When deep in the midst of writing a first draft, using perfectly proper punctuation and grammar is probably the last thing on your mind. However, once you move on to the editing stage, it should definitely be in the forefront of your noggin.
I’d also like to make a note here. I’m all for breaking the rules and being rebellious when it comes to creative writing, but you have to know the rules before you can break them.
But where should you start when it comes to editing for grammar? There are some glaringly obvious ones that any self-proclaimed grammar nerd will eagerly correct you on if you make an error in an online forum (they’re/there/their, to/two/too, etc.) To start, let’s look at some common (but not always commonly thought of!) mistakes made by writers.
This one probably seems like a no brainer, but it’s actually a pretty common error. Slip-ups are so frequent in spoken English that we hardly ever think about it. Some nouns working as the subject of a sentence can be a bit tricky, such as nouns that mean a group of people or things, but the word itself is singular.
Wrong: The cast are going to a party after closing night.
Right: The cast is going to a party after closing night.
A dangling modifier is a clause that is ambiguously modifying the wrong noun in a sentence. While it may make sense in your own head, it may actually be grammatically incorrect.
Wrong: After ringing nonstop, Lauren had no desire to answer the phone.
Right: Lauren had no desire to answer the phone that had been ringing nonstop.
Em Dash (—) vs. En Dash (–) vs. Hyphen (‐)
When I first heard these terms back in my English classes in high school, I’m sure I had question marks for eyes. The em dash is the longest, followed by the en dash, and finally the hyphen. Computer keyboards are not well-equipped to differentiate between an en dash and a hyphen, but most word processors should have an option to insert special characters.
Em dash: Used as parentheticals and can take the place of commas, parentheses, or colons for more emphasis or better readability. Example: John had to do something–crazy or not–to save her in time.
En dash: Slightly wider than a hyphen. Used to denote a span or range, such as a span of years, a score in a sports game, and to denote direction or connection. Example: We hold meetings on Saturdays, 8:00-9:00.
Hyphen: Used when two or more words make one collective word. Example: Wizards using “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” instead of using Lord Voldemort.
A comma splice happens when a comma is used instead of a period or semicolon. Example:
Wrong: He didn’t like her, she was too loud.
Right: He didn’t like her; she was too loud.
If the two thoughts (in this example, the two thoughts are “He didn’t like her” and “She was too loud”) can stand alone and still be complete sentences, then they should be separated by a semicolon or period. You can also correct this particular sentence by adding because: He didn’t like her because she was too loud.
To keep it short and sweet: Introductory words or elements require a comma after them.
Example: Luckily, we were able to get tickets before they sold out.
Sure, there are about a million more grammar faux pas that could be lurking in your first draft (okay, okay, maybe not a million, per se, but you know…). These five, however, are some common mistakes. If you’re self-publishing, I do suggest working with an editor once you’ve cleaned up your manuscript to the best of your abilities.
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