It’s Never Too Late. . .

In which I talk about learning, errors, the importance of questions, the value of knowledge, and an embarrassing story that makes me laugh to this day.

I’ve been at the writing gig for many years now and I’ve found two constants in this endeavor: one is that everything changes–editors change, houses change, styles change, public tastes change; and two there is always something new to learn, whether it’s research, vocabulary, genre, or grammar. People often speak about the changes, but I get excited about the learning. Call it the nerd in me, but I love to learn a new word or some minute grammar point. And don’t get me started on research. For my last manuscript, I had to visit a brewery, take a tour and taste some beer. It’s hard work.

Today, my competence in English is solid. Of course I make errors, but they’re more likely to be typos or skipping words because my thoughts are faster than my fingers, or just not seeing mistakes on the page because I’ve stared at the screen for too long than actual lack of knowledge. But it wasn’t always the case.

In the past couple of days, I’ve seen several mentions of the fight over one space or two after a period. It reminded me of my very first term paper. US History (I still remember the title: The German-American Bund: the Fritz Kuhn Years: 1937-1939).  I have never taking any typing classes (thus the reason for so many typos when I write), and the requirement was ten typed pages, double spaced. It was my first typed paper. I had to borrow the typewriter (in return I bought a new cartridge for the owner–remember those?), get some unlined paper (I bought onion skin–yuck), and hunt and peck my way to ten pages. But I did it. And being the kind of student I was, I was the first person in the school to turn it in. Done. Relief.

A few hours later, my roommate (I went to boarding school, remember?) said that the teacher had held it up to show how not to do a paper, that it wasn’t doubled spaced. Well, I went straight to the teacher and told him he was wrong. I had double spaced. He said it didn’t look like it, but I told him again he was wrong because I had double spaced.  And indeed I had–type a word, space, space, type another word, space, space, and so on for ten pages. I thought it an odd requirement at the time, but it wasn’t until years later that I realized where I had made my error. I think my paper was actually 1.5 spaced as regards the line spacing.Photo on 2012-06-21 at 16.37 #5

Ask questions, people. Questions are good things. (By the way I received an A- for the paper. Thanks,Mr. Waples.)


Books I’m reading now:

Harry Potter und der Stein der Weisen by JK Rowling

To Err is Human; to Correct Divine?

In which I  confess to the guilt I feel about correcting grammar and other errors in manuscripts I’ve been asked to look at. How much input is too much? Or am I doing the author a favor? Grammar is important, folks.

So I’m in the midst of judging a contest for unpublished authors. I love judging, editing and helping writers learn their craft, but I’ve hit a dilemma: what to do with terrible entries. I can spend hours on a single entry. For the most part, their ideas are fine and they have a grasp on their story. However, the execution is, for the most part, weak. Major grammar errors, word choice errors, punctuation errors, structure errors, inconsistencies, characters out of character, contradictions, etc. Because of who I am (former English teacher, self-proclaimed grammar aficionado—but not spelling; never spelling), I can’t help but line edit as I judge.


Having entered many contests in the past, I do have experience with being ripped apart. I never took it badly. Yes, sometimes I dismissed what the judges said because it was ridiculous (“Cartegena? What’s that?”—yes, this was a comment on one of my entries a long time ago and it made everything the judge said suspect; in that same contest, I received a very low score from this judge and a near perfect score from the other; it happens more often than you think.), but mostly when the judges wrote something, I mulled it over and absorbed it. More than once a judge has caught something that made me say, “Oh my God, she’s right. How could I have done that?” In one particular instance a judge pointed out that one of my characters needed a bath. She was so right, so in went a quick bath scene. In most every circumstance, I’ve learned from entering contests and always appreciated the effort given to my entry.


Which leads me to my dilemma. I don’t want to be discouraging, but in these entries from rank beginners, the writing itself is getting in the way of the story. The entries are difficult to get through because of the grammar and punctuation errors.

My friends and I call this massive dictionary “The Herniator.”

They are nowhere close to submission to an editor or agent, or even being ready for a contest. These are basic writing concepts that they don’t understand. It makes me think that they don’t have anyone with ability to read their manuscripts. Many people enter contests for the feedback because they have no one else. Maybe no one has told them you don’t punctuate actions tags the same as speech tags. Maybe no one has told them that speech tags should be limited mostly to “said” and “asked”, that you can’t gasp or laugh or urge or smile a sentence. Maybe no one has pointed out the humorous mistakes that dangling participles make, or that run-ons are annoying, or that too many fragments reduce their impact.


Worse. Maybe they do have readers they trust and think they know what they are doing, but they don’t.


Worst. Maybe when they see all the markings I’ve left, they’ll be devastated.


I always find something that they do well and leave notes to the effect that I admire that they’re writing, that they have great ideas, but they need to work on the fundamentals first. But that still leaves the actual manuscript with all the “red marks.”  Is that part of growing a thick skin?


I mean well, but I can’t help myself from correcting. What do you think?

(And, really, we’re talking about major errors here, not the occasional missing or misplaced comma.)



Books I’m reading now:

Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear

Goofs, Gaffs, and Guffaws

Just about the only thing I consider myself an expert in is language. By language, I mean grammar, words, and such. I speak a few languages, and have studied the “old” and “middle” versions of two of those languages. When my writer friends need help with a construct or want to make sure they are writing something correctly, they come to me. I love it not because I am “the expert,” but because I love looking up arcane grammar points, learning subtle grammar, and just expanding my knowledge base. Yes, I do language research just for fun.


Now before you go correcting anything and everything I write here, I also know the difference between casual and formal language, and I don’t proofread everything I post here. I am not a typist. I still have to stare at the keyboard to find the right letters (I’m sure it’s just a crutch by now, but I still stare at the keyboard) and not at the page to make sure I’m putting it on paper right, which is why autocorrect annoys me so much. It gets me every time. I don’t want to have to analyze everything I write or write in perfect sentences because then I will just shut down, but errors do not mean I don’t know grammar (Spelling is a whole other can of beans; I have never claimed to know spelling, but I can tell you why some words are spelled the way they are). We all make errors, and honest errors exist. Deal with it.


So without further ado, here is a list of my top ten word pet peeves:


  1. Fewer vs. less (and along those same lines amount vs. number)—If something has a specific number use fewer; if it’s abstract in number use less. If you can conceivably count it, use fewer. For example: 15 or fewer (items in this lane). Less money, fewer dollars. Fewer people, less humanity.
  2. Between you and I—(shudder) It’s “me!” Cases are important! There’s a country song out there now that says this. Every time I hear it I scream, “Me,” at the proper juncture. Object of a preposition—learn it. And speaking of cases…
  3. The use of “than”—Not then vs. than, just than. If I say, “She is taller than me,” most people will understand that I am shorter than the female in question. But that’s not correct grammar. It should read, “She is taller than I.” You wouldn’t say, “She is taller than me am.” Case matters. The meaning changes between “She likes him better than me,” and “She likes him better than I.” In one I would be invited second. In the other, she can invite him first and I don’t care.
  4. Try to do (or insert whatever verb you want)—I see this all time as “try and do.” In fact I once had a copyeditor change “try to” to “try and.” No. “I will try to sleep” means I am making an attempt at resting and probably failing. “I will try and sleep” means I am attempting something unspecified and then I am falling unconscious for the night. Two separate actions.
  5. Who vs. whom—Call me old fashioned, but I love the distinction. (And we’re back to cases again.) There is a bumper I spy often extolling the joys of rescue animals. While I applaud the sentiment, the slogan “Who saved who?” drives me crazy. Who saved whom? Not that hard. You wouldn’t answer the question with He saved I or I saved he. Where you would use a “him” or a “her” in the sentence, use a “whom” in the question.
  6. Have vs. of—I will disown you if you write “I should of studied English harder.” One is a verb, the other a preposition.
  7. Nonexistent words—I’m lumping these together because there are far too many of them, but my biggest irritations arise from expresso, supposably, and excape.
  8. Wrong phrases—Again, lumping here: For all intensive purposes; just desserts; nip it in the butt (These are the wrong ones. There are many, many more)
  9. Apostrophes for plurals—Do not use an apostrophe to form a plural except in rare cases (Trust me, they are rare). Apostrophes are used to show possession or a missin’ letter (See what I did there?). Not even with numbers.
  10. And while I don’t get too hung up on the whole its-it’s, they’re-their-there, to-too-two (Remarkable really. I usually just shake my head when I see it, but it’s far too easy to type those in incorrectly and not see it on a re-read), loose vs. lose and choose vs. chose annoys me. Watch for wrong words in general. There’s a huge difference between a loose bowel and to lose a bowl.


All rules can be bent, shaped, twisted, or broken to achieve a certain writing effect (not affect), but you do have to understand why you are breaking that rule to achieve the effect you wish. Words are important. What are some of your pet peeves in language?




Books I’m reading now:

A Dance with Dragons by George RR Martin (re-read)

Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare


Errors in Books

I’m writing this as a self-professed Grammar Nazi.


I defy you to find a book without an error in it. I defy you, no matter how much you understand English (and yes, although I am all for learning and speaking and using other languages, this is about English), to write 400 pages and make no mistakes. I defy you to read, re-read, edit, revise, have others look at it, re-read again, and still not find errors in your manuscript. For example, in my last book, WISHFUL THINKING, I was at the galley-proof stage (the point where they send you your book the way it will appear on the page, usually a pdf file), and I still found 147 errors. I know. I counted. But there are degrees of errors, and I put it to you that most are forgivable.

A missing comma here or there shouldn’t cause you to write an angry letter. In fact, I know some  publishing houses that omit commas on purpose. It’s the house “Style.”  Just yesterday I read that one house forbids their authors from using semi-colons. Their reasoning? That genre fiction is supposed to pull the reader in; semi-colons stop the reader and interrupt the flow (See how I did that there?). I have to admit that rule made me cringe. You can’t ban semi-colons. That’s like the time I was kicked out of textbook training when I was teaching because I wouldn’t agree to disagree about what a verb is. But we are trying to make the writing accessible. Grammar and punctuation rules can fly out the window then.

I know I make errors when I write.  Sometimes because I think too fast for my fingers to type ( I never had typing in school. Somehow I skipped that required class). I skip words, or put in part of a word (like par for part) that is a word and my brain, knowing what to expect, fills in the blank. Have you seen those Internet memes that tout your amazing abilities to decipher words written with jumbled inner spelling or numbers replacing letters or backwards? It’s supposedly a sign of your intelligence. No, it isn’t. It’s your brain trying to make sense of what it sees and working the way it should.

Sometimes I spell things wrong. I have never been a speller. Spelling is not grammar. I could go on about the seven different pronunciations of “ough”, the silent “b”, or why “ghoti” spells “fish”, but I’ve done that before. How the “t” in often was said, then silent, and now it’s back. Or not. Both are standard. What kind of language allows you to do that anyway? English, that’s what. I’ve always considered spelling a torture. When I write a novel I do look up every word I may have possible spelled wrong, but I may overlook some because I’m utterly convinced I have it right. And that’s not even worrying about “pore” vs “pour”,  or “hear, hear” vs. “here, here” (By the way, those are the ones that throw me right out of a story–the homonyms used in place of the correct word).

Sometimes things are left out by the printer. In my second novel, my galleys contained a chapter that wasn’t even from my book. Another time a chapter was repeated. I taught DANDELION WINE to my eighth graders. The books we used were missing a couple of paragraphs at the end of one of the chapters. That wasn’t done by the author.

The errors I cannot forgive are content errors. When a character is a certain age, but that doesn’t work out mathematically (Don’t ask me why I catch math errors; I just do). When the character is a widow in one chapter and divorced a few chapters down. When the story is set in a certain year and then people or events are mentioned that couldn’t have taken place in that year (unless it’s alternate reality; then that’s fine). I’ve seen these mistakes in books I’ve read.

And some of the mistakes are the readers’. I once used the word “posh” in a novel set in 1845. I knew the word wasn’t in existence then (yeah, I look that sort of thing up), but it was close enough to the time period that I fudged it. Someone had to use it first, right?) Well, a reader called me on it and gave me the “origin” of the word. It was that cute Internet story about  the English traveling to India on a ship, Port Out, Starboard Home, so they’d know which side of the ship to have their cabins to avoid the sun. Only problem is that story’s not true. I had a friend correct me on “if you think X, then you have another think coming.” She wanted me to write “thing”. Nope, sorry, that’s wrong. (See what I did here with the commas–for effect) And just recently another friend pointed out I’d written “just deserts” wrong. Nope again. It is “just deserts”, not “just desserts”. And would you say, for example: “she is hungrier than me”? That would be incorrect.

And you see how I’m putting the quotes inside the punctuation? That’s the British way, and frankly makes a helluva lot more sense than the American way, so I’m starting the trend. (In certain instances, like these.)

I just read an article about the physicist Paul Dirac. He had some quirks, but when he read WAR AND PEACE his only comment about he novel was that Tolstoy had made the sun rise twice in one day. (Mental Floss, Jan-Feb 2010).  So you see, authors, editors, copy editors, translators (I read the German version of Harry Potter and they translated cat’s whiskers as a mustache), they’re all human. You may get a thrill at finding an error, but get over it. That’s kind of petty. (I know, because I have to admit I get a thrill and feel superior when I find errors. I’m not proud of myself.).

Read the book and enjoy it. That’s why we write. I won’t even go into how ungrammatical speech is here.

–Gabi, who really doesn’t proofread blog articles.

Books I’m reading now:

Vampire in Atlantis by Alyssa Day

English as a Second Language

As most of you know, my parents came from Hungary and neither spoke any English when they arrived (yeah, pronoun agreement–this is a casual essay; grow up). My father was an engineer who took a job as a janitor until he had rudimentary English. To the end of his life, his phone conversations in English consisted of saying “ja, ja,” (which by the way isn’t Hungarian) with the occasional “no” thrown in. My mother’s oral English was always much better. I grew up with Chicago pronounced CHi-cago, we lived in the “vest”  and shopped at Wauns (Vons grocery, which makes no sense because Hungarian does have a v sound so why they switched the w and v sounds I’ll never know.) The past tense with “did” was always used  incorrectly, as in, “I did went.” And my favorite: the day my father walked into a Burger King and ordered a whooper, not a whopper. The poor woman behind the counter tried so hard to keep a straight face.

I laugh at the mistakes they made, not because I’m laughing at them. It’s out of love. Really. English has to be the hardest language to master. With seven different pronunciations of “-ough”, no common-sense spelling (really–Polish vs polish, wind, and a language where “ghoti” can be pronounced “fish”), where use of the subjunctive is considered too complex for regular language, where we have fake rules (never end a sentence in a preposition, conjunctions should never start sentences, never split an infinitive–these are all not real rules of English), where people will argue over “think” vs “thing”, as in “you’ve got another think coming” (it’s “think”–do the research), or that the phrase is “just deserts” not “just desserts” because the word comes from an archaic word desert (think “deserve”), and most native speakers have no idea what they’re saying when they use the old adage “it’s the exception that proves the rule” (that one necessitates the looking up of the definition of prove-what do you think a “proving ground” is?).

So when my mother says nothing bad happened to her, “knock on the door”, instead of on wood, or thinks the famous fruit in Atlanta is the Georgia plum, I laugh, and admire the heck out of her. Because she’s willing to take a risk and communicate in a language that has many native speakers baffled.

Here’s to the risk takers.


Books I’m reading now:

The Sword-edged Blonde by Alex Bledsoe