How to Edit Fiction – 4 – Be Good to Your Grammar (Standard English Edition)

Posted on July 18, 2011 by


Stuff You Need: the chapter from your manuscript in standard English that you prepared in previous posts, a computer capable of viewing pdf files.

Please note that the rules of grammar I cover here don’t necessarily apply to AAVE or other dialects of English that aren’t considered “standard”! The process is the same, though.

So by now we are starting to get the idea, yes? We are starting to learn how to take the ginormous task of editing and break it down so that it does not panic us?


Editing, we wish you to see for yourselves, is like cleaning a room in a messy house: the very first thing to do is throw away alllllllll the mouldy food and dust bunnies and waxed paper fast food cups with dribbles of sticky orange in their corners. Easiest decision of the entire process. Like typo fixing!

Next, the recyclables: beer bottles, jars, empty cereal boxes. That’s your spelling and your basic grammar. It’s still relatively easy, because all you have to do is look things up. It’s not like it’s the most important task you’ve ever done, because you can have a nice house/manuscript without getting rid of every single one of the S&G mistakes/empty cola cans. HOWEVER, there is a point of no return — after which you come across as a messy housekeeper. (ALLEGORY! A wonderful device. We do SO LOVE a sustained metaphor.)

After these easy and quick fixes, things begin to get a bit more difficult. Will I ever use that stack of sticky notes with the puppies frolicking along the top/the phrase “his turgid awareness of her delicate nature”? (Both of which are awful. Just FYI.) Does that windowsill/line of dialogue really need a plastic potted ficus/the adjective “tremulously” adorning it? (No.)

Further and further into the breach, friends! So on and so forth! We will learn how to practice our easy decisions so that they become second-nature. We will learn to recognise what we like so that we do not second-guess our own tastes! (You are not a fan of imitation houseplants nor adverbial additions to dialogue tags in the vast majority of circumstances, darlings.)

Forward to this week’s topic!


Lesson One: Apostrophe’s Apostrophes

There are three reasons to use an apostrophe. Only three.

1. To mark missing letters in a word or phrase.
2. To mark a proper noun when a part of speech has been attached to it, most commonly something that makes it plural.
3. To distinguish a possessive from a plural.

Really! That’s it. Finis.

You don’t believe me? Pas signifie.

To mark missing letters in a word or phrase
When a word or phrase is shortened and letters are taken out, English is kind enough to let us know, to avoid confusion. (“Can’t” vs. “cant” — a significant crevasse.) Some examples:
i. do not — don’t
ii. shall not — shan’t
iii. 1960s — ’60s (See below regarding “1960’s” vs. “1960s”.)
iv. until — ’til

To mark a proper/unusual noun when a part of speech has been attached to it
There is a school of punctuation that declares plural proper nouns should (because a proper noun is a fortress, perhaps?) be isolated from their modifiers with an apostrophe. I think this rule is needlessly confusing and entirely inconsistent with the more commonly practiced rules of punctuation. Examples:

i. There are a lot of Megan’s here today. (Meaning, “there are a lot of people named Megan at this event.”)
ii. Will the A’s and B’s go over there, please? (Meaning, “I’m requesting that people who belong to groups A and B go to the place I indicated.”)
iii. I’ve been Marcus’ed! (Meaning: “Something has been done to me that is so characteristic of Marcus that I’ve fashioned a verb out of his name to describe it.”)
iv. I loved the 1970’s.
I am of the opinion that this rule is responsible for confusion about apostrophes and plurals — confusion that results in advertisements for “tomato’s” or B&Bs that welcome “pet’s”. I don’t think an apostrophe should ever be used to indicate a plural noun. It makes everything so terribly messy. I do think it’s important for everyone to know about this convention, however — and to understand it. Lynn Truss makes it so NEEDLESSLY complicated, friends.

To distinguish a possessive from a plural
This rule is familiar, I assume? Yes? “Dogs” are not “dog’s”, and so on. I would like to point out a few things, however:

i. Plural possessives are sometimes a matter of choice, if the noun ends in “s”. I prefer the more elegant “Mavis’ ” to “Mavis’s”, but you do what pleases you best.
ii. Don’t confuse a contraction with a possessive. “Hi’s” looks quite odd, yes? As should “her’s”. Possessive pronouns never contain apostrophes, ever. “It’s” is a contraction of “it is” or “it was”. “Its” is a possessive pronoun, just like “theirs” or “hers” or “his”.


Lesson Two: Homonyms

Words that sound the same, but aren’t.

There’s no easy way to spot these. Remember last week? The way to spot troublesome homonyms is to internalise all the rules that contribute to which word you should choose in a particular situation. So, like last week, the best way to improve is to take mental note that there are multiple sets of rules that contribute to word choice, and try to learn those rules by reading a lot.

Some common sources of confusion:

i. passed/past
“He ran past the shop,” is correct here. Why? Because “passed” is a verb. Because you wouldn’t say, “He ran walked the shop.”
ii. their/they’re/there
I have no quick fix to distinguish “there” and “their”, so you’ll just have to remember them — HOWEVER, you should know, know, know by now that NO POSSESSIVE PRONOUN should have an apostrophe. Right. None of them. So when you want to say, “it belongs to them,” you will write, “it’s theirs”. Not “its they’res” or so help me… YES?!!?? Good.
iii. further/farther
Had a wee bit of trouble with this one myself. “Farther” ALWAYS refers to physical distance. “Further” refers to everything else, including metaphorical distance, e.g. “Mother and son moved further away from each other emotionally as the years went by.”
iv. *could of/could have/could’ve, *would of/would’ve/would have
You’ll notice that I’ve marked one of the above phrases with an asterisk. That’s a standard linguists use to indicate that something is purposely misspelled. (You might have seen it adopted by  internet users to indicate that an earlier word or phrase was misspelled or mistyped by mistake.)

What happens is that a person mishears “could’ve” or “could have” as “could of” and when he comes to learn to write, writes it that way. In linguistics, creating a new word or standard like this is called “back formation”. A famous example would be the formation of the verb “to laser” from the made -up noun “laser”. “Laser” was initially an acronym, but it sounded so much like a legitimate noun in English that the physicists who invented the technology and the general public began to use it that way. Eventually it became a noun rather than an acronym, and that noun was formed into a verb.

“Could of” will likely become an accepted variant of “could’ve” soon — language changes so very quickly, duckies.


Lesson Three: Morphology

Morphology is the system that builds and changes words according to morphemes in a language. A morpheme is the smallest unit of meaning that any particular language has.

Words are the molecules of linguistics. They’re units of meaning; they fit together in complex structures that can be almost crystalline (sentences). Morphemes are the atoms: you have a relatively large palette to choose from when building words, but if you split them any further you end up with a few essential particles (letters, more technically “graphemes”, or in spoken language, “phonemes”, which aren’t the exact equivalent of letters). Examples of morphemes:

i. “-ed” — indicates past tense of a verb
ii. “-ology” — “the study of”, e.g. “ornithology”, the study of birds
iii. “were-” — “man” or “human”, from Anglo-Saxon, e.g. “werewolf”, or “human-wolf”. So you could call a centaur a “werehorse”, or a mermaid a “werefish” if you like.

Morphology is suuuuuuper useful when spelling like a linguist. Most words with the morpheme “-phobia”, for example, will either be Greek in origin (because “phobia” is a Greek word), or, if they’re not, be constructed like Greek words so that they don’t sound odd. So instead of “spiderphobia”, we have “arachnophobia”, from the myth of Arachne, the girl who got turned into a spider. (She challenged Athena to a weaving contest and won. Not a good idea.)

Now I’m not suggesting you go off and learn Classical Greek or Latin, but it will help you if you learn to recognise which words come from which languages, and use that to help you spell them. English owes enormous dues to four languages in particular: Anglo-Saxon, French, Classical Greek, and Latin, and quite large dues to Old Norse and Arabic. Honestly, English is the language of plagiarism: we see some turn of phrase or word that we like, steal it, shuffle the spelling around a little, and it’s suddenly ours!


Lesson Four: Colons, Semi- and Full

1. Semicolons
These can be used in two ways only:
i. Joining two full sentences together to make a larger sentence, indicating that there is a deeper connection between those two sentences. For example, “John loved Mary; her dog’s name was Baconator,” means that part of the reason John loves her, if not the entire reason, is her dog’s name.
ii. Separating clauses in a list. Not a big fan of this one. Not at all. But it’s done, and it’s very commonly accepted, so I sort of have to sigh and bear it.

2. Colons
There’s only one reason you should use a colon, and that is to demonstrate something. It’s the written equivalent of gesturing with your palm up and open, fingers together. Some examples:
i. What I just did, right up there, after “examples”.
ii. “Lesson Two: Electric Boogaloo” (Meaning, “Here’s what lesson two is. Look, right here. It’s, ‘Electric Boogaloo’.)
iii. “Let’s get one thing straight: he wasn’t a cop.” (Meaning, “This is exactly what you’re getting straight, that he’s not a cop.”)

3. Em-Dashes (BONUS!)
Em-dashes are the very long ones that you can type in most word-processors by typing a space and then three normal dashes and then another space. They give you a feeling of abruptness, almost interruption, like when you interrupt yourself when nervous because you’ve suddenly realised you’re not saying what you meant to say. I like to use them in dialogue instead of colons or semicolons, which aren’t really meaningful in that context (when people talk they don’t pay much attention to whether or not a clause is independent, demonstrative, or whatever) — but this isn’t a rule. Use semicolons in dialogue if it pleases you.
See how I used that em-dash?


Lesson Five: Forget All That Other Stuff

(Not Really, But This Is More Important)

If I taught you all the little shortcuts I know about morphological grammar and punctuation we would be here for months. And you’d be so bored you’d vomit ellipses.

My advice is this: learn the grammar I cover by heart. If not my rules, then some rules. If you want to go the extra ten miles for the marathon, do it — but it’s not necessary these days. Some rules learnt = annoying potential agents far, far less.

I truly believe that grammar is far easier than it’s made out to be. People just aren’t told the reasons why some rule says this or that — so they don’t understand, and they don’t remember. If you understand why “it’s” doesn’t mean “belonging to it”, then you’re less likely to make that mistake.

If you don’t take anything else away from this post, remember this: grammar rules are easier when you understand why they work, because grammar develops in ways that make sense.

Human languages are fascinatingly well-organised for such complex structures. There’s no such thing as a completely random and absurd rule of grammar.

Also, you should really have a copy of Strunk & White to hand if you’re writing American fiction in “standard” English. Ideally you should keep it within sight of your writing space at all times so it can glare at you balefully.



I. : Practice
I’ve prepared a short worksheet of some common grammatical errors. Take that chapter you worked on during weeks 1 and 2 and fix it according to the worksheet.
DO NOT FIX ANYTHING ELSE INCLUDING OTHER STUFF I COVERED IN THE ABOVE POST OR I WILL FIND YOU AND MAKE YOU DO PRESSUPS. The MEAN kind. The kind where your knees are straight and your nose touches the floor.

II. : Tell Me How It Went in the Comments
Were you fixing dialogue LIKE A BOSS?


~~ NEXT: Voice & Stanislavski ~~