I think one of my most-venerated pet peeves to date is being called a “grammar Nazi.” Calling anyone a Nazi is just politically incorrect. In addition, I find this sentiment offensive because I don’t know everything.
A Professional Writer just admitted to not knowing everything? Does she jest? I may be a know-it-all Scorpio and (in my opinion) superb writer, but I only tell the truth: NO, I don’t know everything. But I do try to do my best to learn, implement prior knowledge, analyze whenever (and whatever) necessary, and add to what I know – and this doesn’t stop with writing. My interest in learning extends to many subjects.
Grammar, however, is a must. People need to know how to write, if only so they can communicate effectively. This, above all things, includes writing complete sentences. There are numerous issues with people’s compositional skills, but writing a full sentence – a complete thought – is high among them.
Other common issues
- Incomplete sentences (incomplete thoughts)
- Incorrect or missing punctuation
- Spelling mistakes
- Undefined subjects
- Organization flaws
- Missing transitions
- Lack of development
You name it, it probably happens. Which is why I’d like to detail, at the very least, these common problems I see in others’ writing (and my own, when looking over my work).
Incomplete sentences (incomplete thoughts)
This often shows itself in the form of sentence fragments and sentences with undefined subjects. A good way to make sure you write a complete sentence is to follow S-V-O (Subject-Verb-Object) sentence structure. As opposed to (for example) “The ball was hit by him.” you would write “Fargo hit the ball.” Another way to make sure you write in complete sentences is to read your work out loud… does it make sense?
Incorrect or missing punctuation
There are countless rules for correct punctuation, but I’d say: Punctuation is used to convey sense. A former professor of mine told me to “Write what you mean, and mean what you say.” Punctuation expresses emotion. Those are a few thoughts I have regarding punctuation.
As for methods of correcting punctuation, I find that the best way to learn correct grammar is to read and practice good style. The more you read, the more you will understand how punctuation operates within writing. Have you ever noticed that quotation marks always surround phrases that are considered spoken? Or that periods typically end with a period (.), or question (?) or exclamation (!) mark? You probably naturally observe these types of things when you read, and while you might not know exactly what the problem is when you find one, you likely recognize that there is a problem.
To practice good style, simply try to be consistent. When you make a mistake and somebody else catches it, don’t feel bad. Find out why you made the mistake. When you know, you are less likely to make that mistake again.
Often, students are given spelling tests while in elementary school. You might be told to “sound it out” when you try to spell a new word. American grammar does differ from its English origin, and seems to do strange things all the time. Many times, extra letters might work their way into a word, or some letters may be missing. The bottom line when considering the American language is that to be consistent, we pretty much just adhere to the most common ways of doing things. We conform.
While I would never condone that ideas should conform, I do encourage writers to conform to good writing practices. Writing itself changes constantly, and I believe there is always a better way to say something, but writing well is ever the challenge. Simply, I try to (1) express my complete thought (2) in as few words as possible (conciseness) while (3) writing cleanly (logically). How does this relate to writing?
Well, in regards to spelling, vocabulary matters (word choice). “Sounding out” words is how I learned to spell accurately (generally), so listen for the very subtle ways in which words occur I your mind and when you speak them. If all else fails (or you can just do this anyway), use a dictionary.
Make sure your reader knows what you are talking about.
The first time you talk about a character in your story (unless you mean to do this), don’t call him or her “he” or “she.” Give your character a name. (For example: Gina walked to the store to buy a candy bar. She…) Because there are many types, should you be writing about tea, give its proper name. (For example: Green tea is healthy.)
Remember to tell us who or what you are talking about before you describe it. Your reader needs to know, or s/he will just be lost.
I have previously posted an essay outline. The essay outline I supplied is one way to help you organize your thoughts so the flow of your writing makes sense. You probably don’t want to conclude your paper before you provide your thesis. You likely don’t want to describe your dog to readers before telling them what kind of animal you are describing and why. Ground your writing by providing context.
While organizing your writing is important, it’s difficult to move from one idea to the next without transitional phrases. A transition is a sentence or two that you include between paragraphs that moves one idea to the next. (This can be an end sentence on one paragraph that relates to the first sentence of the next paragraph.) A transition helps you conduct a “conversation” with your reader, and it keeps the reader “up to speed” with the points you make.
Rather than “A dog is an animal. So is a cat. So is a bird. Birds fly. A kangaroo is a marsupial.” you might say that “Dogs, cats, birds, and kangaroos are all animals. However, kangaroos are also called marsupials, and birds can fly.” In this sentence, combining your subjects helps clarify multiple thoughts, and the word “however” lets your reader know that a new idea is being introduced. In a larger sense, this technique is applicable to paragraphs because the transition, as I have mentioned, happens at the end and beginning of each paragraph as you move between ideas.
Lack of development
Development is all in the detail. You can tell me what something is, but telling me what a thing is means nothing to me without an explanation for why it is.
For example: You can tell me that green tea is healthy, but I need to know why. What is the history of green tea? What is tea, and why is it called green? Why does it matter?
Don’t leave your reader hanging. Explain yourself. The only rule here is to “say what you mean, and mean what you say” without rambling. Only include necessary detail.
Truly, detail has a precarious balance. Say enough to explain yourself, but don’t ramble. If your idea has more than one idea in it, then that is a different idea and needs a transition. If the subsequent idea is not directly related to your subject, get rid of it.
I hope this post helps you write a little better. It’s not the be-all or end-all of writing technique, but it might help you sort your thoughts more nicely. Now, I’d like to include something else…
A few grammar resources
- White, E.B. and William Strunk, Jr. The Elements of Style. 4th ed, 2000.
- Casagrande, June. Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies: A Guide to Language for Fun and Spite. 2006.
- Hacker, Diana. A Writer’s Reference. 6th ed, 2007.
E.B. White (yes, the guy who wrote Charlotte’s Web) is “the man” when learning how to write correctly and effectively. He’s the foundation of Professional Writing… even if he did write his book a good hundred years ago. June Casagrande is a wonderful look at writing well, and is a kind of interactive and intellectually engaging author; I highly recommend her if you want an entertaining and insightful read of grammar. Hacker, of course, is the author you want on your shelf to fill in the rest (citing sources, nuts and bolts grammar, and general information about academic writing).