Grammar No-No’s That Aren’t (Necessarily…)

Attention Grammar Nazis, Ninjas, and Police. The following article may be too much for your purist hearts.
Show of hands… how many of you out there cringe when you see a sentence like this:

The gunman shoved a gun in Jenny’s face and ordered her to immediately open the safe.

Or one like this:

Dominick was certain this bimbo was not the one he’d left the bar with.

Or this:

However Pollyanna tried, she couldn’t get her mind off Darnell.

Or, finally, this:

Brady was tormented by memories of the accident.

Okay, my hands are up for all four.

So, what puts my grammar panties in a wad? Sentences that break grammar rules drilled into my head by my favorite English teacher, Mrs. Bruno. Here’s the crazy thing: Some of those rules were never rules in the first place, and others have changed over the years as the English language has changed.

No-No #1 That Isn’t… Split Infinitives

The gunman shoved a gun in Jenny’s face and ordered her to immediately open the safe.

For the record, no authoritative grammar and usage text exists that forbids split infinitives. However, most readers (especially those over 40 years old) stumble over split infinitives because they were taught such constructions are a grammar no-no. If your goal is to ensure your reader stays focuses on your story and not your writing, we suggest you fix the split.

The gunman shoved a gun in Jenny’s face and ordered her to open the safe immediately.

If you have to mangle a sentence to avoid a split infinitive, DON’T.

Awkward: To rescue the hostages, SWAT decided brazenly to raid the plane.
Better: To rescue the hostages, SWAT decided to brazenly raid the plain.

 

No-No #2 That Isn’t… Ending A Sentence With A Preposition

Dominick was certain this bimbo was not the one he’d left the bar with.

A Southerner stopped a stranger on the Harvard campus and asked, “Could you please tell me where the library is at?” The stranger responded, “Educated people never end their sentences with a preposition.” The overly polite Southerner then apologetically repeated himself: “Could you please tell me where the library is at, you big jerk?”

Blame crazy, annoying Romans for this one. High-school Latin taught us a preposition cannot come after its target word. Somehow, grammarians before us migrated the rule into the English language and gave us all something to fight about for centuries.

If your goal as a fiction writer is to write cleanly and seamlessly and avoid pulling your reader out of the story, consider rewriting the sentence.

Dominick was certain he’d not left the bar with this bimbo.

If you have to mangle a sentence to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition, DON’T.

Awkward: Officials for the beauty pageant still must decide with whom the contestants will meet.
Better: Officials for the beauty pageant still must decide whom the contestants will be allowed to meet with.

 

No-No #3 That Isn’t… Starting A Sentence With However, Hopefully, or Because

However Pollyanna tried, she couldn’t get her mind off Darnell.

Where this rule came from no one seems to know, but most writers cite Struck and White’s The Elements of Style. However, Masters William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White only caution writers not to start a sentence with however when you mean nevertheless.

However is a conjunctive adverb. Without a comma, it means in whatever manner or to what extent. With a comma, it means nevertheless.

However Pollyanna tried, she couldn’t get her mind off Darnell.
Pollyanna couldn’t get her mind off Darnell. However, she wasn’t trying hard enough.

What about hopefully or because? Hopefully is an adverb meaning it is hoped (that). Without a comma, it means a moderate amount of hope. With a comma, it means an extreme amount of hope.

Hopefully CatyAnn’s husband would arrive soon.
Hopefully, CatyAnn’s husband was alive.

Because is a subordinating conjunction meaning for the reason that or since. It’s okay as a sentence starter as long as you include the main clause later in the sentence.

Because no one believed Steve was gone, no one reported him missing.

What about starting sentences with coordinating conjunctions like for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so? No problem here as long as you make sure to include the main clause the word refers to either in the preceding sentence or later in the same sentence.

Incorrect: And smart, too.
Correct: She was a nice girl. And smart, too.

Simply follow with a comma? No, unless there’s an aside that needs one.

Incorrect: And she loved her job.
Correct: And, despite the extra work, she loved her job.

 

Incorrect: Yet, Inez stripped down and dove in anyway.
Correct: Tuesday night was frigid, with the wind whipping off the surf. Yet, Inez stripped down and dove into the water anyway.

 

No-No #4 That Isn’t… Passive Voice

Brady was tormented by memories of the accident.

Passive voice is not grammatically wrong. I repeat: passive voice is not grammatically wrong. However, it is grammatically boring. Why? Because the subject of a passive sentence is stagnant, waiting for someone or something to act upon it. It’s not making things happen. It’s passive. Boring.

Commercial fiction editors tell us they view passive voice as passive writing bleeding onto the page. They see an author unwilling to grab hold of their prose and commit to producing strong, aggressive writing.

If you want your reader to stay interested in your story, stay involved in what your character is going through, rewrite the sentence.

Memories of the accident tormented Brady.

If you have to mangle a sentence to avoid passive voice, DON’T.

The body was riddled with bullet holes.

Passive voice, but much more interesting as emphasis is on the body receiving the action. The writer’s goal is to take away personhood in this grim, impersonal description. The reader gets a sense of isolation, sadness, and tragedy.

Somebody shot the body full of bullets.

Active voice, but a dead sentence (pun intended).

For an in-depth look at passive voice, click here.

 

But What About Dialog?

Misuse of grammar rules (or supposed grammar rules) is perfectly acceptable in dialog if it fits your character’s personality and background. If. It. Fits. Your. Character. Got it?

Write on!

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