Critique Technique, Part 53 — Grammar Errors

Four professors in cap and gown
photo credit: peyri via photopin cc

Like the rules of spelling, punctuation, and capitalization, the rules of grammar are meant to help make a writer’s meaning clear to the reader. Unfortunately, there are even more grammar rules than there are about spelling, punctuation, and capitalization, which means that many more opportunities for a writer to mess things up.

Whole books, college courses, and web sites are devoted to these rules, so there’s no way I’m going to replicate even a tiny fraction of that material here.

Novice writers often have trouble with the basic stuff, like putting a plural form of a verb with the singular form of a noun (“she say” rather than “she says,” for example), or not being clear on who (or whom) a pronoun is referring to. Or worse, not knowing how to construct a basic sentence: one containing a subject, a verb, and an object.

My own writers’ group had to tell a sweet little old lady that we couldn’t help her for just that reason: she’d never learned how to build a basic sentence. As a result, punctuation marks appeared in her text at random, “sentences” started and stopped for no discernible reason, and so on. She had a story to tell but we were spending so much time figuring out her pseudo-sentences that we couldn’t focus on helping her tell her story.

Your Job: Know the How to Make the Writing Work

The thing is, as a reviewer, you don’t need to know every single rule, corollary, and exception. Nor do you need to know all the technical terminology that a college professor does. (I might wish I knew what the subjunctive mood was… or I might not. Oh, wait. That is an example of it.) What critiquers need to know is the practical side of grammar: does the writing communicate effectively and make sense, and if it doesn’t, what needs to be fixed?

It’s also not your job to teach a writer the basics. Instead, I suggest you visit “Grammar Girl” Mignon Fogarty’s Quick and Dirty Tips web site. It will tell you everything you want to know about English grammar, and more besides. If a writer you’re working with needs that kind of help, a web search for “English grammar courses online” will turn up plenty. Local community colleges are another great resource.

What a critiquer really needs is a practical working knowledge of the language. If you can’t name the differences between a subjunctive mood, a gerund, and a comma splice, that’s not such a big deal. As long as you can identify when a manuscript isn’t communicating effectively and what needs to be done to change it, you’re doing what you need to do.

No Questions for You

If you have any thoughts on how to help a writer improve their grammar, please share them in the comments box below.

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