The 5 Scariest Grammar Issues: Your Guide to Fearless Writing


Whether you're an accomplished author with dozens of titles under your belt or a starry-eyed newbie with a couple half-finished drafts in a drawer, if you're reading this column, you are, most likely, an elite reader—and by that I mean, one who has consumed at least a couple times your body weight in books. 

Being both a writer and an elite reader makes you, in my book, a defender of the edifice of language. And when I say the edifice of language, I mean clear thinking, communication, and understanding between wildly varying types of minds and across the great gulf of time. Which is, of course, all that stands between us and utter annihilation.

Nevertheless, I'm willing to hazard a guess that, while it may physically pain you to witness such common atrocities as apostrophes used as plurals and the possessive apostrophe applied to its, there is still at least one grammar issue that gives you the willies.

Maybe that's because, as a creative type, you were daydreaming about Narnia the last time you were in a basic grammar class. Or maybe it's because you've read a whole lot of highfalutin literature by people like Cormac McCarthy, who seem to care as little for the rules of grammar and punctuation as the gods in Valhalla might care about limiting their alcohol intake so they can get up and go to work in the morning.

In any case, fear not, fellow geeks—when it comes to scary grammar issues, consider this your Vorpal blade.

1. The Semicolon

Before you break the rules, know the rules—so you can stride forth, fearless, in that great and powerful act of making sense.

Vonnegut hated them. William James loved them. Whatever your feelings on this highly charged punctuation mark, you should know how to use it correctly.

The semicolon is used to connect two independent clauses not joined by a conjunction in a way that's closer than a period. For example: He looked the way she remembered him; she looked like a whole different person. Not: He looked the way she remembered him; cool but a bit stiff. 

Alternately, semicolons can be substituted for commas when the items that would fall between your commas contain commas themselves. As in: He'd forgotten the way she laughed, soundlessly; recklessly, like a teenager; and guilelessly, unlike anyone he'd met since moving to the city.

Style exception: Are you Ursula K. Le Guin? All righty then, you can use semicolons pretty much however you want. (Example: But the light always brought him up again; and finally he was awake, seeing the high gray walls about him and the slant of sunlight through glass.) Just bear in mind that unless you write about alien race relations in a mode that Shakespeare might have employed, you might want to either omit the conjunction or use a comma instead.

2. Comma before but, or then, or any other damn word

Are you possessed by some vague (or even deeply ingrained) sense that the word but (or then) must be preceded by a comma? Let me now relieve you of this notion. It's not the word but the way it's being employed that matters. 

Commas are used to separate independent clauses joined by conjunctions: They walked to a cafe in his neighborhood, but she didn't seem impressed by the menu. Not: They walked to a cafe in his neighborhood, but couldn't find a table—in this case, no comma is needed.

Because, when you think about it, even the following sentence, as long as it is, is clear without commas: They walked to a cafe in his neighborhood but couldn't find a table or any of the friends who'd promised to meet them there and so decided to ditch the whole reunion and get well and drunk on the sort of sweet wine they'd downed by the gallon as first-year art students. That's because they are the only ones who are really doing anything in this sentence.

One of the many fine things that commas do (in conjunction with conjunctions) is to help us keep track of who is doing what. Which is helpful in a sentence like Jeremy sat their bottle of Boone's on the counter in front of the register, and the stout older man standing there shook his head in disbelief. Without the comma, you might have to go hunting back through this sentence to get a handle on who, exactly, was shaking his head.

As for then, well, that's not actually a conjunction, though we often use it that way: He opened the door, then walked inside. Technically, that's He opened the door and then walked inside. Again, no comma needed.

3. Coordinating vs. Compound Adjectives

A little learning is a dangerous thing. Because a little learning might lead you to write something like She was a tall, Hispanic woman. Because tall and Hispanic are coordinating adjectives, right? 

The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS 6.33) has this to say on the subject: As a general rule, when a noun is preceded by two or more adjectives that could, without affecting the meaning, be joined by and, the adjectives are normally separated by commas.

And this: Such adjectives, which are called coordinate adjectives, can also usually be reversed in order and still make sense. If, on the other hand, the adjectives are not coordinate—that is, if one or more of the adjectives is essential to (i.e., forms a unit with) the noun being modified—no commas are used.

Clear as mud, right? And it's not just you. There are some rules in grammar that are issues for everyone—editors included—because they require a judgment call. But the fact is that most editors of most books will make the call that the word Hispanic has in some way mystical bonded with the word woman here—and point out, also, that no native speaker of English is likely to reverse these adjectives. Thus: She was a tall Hispanic woman.

There are some rules in grammar that are issues for everyone—editors included—because they require a judgment call.

Just as tricky (and judment-cally) is the compound adjective.

CMS points out that adverbs ending in ly generally cannot be misread as nouns, the way many compound adjectives could (for example: I sat inside the roach-infested Charleston apartment, without the hyphenation, could at first appear to read I sat inside the roach—which, you'll have to agree, is a whole different story). Therefore, the guide holds, such terms don't need to be hyphenated: it's a freshly painted wall, not a freshly-painted wall.

Beyond that, though, things get kind of complex. Is it a light gray suit or a light-gray suit? If the fabric itself is light, it's the former; if it's the color you're talking about, it's the latter.

Just another way the asinine rules of grammar and punctuation are here to help us understand what the hell other people are really trying to say.

4. Section Breaks

Slight pause in the action of your story? A section break may not be needed—and even a longer break in time, if you've got a nice little segue from scene to summary and back again, may not require that single blank line.

But if you're switching from one time frame to another (in a story with multiple timelines), jumping forward in time (in a regular linear sequence), and/or switching locations without smoothing the jump with summary, chances are, you need a section break.

Otherwise, your reader is likely to experience the sort of whiplash you'd associate with dropping from fifth gear into second while driving without having employed the clutch. The pace slows abruptly because your reader thought she knew where she was and what was happening and suddenly realizes at some point that she does not. 

Don't give your reader whiplash. Clearly signal that you're about to shift: Push in the clutch. Use a section break.

5. Sequential vs. Simultaneous

Let's face it: a lot of things have to happen in stories—people have to go places, do things, and accomplish stuff. Which means that if you don't vary your style of sentence construction, you're going to wind up with some boring-ass (yes, that's a compound adjective) prose. As in: He tilted the bottle of two-buck chuck over his head. He reminded her of the time they'd yarn-bombed the urinal. He laughed and choked. He nearly upchucked on the plush white carpet of his new apartment. 

So maybe you're inclined to get clever with something more like: Tilting the bottle of two-buck chuck high overhead, he reminded her of the time they'd yarn-bombed the urinal and laughed and nearly upchucked on the plush white carpet.

But beware, writers. Because what's implied by this sentence construction is that he's actually pouring some sort of liquid on himself while telling this story, which appears to be about the time they yarn-bombed the urinal and laughed and threw up. Which may not be what you actually mean.

In cases like this, remember that sentence construction is not just a matter of style, it's a matter of sense. Which means that if things are not happening at the same time, you need to take care to present them as sequential rather than simultaneous: Tilting the bottle of two-buck chuck overhead, he drank it down. (Tilting a bottle actually is something you can do as you're drinking from it.) But: He reminded her of the time they'd yarn-bombed the urinal, and before long he was laughing so hard he nearly upchucked on the plush white carpet. In this construction, it's clear what's happening when.

These are, of course, but a few of those finely interlocking rules governing the uses of the English language, and there are many writers who flaunt them as a matter of style. But before you break the rules, know the rules—so you can stride forth, fearless, in that great and powerful act of making sense. 

Susan DeFreitas

Column by Susan DeFreitas

An author, editor, and educator, Susan DeFreitas’s creative work has appeared in the Writer’s Chronicle, Story Magazine, the Huffington Post, Daily Science Fiction, and Southwestern American Literature, along with many other journals and anthologies. She is the author of the novel Hot Season, which won a Gold IPPY Award for Best Fiction of the Mountain West, and holds an MFA from Pacific University. She divides her time between Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Portland, Oregon, and has served as a freelance editor and book coach since 2010.

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Redd Tramp's picture
Redd Tramp from Los Angeles, CA is reading Mongrels by SGJ; Sacred and Immoral: On the Writings of Chuck Palahniuk; The History of Sexuality by Michel Foucault October 24, 2014 - 8:54am

Great column.

Elizabeth Dearborn's picture
Elizabeth Dearborn from Florida is reading The Monuments Men October 24, 2014 - 11:12am

As a reader I have a problem with the use of "issues" as a euphemism for "problems".

Travis Sullivan's picture
Travis Sullivan October 24, 2014 - 4:16pm

Technically speaking, despite the anathema of using a conjunction at the start of a sentence, if it’s being used as an introductory phrase rather than a connection to the previous sentence with a conjunction, or if it is the musing of a random character, then you require to place the comma after then/so. And/but don’t really follow this rule. (This is one of those, know you’re breaking it before you do it kind of things)

… , and before long, he was laughing – just saying.

This is a really nice post. It really helps a lot of people who are just jumping into writing and is a wonderful article for Nano. Though, for me, the biggest issue I’ve come across recently is writers using commas before dependent clause conjunctions.

Susan DeFreitas's picture
Susan DeFreitas from Portland, OR is reading Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of Your Fist by Sunil Yapa October 24, 2014 - 5:11pm

Such commas are rampant in my world too, Travis. Hence, this post. =)

Kikazzi's picture
Kikazzi October 24, 2014 - 10:50pm

Your columns are so helpful. Thank you.

Stephen James Anastasi's picture
Stephen James A... from Queensland, Australia is reading The Trouble with Physics (Lee Smolin) October 25, 2014 - 1:24am

The grammar that most scares me is the use of the comma relating to quotation marks. For example, if it's a quote, 'I don't care for commas,' he said, then no problems (should I have used a semicolon after 'he said', or is this comma that I just used all stupid) in that it seems to me to be that the 'he said' I just used in the brackets is not a quotation but to pick out the phrase or whatever of interest? Phew! See what I mean?

Fred Arnold's picture
Fred Arnold October 27, 2014 - 12:44pm

"But the light always brought him up again; and finally he was awake, seeing the high gray walls about him and the slant of sunlight through glass."

No, using semicolons do not work in that style. That may be your opinion, but it is sloppy writing.  

Susan DeFreitas's picture
Susan DeFreitas from Portland, OR is reading Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of Your Fist by Sunil Yapa November 25, 2014 - 11:40pm

Sloppy it may seem to a modern eye, but Virginia Woolf used semicolons the same way. =)