2) size, (3) age, (4) shape, (5) colour, (6) origin, (7) material, and (8) purpose. This hierarchy cannot be deviated from. If you get it right, and you probably will do so by instinct, all is well with the world. Get it wrong and you risk sounding like a crazy person.
Adverbs are no less fraught—in fact, I’d say they are even more so. A common piece of writing advice you may have received is to cut as many adverbs out of your manuscript—and that advice is given with good reason, even though it should come with several caveats
The argument against adverbs ultimately comes to an argument against redundancy and imprecision.
As an editor, I think I just might pull my last hair out if I spot one more case of “He shouted loudly” or “She ate hungrily” or “They ran quickly.” These are all examples of redundant adverbs, since all shouts are loud, all running is quick, and generally speaking, food is almost always eaten by hungry people.
There’s more to cover when it comes to mastering the mechanics of language, so check back for the next entry in this series, which will cover topics like point of view and the importance of sticking to a consistent verb tense in your prose.