I’ve seen it. You’ve seen it. We’ve all seen it. That glaring grammatical error in that über popular novel we couldn’t wait to get our hands on. And we’ve thought to ourselves, “Man, why didn’t the editor catch that?!?! That should have been—”
And that’s where I’m going to stop the train. First and foremost, everyone knows there are a lot of rules when it comes to grammar and punctuation—come on, I’m a copy editor at heart and rules are my thing. But… sometimes style and grammar clash, and you gotta break the rules. And every seemingly incorrect bit of grammar or punctuation isn’t necessarily an error on the author’s or the editor’s part. Editing is part rules, part subjective opinion. Speaking subjectively, sometimes an author’s style can and should override technically correct grammar and punctuation.
Yes, I said should. Stylistic choice isn’t an error. Every author has an inherent style that should be preserved while staying as close as possible to properly punctuated and grammatically correct during editing. Does that mean remove all the commas? Nope. What it means is keeping style while maintaining readability.
So what kinds of stylistic choices are often mistaken for errors? I imagine the list is pretty long, but here are a few things we see as editors at Write Divas:
Fragments: When used sparingly, sentence fragments draw attention to small bits of information you want to emphasize to your reader. When used on a larger scale, fragments lead to stilted, disjointed narrative—and depending on the point of view of your narrator, this can be exactly the narrative voice you’re looking for. Imagine your narrator is certifiably insane… or a toddler. The narrative from that character’s point of view could be extremely disjointed and filled with fragments.
Run-on sentences: As you can imagine, run-on sentences serve the opposite purpose of fragments. When used once or twice, they can indicate anything from panic to a lack of attention on the narrator’s part. But when used often, these long, drawn-out sentences slow the pace of a novel, causing the reader to slow down, reread, or even miss details.
Comma minimalism: To some, minimalism is a stylistic choice, the serial comma isn’t necessary, and neither is the comma before too. I’ve even seen the minimalistic choice of removing the comma after an introductory phrase, as well. Technically, punctuation purists may disagree, if this is an author’s style, it doesn’t lead to confusion and is consistent throughout the novel, it’s not an error.
Spelling: Intentional misspellings, phonetic spellings, and slang are just a few examples of how authors use variations in spelling to assert their style and get their point across to the reader. If you were to read about a character who spoke slowly, emphasizing each word via phonetic spelling, what would that tell you about that character? Is she being helpful in emphasizing her words or rudely over exaggerating in a condescending fashion? Slang is also an intentional misspelling of many words; however, it makes speech more casual and realistic. How silly would dialogue between two teenage girls be if every word written were completely proper and not one gonna or wanna was thrown in?
Comma splices: Comma splices are a stylistic choice we see more and more often, especially in dialogue. Let’s face it, we speak in comma splices. So it’s understandable that we’d write dialogue this way. Where a semicolon would be grammatically proper, it sometimes seems almost too formal for the situation. So the comma splice can be useful, too.
Improper verb form or tense: Seen often in dialogue or first-person point of view, using an improper verb form or tense can convey speech patterns to the reader.
Dropped words or letters: This is also something seen in dialogue and first person point of view. For example, the dropping of the G in ing words or the contraction of I’m gonna to I’ma are just two examples of style that indicate vernacular to the reader.
Made-up words: Writers are artists and creators, so why is anyone surprised when made-up words find their way into a novel? Some of my favorite non-word words have come from my editing experiences. You can tell a lot about a narrator from the words he makes up. This is seen in all levels of books, too, from those written for toddlers to adult-themed titles and can range anywhere from serious, pseudo-medical to super silly.
These are just a few stylistic things that come to mind when discussing errors that aren’t really errors. I’m sure an entire article could be devoted to the use and/or lack of punctuation—specifically commas—based on style choices.
We’d love to hear from you. What kind of non-error errors do you see most often?