Articles / On Writing

We’ve all seen the following review: the editing in this story was terrible.

When I read these types of reviews, I often wonder just what part of the editing was supposedly bad. Was it the substance of the story that was badly edited? Was the story a nightmare of grammatical issues? Was the story overrun with typos or formatting errors? Or were there issues with consistency? Beyond this, I have to ask what type of editing did the author seek? Proofreads do not cover substantive issues. Substantive editing doesn’t cover formatting errors. And copy editing only focuses on technical issues. If an author does not purchase the type of editing the story needed, this is not the fault of the editor.

And what if the “problem” really has nothing to do with the editing at all, but rather the reviewer’s perception of what is grammatically correct and what isn’t? Of course, there are hard and fast rules for writing, grammatical construction and spelling, but there is also a large gray area that is governed by style. Much of editing is subjective, and something could be a grammatical error yet be stylistically correct. And because of this, no matter what you do, there is always going to be someone lurking in the wings and waiting to point out the “errors.”

Don’t take it personal. Just remember: Style is not an error.

Good editing is a balance of grammatical correctness, consistency and style, and a good editor knows the difference between stylistic license and grammatically incorrect.

In today’s article, I wanted to cover some specific grammatical issues that could be considered errors. These issues are more a matter of style than rule.

Inconsistent renderings of numerals

The Chicago Manual of Style has very specific rules that govern the rendering of numerals. But there are several exceptions to the rule. One of those exceptions is if a numeral begins a sentence, it should be rendered in words.

For example:

“When did you last see your brother?”

“Two thousand eleven.”

“You haven’t seen your mother since 2011? That’s two years!”

It’s also left to the editor’s discretion how numerals are rendered in discourse. This means that a number may be rendered in numerals in running text and as words in dialogue.

For example:

Jane was angry. She wanted the $185 that Thomas promised her.

She stormed up to him and screeched, “Where’s the hundred and eighty-five dollars you owe me, you jerk? You said you’d pay me back last week!”

Use of the comma

The simple little comma can stir up quite a bit of controversy. There are two styles of comma usage: standard (grammatically correct) and minimalist (stylistically correct), and between these two lies a vast and often confusing battlefield. And while some authors may be extreme minimalists, other authors (and their editors or publisher) may fall somewhere in the middle when it comes to usage. Therefore, it’s not unusual to see an author who doesn’t use commas with introductory adverbial clauses yet does use the Oxford comma.

For example:

During dinner Joseph thought about all the places he’d rather be, his car, and how much longer it would be until he could make his excuses and leave.

And there are other authors and editors who prefer the punctuation rule for the Oxford comma as outlined in AP Style. In this style, the Oxford or serial comma is not used except when confusion could result.

For example:

You must come over to dinner later. We are having a lovely stew, crusty bread and that merlot you adore.

BUT

Have you seen Kate and Eleanor, Thomas and John, and Zoe and Jess?

Sometimes authors and editors will also forgo the tried and true rule and drop the comma between two independent clauses and a conjunction. Why? Well, usually it’s because the sentence is short and the lack of comma usage will not cause an issue with clarity.

For example:

Sally hated going to the store and she often avoided it.

Other authors may drop the required comma in an interjection that contains direct address but use the direct address comma elsewhere.

For example:

“Oh Tom, you are such a cut up.”

While another author will punctuate it thus:

“Oh, Tom, you are such a cut up.”

The purpose of punctuation is clarity. Too much punctuation can obscure the meaning of a sentence, just as too little punctuation can cause confusion. It is the up to the author and her editor to create a punctuation style that fosters ease of reading while still falling within the guidelines of grammatically correct.

Allowances for Style

Many allowances are given to preserve style, narrative voice, and the characters’ voice. Sometimes, in order to preserve style, an editor or an author will sacrifice correct grammar, punctuation, and spelling—this is especially true in discourse. As long as such sacrifices do not cause issues with clarity, overuse of style or flow, they are not an issue. So while a strict grammarian will see comma minimalism as an error, it’s not. Fragments can be used to improve pacing or to set the tone of a scene. Occasionally, a comma splice, while structurally incorrect, can be stylistically correct. Even spelling can be subjective.

Such allowances may include:

  • Fragments
  • Truncated words
  • Comma splices
  • Phonetic spelling for accents or drawn out words
  • Dropped words to indicate a speech pattern
  • Changes in tense
  • Wrong usage of was/were and is/are and had/have
  • Misspelled words
  • Words that are not words

“Awhile” versus “a while”

“I guess that I’ll hang around for a while if that’s okay with you. I want to see my mom,” Tracie said.

“Yeah,” Tom said with a shrug. “It’s been awhile since we’ve seen your mom.”

Some writers and editors differentiate between a while and awhile. In this case, when awhile is the object of a preposition, it is rendered as two words.

“No Way” versus “noway”

No way! You’ve got to be kidding, right? There’s noway Cindy would let him get away with that!”

When used as an interjection, no way is rendered as two words. But when used as an adverb, it  can be one. The same principle is true of no how and nohow.

“Any more” versus “anymore”

She doesn’t want to eat any more cookies. She said she won’t eat them anymore.

When any more is used to denote an amount, it’s two words. When it is used as an adverb, it is one word. But some editors say that it should always be two words.

So in what ways do you choose style over grammatically correct? Please share them with us below.


Comments

  1. Thanks for this fascinating article. When I started writing fan fiction, I soon learned that a basic understanding of grammar is essential. I became a little obsessed with getting it ‘right’, although that depends on which set of rules you are trying to obey! It’s interesting to learn that following the rules too slavishly can also become a problem.

  2. Great article! Spelling is important in any literary project.

  3. I agree Ellise… in my business I have often lead efforts to write effective contract proposals. as you might suspect there were times when I had to research rules on grammar to resolve issues and try to establish consistency among writers. When I first started my research I was surprised to find there often conflicting rules out there for just about everything. So I would just pick the one that seemed most likely to make the overall reading experience easier. The idea is trying to avoid distracting the reader from the message we are trying to convey. It has worked great…I think.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: