The Six Most Common Grammar Errors Editors See

by Al Kalar

Last week I was talking with Christine Golden, Editor in Chief of Golden Visions Magazine (which has folded since I first wrote this article). During the discussion, we found we regularly encounter some of the same problems in manuscripts.

1. Redundant speech tags.

John shook his finger in my face. “You need to straighten up and fly right, flunky, or you’ll find yourself without a job,” John said.

There’s absolutely no reason for “John said”. We already know who’s speaking because of the first sentence.

2. Sentences that start with “And” or “But”. I’m not quite as sensitive to this as Christine is. But, strictly speaking, it’s wrong.

3. Characters name repeated constantly throughout the beginning, middle, and ends of paragraphs.

John looked over the wall. John saw three heavily-armed men sneaking through the woods in the direction of John’s cabin. John’s stomach turned. Someone is definitely out to kill me, John thought.

Mind numbing, isn’t it?

Here are some more that Christine and I didn’t discuss, but I’m sure she sees these just as often as we do:

4. Paragraph breaks.

“I doubt my son will reward you for killing me. I rather think that would put you in hot water.”

Doctor Skinner said as he eyed the gun. O’Brien’s eyes flicked for one second in the direction of the old man. It was all Michael needed, he moved in one fluid motion. As he passed the Doc, he knocked him to one side, ensuring his safety. Skinner fell sideways onto the bed, and well out of harms way. O’Brien tried to bring his gun back to Michael, but he was too slow. Michael grabbed the wrist of the gun wielding hand and snapped it with ease. O’Brien’s gun dropped to the floor, as Michael’s free hand wrapped around O’Brian’s throat. Michael wrenched the stocky man from the chair and held him dangling by his neck.

The general rule for a paragraph is to collect related sentences together. In story telling, a person’s dialog belongs with his “said”, not in a separate paragraph. When the dialog discusses a different character’s actions, it’s time for a paragraph break. Sometimes you just break up a paragraph because it’s too darned long. In action scenes, you can heighten the tension with frequent paragraph breaks.

So, let’s rewrite this example.Cover

“I doubt my son will reward you for killing me,” Doctor Skinner said as he eyed the gun. “I rather think that would put you in hot water.”

O’Brien’s eyes flicked for one second in the direction of the old man.

It was all Michael needed. He moved in one fluid motion. As he passed the Doc, he knocked him to one side, ensuring his safety.

Skinner fell sideways onto the bed, well out of harms way.

O’Brien tried to re-aim his gun at Michael, but was too slow.

Michael grabbed the wrist of the gun-wielding hand and snapped it with ease. O’Brien’s gun dropped to the floor, as Michael wrapped his free hand around O’Brian’s throat. He wrenched the stocky man from the chair and held him dangling by his neck.

-From Enhanced, by Ben Brown

We had to leave most of the extra names to keep straight who was doing what to whom and we cleaned up a couple of other items in the process.

5. Commas where they don’t belong, missing where they do belong, or used where some other punctuation is called for. Some authors are “comma happy” while others seem to think the poor thing doesn’t exist.

Commas are great for introducing a short mental pause in a sentence. They’re required for separating things in a list. A comma belongs before a noun of address [“Good evening, Mr. Jones,” the Count said menacingly]. It’s required for a digression within a sentence. It doesn’t belong where a period or semi-colon is required. And, of course, it doesn’t belong in many places where we sometimes find it.

[There’s that pesky ‘and’ at the beginning of a sentence. I’m a junkie.]

6. Long, run-on sentences and sentences that are too short (one sentence broken up into two or more).

This should be two sentences (possibly two paragraphs):

“Wait Zac you don’t understand, Doctor, please get in here!”

This should be one sentence with only one “I”.

I jumped onto the truck. I pulled my gun from my holster. I shot the driver through the roof of the truck.

There are many more problems we see on a regular basis, but these seem to be the “biggies” as far as basic writing skills are concerned. There are dozens of plot and scene problems as well, but those problems have been discussed before (and probably will be again).

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