Critique Technique, Part 54 — Grammar Errors

Four professors in cap and gown

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By Ross B. Lampert

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

Whole books, college classes, and web sites are devoted to these rules, so there’s no way I’m going to try to replicate even a tiny fraction of that material here. Instead, visit Mignon Fogarty’s Grammar Girl Quick and Dirty Tips web site. It will tell you everything you wanted to know about English grammar, and more besides.

The thing is, as a reviewer, you don’t need to know down to the micro-level detail every single rule, corollary, and exception. Nor do you need to know all the technical terminology that a college professor might. (I might wish I knew what the subjunctive mood was… or I might not. Oh, wait. That’s 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.

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 talk” rather than “she talks,” 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.

So as far as I’m concerned, what a critiquer really needs is a practical working knowledge of the language. If you can’t name the differences between a subjunctive mood and a gerund and a comma splice, that’s not such a big deal, so long as you can identify when a manuscript isn’t communicating effectively and what needs to be done to change that.

Am I wrong? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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