Jul 29, 2013

Sue Mackay on Writing the Perfectly Correct Story

Are writers overly precious about grammar, spelling and punctuation? What do our readers expect when they pick up our books?

I got to thinking about this the other day after reading an email from some Russian friends who have a moderate grasp of English - written and spoken. In this email they commented that they were very concerned about getting the grammar and punctuation correct. I have to say it was the most correctly written email, letter, even book, I've read in a long time, probably ever since high school English classes.

But I guess that when anyone learns a foreign language they are taught the purest form. I remember my French teacher arguing with a pupil from French Tahiti about his apparently incorrect use of his own language.

Texting gets a lot of blame for incorrect use of language. Teachers talk about papers handed in that are written in text language. But I've received letters from my lawyer, accountant, and doctor, all containing errors. These are people I, rightly or wrongly, expect to understand English. Is language as we "older" people know it changing, or are people getting lazy? And does it matter?
Sometimes it is just as simple as countries using the same language differently. Take the proofs I receive for my books. The story is first proofed in America before coming to me for a final once over. Americans use loads more commas than we do and so my proof reader pops them in as she believes the story needs them. I take them out as I believe the commas have changed my meaning of the sentence involved. Then the proofs go back to my English editor who, sometimes, has another crack at making the grammatical presentation perfect.
But does any of this matter? It is the story people are wanting. Isn't it? Or have I got it all wrong? There are plenty of books out there to help us. The Elements of Style being my favourite. Strunk and White are definitely not responsible for the many mistakes I still make. 

What do you think? Do we need perfect grammar and punctuation, or have we moved on from that?


  1. Sue, I think language is an ever evolving entity. I'm not really a purist (though I do roll my eyes about the "12 Items or Less" sign at my local supermarket). As long as punctuation ensures I get (or give) the correct meaning then I'm happy. :-)

  2. I like the evolving idea, Michelle. Though how to stop growling at badly worded signage I'm not sure. That's one of my pet hates.

  3. Oh Sue, I have to confess to being 'old school' and I get immeasurably irritated by errant apostrophes, bad spelling and poor grammar- and yet I'm sure I do it myself half the time too! I try to just let it wash over me, but when it's my son's homework I admit to giving him the odd lecture on what's wrong and what's right! (which I'm sure goes in one ear and out the other- then he LOLs and ROFLs...and tells me to 'chill')

  4. Yes, Louisa, I think we 'old school' types can't help being picky about this. I just react every time.

  5. Hi Sue,

    I confess that though I make plenty of errors myself, some glaring ones really annoy me. Like Louisa I hate seeing those extra apostrophes in plurals. Other than that I tend to think punctuation is about making the text understandable. You're right thinking sometimes too many commas can change the meaning. I've had that problem too. On the other hand, I take a sly joy in occasionally starting a sentence with 'And' and wondering what my primary school teacher would think of it.

  6. I guess I'm old school all the way. I like my grammar and punctuation. Though I do use an awful lot of capitals (my daughter always asks why I'm yelling at people) and I LOVE exclamation marks!!!!!!

  7. I'm surrounded by people who are very particular about grammar and speller which very handy as it seems I was educated in an era when grammar wasn't taught!!! This can make it really hard sometimes to know when I'm right or wrong!! I'm always looking things up as I want to ensure I'm correct.

  8. Annie, I'm a shocker for starting sentences with 'and'. I put it down to my character's flaws.

  9. Mary, you've got me there. No capitals or exclamation marks.

  10. Hey Jennifer, I might've had the lessons at school but I still don't always know right from wrong.

  11. Interesting topic, Sue! I have to confess that English came a sad second to sciences for me at school so I know some of that grammar didn't stick awfully well - though I'm not too bad. Bad spelling really seems to leap out at me.

    I have some particular stumbling blocks and the one that comes immediately to mind is affect/effect... though I read something the other day that seemed to cement it in my mind... affect is a verb while effect is a noun... so here's hoping that has stuck!

    I did chuckle at your French teacher arguing about the correct use of the language with a student from French Tahiti!

  12. Sharon, I was the science girl too and went into the same career as you, but English was always one of my top subjects. Left brain, right brain?
    I stumble over loose and lose. Have now got them up on the board in my office with their meanings.

  13. Sue, the great thing is the English language is a living thing - it grows and changes all the time. Have you seen this interview with Stephen Fry where he talks about the history of our language and the recent changes:

    It's fabulous. However, I do get annoyed at incorrect apostrophes in signs and punctuation that interferes with meaning, like the other commenters here. :)

  14. Lol Annie, every time I start a sentence with And I look over my shoulder. But I do it anyway because I like it like that! :-)

    One thing I think that stifles particularly new writers is the "rules" (And being a classic example) and the way they are bandied about as being the only way to do things. And grammar can be included in these rules too and people get sooooo hung up on them, to, imho, the detriment of the story.

    I was always really good at English so grammar and spelling and punctuation were things I excelled at but they've all slipped over the years and I'm nowhere near as good as I once was. But you know what, I really don't give a rats arse about a lot of supposed "grammar" errors. As long as I can read it, understand it and things are mostly spelled right, mostly punctuated right then I'm okay with it (unless you're a child of mine, then it had better be perfect!!!)
    And, (see there I go again!) I know I am on my lonesome amongst my writer friends but honest to god I would strike apostrophes from the face of the earth if it was in my power. People get so irate about their use or misuse and I think in this constantly evolving state of language they're just obsolete. Get rid of 'em I say!

    Now I shall duck and slink off as people throw fruit at me :-)

    PS - Sue a good trick my Mum taught me years ago about loose and lose - with lose you lose an o! I use it to this day :-)