Every Wednesday I’ll be sharing some hints and tips about how to improve your writing. These are basic things I have learned over the years, from writers websites, published authors and constructive feedback from friends, family and online pals.
There is an argument that fiction writing cannot be taught because it comes from talent alone, it is in your nature to be creative. Whilst there is some truth in that, even the most creative person needs to learn how to use their ability and make the best of their craft.
This week: Grammar is your pal!
This weeks topic is inspired by a book entitled My Grammar and I by Caroline Taggart & J.A Wines. The tag line is “old school ways to sharpen your English” which is something I aspire to but never feel like I fully achieve. I have a very active imagination and a knack for telling a story but when it comes to grammar I often feel like I’m cheating – I know how to write compelling dialogue, at least I think I do, and I can string decent plot elements together to keep the reader busy, but some areas of my grammar certainly require improvement.
I love words and thoroughly enjoyed English at school, although when it came to grammar my teachers were a bit vague on the subject. I decided it was time to crack open this nutshell and learn what makes the English language so fascinating. Every night I re-read the last few pages of My Grammar and I from the night before because I usually fall asleep and wake up with the pages stuck to my face! Then I read a few more – rinse and repeat! The information is slowly sinking in but there’s a lot to remember, more than I figured! I’d like to share some odd bits and pieces I’ve learnt so far.
Before anyone reaches for the plagiarism rule book and starts bashing me over the head with it, I am using My Grammar and I as a reference and don’t attempt to pass this stuff of as my own. I’m merely sharing a few snippets with you, dear blog reader, to help improve your writing pleasure!
American English or British English?
I’ve always been confused and fascinated at how the English language differs in subtle ways when comparing AE (American English) to BE (British English) aside from the obvious words like garbage/trash – rubbish (BE) and sidewalk – pavement (BE) for example. Did you know that there was no standardised spelling system on either side of the Atlantic until 1755? Samuel Johnson published his Dictionary of the English Language and everyone gave a sigh of relief. But then in 1828, Noah Webster published his own dictionary, An American Dictionary of the English Language, and upset a lot of English folk.
Webster didn’t like much of the spelling Johnson recorded, he thought words should be written as they sounded without all the faff and extra letters that he deemed unnecessary such as centre, theatre, colour and honour. He figured they looked wrong compared to how they sounded and chose to change them in his own dictionary to center, theater, color and honor. Webster is known as being responsible for most of the differences between AE and BE that survive to this day. Whatever floats your boat, Webster!
I’m pretty sure that isn’t actually a real word, what I was trying to say is that the English language is confusing! A homophone is a word that is pronounced the same as another word but spelled differently, such as:
Another way to look at the English language and how it confuses so many people trying to learn it is the strange rules that make no sense, like:
- 1 mouse – 2 mice
- 1 sheep – 2 sheep – many sheep
- 1 deer – 2 deer – more deer
That said I’m never surprised when someone asks me why it isn’t:
- 1 mouse – 2 mice therefore 1 house – 2 hice!
Sadly I can offer no real explanation why this is so, certainly for a student of the English language their reasoning is pretty valid! Though once they learn this rule it must be baffling to them to hear people with a posh accent say: “Our street has many hices!”
Two words or just the one?
Some words are often used the wrong way, and the arguments the ensure when people are questioned can be long and heated. For example:
- alot/a lot – There’s no such word as alot.
- alright/all right – Alright is considered as a less acceptable spelling of all right, personally I think all right looks odd in speech: “Everyone alright?” yeah that looks good to me, whereas: “Everyone all right?” looks like the speaker is asking something very different. The way to remember it is: It’s either all right or all wrong.
- maybe/may be – How to use: Maybe everything will be all right in the future. – Although it may be that the future sucks.
- anyone/any one – How to use: Does this rabbit belong anyone? – It might belong to any one of those magicians over there.
Oh and this one is very good:
- continual/continuous – Continual means: “happening over and over and over again.” Continuous means: “happening constantly without stopping.”
But isn’t that pretty much the same thing? Explain, Dave!
- You may continually receive unwanted telephone calls from telesales people. However, if this happened continuously, you would never be able to put the phone down.
It’s may surprise you to know that the word “misspelled” is in fact often misspelled – it isn’t mispelled or missspelt either! Here’s one that I’ve struggled with over the years because I’ve never taken the time to work out which one to use at the right time:
- farther/further – The difference may seem pretty vague but farther relates to an actual physical distance, and further in reference to metaphorical distance. “Let’s have a further look at the book.” – “How much farther to the cinema?”
- Just think – FARther is about how far – remember that and you’re onto a winner.
Speech in bits.
Think of building a house with nothing but words, they all have their function but you have to put them in the right place to create a house or sentence that makes sense. Here’s a great poem from My Grammar and I:
Every name is called a NOUN,
As field and fountain, street and town;
In place of noun PRONOUN stands,
As he and she can clap their hands;
The ADJECTIVE describes a thing,
As magic wand and bridal ring;
The VERB means action, something done –
To read, to write, to jump and run;
How things are done, the ADVERBS tell,
As quickly, slowly, badly, well;
The PREPOSITION shows relation,
As in the street, or at the station;
CONJUNCTIONS join, in may ways,
Sentences, words, or phrase and phrase;
The INTERJECTION cries out, “Hark!
I need an exclamation mark!”
Through poetry, we learn how each
of these make up THE PARTS OF SPEECH.
Making sense of it all – or trying to!
One particular thing I’m guilty of struggling with is who is doing what and when and where. My Dad recently pointed out a grammatical error in my short story Ground Fall:
Across the street she spotted a troop of children dressed in bright colourful clothes being led by adults.
I didn’t spot it at the time of writing as I was so engrossed with the story, but it doesn’t make any sense. Well, it does but only if you read it the right way. What I said was that adults were leading some bright colourful clothes! I changed it after to read:
Across the street she spotted a troop of children dressed in bright colourful clothes.
The fact that adults were supervising the children wasn’t actually that important. This is one of my big mistakes, I get swept along with the story and often forget the rules until either someone points out the mistake or I catch it through editing. Although sometimes even editing can miss stupid stuff like that when staring at the same words for hours and hours.
An example from My Grammar and I:
- Both the fashion editors liked her new hat. – Whose hat? No one mentioned a hat. If you meant to say that each fashion editor had a new hat that she liked, this is better: Each of the fashion editors liked her new hat. Furthermore, if there was only one hat: Both the fashion editors liked Susannah’s new hat.
And lets not forget referring to someone before we actually introduce them:
- A drunk man – any old drunk man, he hasn’t been mentioned yet so we use A to describe him.
- The drunk man – specifically referring to the man we are talking about, now we’ve introduced him with A we are familiar with him to use THE.
- A drunk man was lurching down the street – This means the man is a stranger to us, the reader.
- The drunk man was crawling down the street – The shows the reader already knows something about this man, we are familiar with him and his drunkeness!
Finally – My Pet Hate!
The letter aitch. I find it hard to hold my tongue when someone pronounces it haitch. That’s just yukky! There’s no h at the beginning of the letter aitch. Check out these words:
- an apple – a pear
- an orang-utan – a bunny
- an ocean – a lake
Rule: nouns or adjectives beginning in a vowel usually take the article an, while nouns beginning with a consonant take the article a.
There are exceptions though because some vowels are sometimes pronounced like consonants:
- a unique event, an unusual event
- an hour, an hour and a half
- a football match, an FA Cup Final
There’s an interesting theory why aitches are so mispronounced:
Old grammarians (yep, that’s a real word this time!) declared that an should be placed before an h did so because we aspirated less in the olden days. Aspiration is the air that comes out of our mouths when we speak. Try talking to a flame and you’ll notice it flickers when you say hotel or howdy but hardly moves when you say ‘otel or ‘owdy.
That’s all folks!
I’m not entirely sure what help this will be to you, dear blog reader, but I hope it solves a few mysteries about why the English language is such a riddlesome creature. I’m still reading My Grammar and I and have found it a most fascinating book. My blog posts are likely filled with grammatical errors though I’m hoping my fiction writing will improve, baby steps and all that, so long as I’m able to read more than a few pages each night before I fall asleep!