March 13, 2012

A Girl With a Grammar Goal

After reading Liz Parker's (The English Bad Ass) post today about ellipses, I got to thinking about grammar and just how badly mine needs a tuneup. Certain glaring grammatical errors drive me bonkers like the best of them (they're/their/there screwups, 'yous guys', 'I seen', and so on), but I know there are grammatical no-nos that I'm guilty of (like ending this sentence with a preposition for starters). It's all a little overwhelming, though.

I don't really remember learning grammar in school (I'm sure we did) except for the time in grade seven where my idiot teacher made every boy in our class cry at the blackboard because none of them had any clue what they were doing. What a winner. I took French from grade one right through grade twelve and we definitely learned grammar in those classes. Too bad my brain can't easily convert this French grammar knowledge into its English equivalent.

Hoping to improve my grammar, I took two Linguistics courses in University. Sadly, I didn't take away a whole lot more than the fact that Klingon uses a lot of glottal stops (don't ask). Knowing that my grammar was less than stellar, I purchased Grammar For Dummies some time ago. Turns out I was a dummy for even purchasing it, that's how useless the book is. It has mostly been a non-issue whether I knew how to properly use a semicolon, or whether I have a major comma addiction. Until now. Now that I'm writing with hopes of getting published, I know it's important to fine tune all of these previously not-so-important details. Spelling has never been a problem, but punctuation?

I know how to use the semicolon in theory, but in practice I'm like a deer in the headlights. I use em dashes and ellipses a lot more than I should, and I think I mostly get their usage, but I'm still not 100% certain. As for commas, whoever it was that told me to place a comma anywhere you would naturally pause for breath when reading aloud was kind of wrong. Goodness, if this was actually the case, at the rate I'm dropping commas you'd think I was a chain smoker running a marathon... while smoking. To quote Oscar Wilde:
"I have spent most of the day putting in a comma and the rest of the day taking it out."
One thing I definitely know about commas: I'm a big fan of the Oxford comma. Always have been, always will be. In my opinion, a sentence containing a series reads completely wrong without it.

Exactly. So, so wrong. Move over Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and make room for Abraham Lincoln: Rhino. Maybe there will come a day when everybody stops using the Oxford comma, but I guarantee you that I will be among the last, clinging to it like there's no tomorrow.

Anyway, I've decided it's high time I learned the whens and hows of punctuation usage once and for all, if for no other reason than to avoid complete and utter embarrassment when I query my WiP. Do you know of any really good sources for buffing up on grammar? I checked out the Grammar Girl website today, but could definitely use more suggestions. I'm open to non-internet options too.

12 comments:

  1. EATS SHOOTS AND LEAVES is great! So is buying a used copy of the Chicago Manual to browse.
    I was lucky--my mother taught English and Language Arts, so I was doing grammar worksheets in my spare time growing up. The sad part was I liked it. :)

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    1. I just purchased EATS SHOOTS AND LEAVES for my Kindle. I'd kind of prefer a hard copy, but at least this way I can check it out right now :) I don't think it's sad at all that you enjoyed grammar worksheets. I loved Math, so what does that make me :)

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  2. A DASH OF STYLE by Noah Lukeman is a good book on punctuation. I also recommend his other books on novel writing (THE PLOT THICKENS, and THE FIRST FIVE PAGES are the ones I have and have read). Also, take a look at WORKING WITH WORDS by Brooks, Pinson, and Gaddy Wilson. It's aimed at "media writers and editors," but covers a lot of basic groundwork for writers of all kinds.

    I hope those are helpful to you!

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    1. Those all sound good (especially A DASH OF STYLE and THE FIRST FIVE PAGES). I'm writing these all down because I feel like I need to spend more time reading about the craft. I'm enjoying ON WRITING by Stephen King and it's motivating me to slip in a craft book every couple of reads. Thanks for the suggestions! :)

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  3. I LOVE the Oxford comma and swear I mention it at least three times a week. I agree with Rebecca, EATS, SHOOTS & LEAVES is great. However, it deals with some specific UK terms (like full stop instead of period). COMMA SUTRA is another good one.

    I strongly recommend THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE. Get the illustrated version. One of my favorite quotes: "A basic structural design underlies every kind of writing...The more clearly the writer perceives the shape, the better are the chances of success." Strunk & White

    THE COPY EDITOR'S HANDBOOK is another good one. It makes THE CHICAGO MANUAL OF STYLE much less daunting.

    If you're going to pick any of these, I'd say choose THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE.

    Happy reading :)

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    1. One note: Stunk and White are not fans of the Oxford comma, but don't let that deter you :)

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    2. I actually ordered THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE today too :) I'm reading ON WRITING by Stephen King and he mentions it as being a good reference. And I won't be deterred by any Oxford comma bashing. I'm an Oxford comma fangirl all the way :) Thanks for your other suggestions too!

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  4. So THAT'S what the Oxford Comma is! I've been using it forever and didn't know the term for it. (Yep, shows how much I pay attention to parts of grammar sometimes.)

    I commend you for wanting to improve yourself. I've never been this concerned about it myself. I guess after having English and Language Arts teachers hammer it into me it stuck and I don't even think about it anymore. That and my older sister was an English teacher.

    These are all great suggestions. Also for querying, I'd suggest looking up examples of query letters that worked and won authors an agent. But always remember, it's different for every writer and every agent. Don't stress.

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    1. Apparently, it's also called the 'series comma' and the 'Harvard comma' (if you believe Wikipedia). Most of the time punctuation will feel right and then it is. Sometimes there are just instances where I'm just not sure if the punctuation is right. I guess I'd like to be sure all the time, or at least more often :)

      I like to go on Query Shark and spend time looking at the queries that went from being kind of bad to so much better. It's great to see the process of improvement based on her suggestions.

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  5. I get excited about grammar when it illuminates larger elements of writing craft. I read a book on teaching grammar in context that had these great breakdowns of different grammar elements in To Kill a Mockingbird, and what they added to the book. It also made me feel really ignorant because it kept referring to things I had heard of, and probably also can do, but I don't know how the names of the things match up. Please keep us posted if you find books you like--I should definitely rotate some in.

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  6. I'm so in love with the Oxford comma. Though I overuse commas. Must stop that. :)

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  7. Thanks for posting this Jaime :D Not only do I realize I´m not alone in this but I also now have suggestions for books :-)
    French, German and Latin definitely help me with my grammar skills/grammar part of my brain but I know that my English grammar can be improved a lot! :D

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