Friday, 9 January 2009

Coffee Break. Grammar, Schrammar

Welcome to this mornings coffee brake and I hope your all working hard on you're writing.

See what I did there? Ooh you're observant this Friday morning. Those are some 'over the top' mistakes but I just want to check you're awake.

I think this week's subject is fairly obvious. Grammar. I used to teach Literacy and ESOL and for a while taught English to foreign students whose English was better than mine. I knew it was time to brush up on my grammar when one day, unable to immediately answer a question, a student eloquently said, “Well if you don't know, how are we supposed to learn?” In front of a class of thirty students, this was not one of my finest classroom moments (although there were far worse). Anyway, I determined then, never to be caught out by the Future Perfect Continuous Passive* again.

But I was. I was always caught out, not just because some students made 'tripping up teacher' a hobby, but because English grammar is complicated and contradictory, even to a native speaker. It's easy to make mistakes when we're speaking and even easier when writing. But as we're told over and over again, before we send a manuscript out, it must be polished until we can see our face in its reflection. And then given another wipe just to be sure. Tenses correct, apostrophes in the right places, commas doing their proper job. The list is endless.

I have two grammatical weak points. I actually have far more than two, but these in particular need constant vigilance.

1) Homophones. (Words that sound the same, spelt differently with a different meaning.) In a blog post I talked about a leek in my roof and really didn't see the mistake until a kind reader pointed it out. In a blog post that's no big deal but in a subbed piece, it wouldn't have done me any favours.

2) Relative Pronouns (Which / Who /That). Who refers to people and which refers to things. That is more informal and can refer to either. I always have to stop and think about these.

So my question to you today is this. What are your grammar weak points and are there any grammatical mistakes that irk you when you hear or read them? I'm really not fond of should of/could of, instead of should have/could have.

Be brave. I don't believe many people are grammatically perfect. If any.

Here are a couple of websites, used for EFL/ESOL students but with some good basic grammar 'rules'.

* Example - The novel is going to have been being written for 20 years by the time she finishes it.

A tense rarely, if ever, used. I bet that student has never used it.


Debs said...

Good morning, great post once again Lane.

I have to be honest and admit that I didn't notice the mistakes in the first couple of lines, then had to go back and look at them once you mentioned them.

I certainly admire anyone who teaches, it has to be one of the hardest jobs, especially when you have ghastly students who are trying to catch you out.

Grammatical errors that irk? I don't know. I only realized how useless my grammar was when I started writing and seeing how much I didn't know.

I'm having a problem with the pluperfect at the moment, and that only dawned on me through another site. I'm now starting my edit, and am having difficulty knowing when to put in 'hads' and when not to. So confusing.

Cathy said...

Grammar errors? Never!

Not true of course, but I don't think I have many that are *consistently* wrong. To be honest, I just go with what sounds right and try not to over-analyse the words I am putting on the page, at least until Word throws up a query.

But I do have a couple of advantages. Firstly I come from the generation where English grammar was actually taught in school. I can still remember my lovely English teacher in the first year at grammar school teaching us a rhyme to help us remember the parts of speech. Sadly the only verse I can now remember is:

'A noun's the name of anything,
like school or garden,
queen or king'

I often wish I could recall the rest, I think it could come in very useful!

I also have the additional advantage of a background in modern languages. My first degree was in German, which has a strict grammatical system and I also did a little Latin at school, both of which helped understanding of cases, tenses etc. Throw in some French, Italian and Dutch as well and grammar starts to become clearer, because you learn it anew with each language.

But the specific problem with English it has rules, but they are frequently broken in normal usage. That is what makes it hard to learn and what confuses all of us native speakers. If in doubt I refer to Strunk and White or another grammar book, both of which are on my desk.

Flowerpot said...

Good post Lane as ever. Most of what I know I absorbed through reading voraciously since the age of 4, though I never learnt any grammar at school (less said about my early education the better though I was very happy there!!) so I quite often know why something should be a certain way without knowing what the grammar is called - if you follow me. My weakness is practise and practice. I really struggle with those, whereas the rest of my spelling if OK.

Lucy Diamond said...

Lane - thanks for pointing out the that/which/who - I have been getting tangled up in those lately!
Less and fewer trips me up too. My instinct is to use 'less' and I have to think hard about which is right!
This isn't a grammatical problem but I do also find there are some words I use waayyyy too often. 'All' and 'little' are my two current ones, they slip in all over the place, the little buggers (just like that) and I have to go through and delete half of them before I send off a new ms.

When I was an editor, the office bible was a book by Judith Butcher, I think it was just called Copy-Editing, and it was very useful on all sorts of grammatical/style issues. Must get myself another copy!

Fiona said...

What an fasinating if slightly scary post:)

Yesterday I spent three hours in Maidenhead having a dyslexia assesment. I am, apparently, a bad case. That doesn't mean that some aspects of writing don't irk me. For instance, exclaimation marks which should only be used if the character is shouting!!!!

I know my blogs and comments are littered with my bad spag but I try very hard, with the help of kind friends, to send stuff out without too many grammatical faults.

PS Can I spell check my comments?

Fiona said...

See how rubbish I am?
FasCinating not fasinating.

Helen said... brings me out in a cold sweat. Off to have a shower now.

Oh and I wish I had Cally's teacher. We weren't taught anything at school which is why when I came to take German at university I really struggled because of the grammar stuff. Last year I bought myself grammar for dummies. I might read it this year.

Helen said...

oh and I meant Cathy not Cally. With my baby brain it is not just the grammar I struggle with...

Kate said...

I am quite Truss-tastic about grammar, although I was never taught it formally and so I do get muddled at times. My only knowledge of tenses, parts of speech and so on comes from learning French and German. My weaknesses include not understanding practise/practice, and also an over use of 'like' when I should use 'as though.'

My biggest bugbear is 'amount of people' instead of 'number of people.'

How are people getting on with the race this week, btw? Have just started new book and finding it hard to get into!

NoviceNovelist said...

Thanks Lane - Good subject - I keep a couple of grammar books handy for when I get hung up on things that don't sound right but I don't know why!!! I'm sure I have recurring grammar glitches - but I seem to forget the soloution in between episodes - that's the bit I find hard - actually remembering from one incident to the next how to fix something! I should have paid more attention at school. God knows the Nuns had big enough canes to scare us with!

ChrisH said...

It's funny how it brings me out in a bit of a sweat too - even after a grammar school education and a smattering of languages. I don't sweat the small stuff on my blog - if I did I probably wouldn't post anything; my rule for that is 500(ish) words, once a week, straight off the top off my head and, yes, there are frequent typos and missing words which I regret but, hey. But, I'm fastidious about the work I send out and am fortunate to live with Mr Red Pen who double checks. I have trouble with 'whom'... have forgotten the rules and I have a habit of writing very long sentences. I think my punctuation could probably do with a workout too. Gosh, Lane, I will have to have a lie down now - it's a bit traumatic trawling through my mistakes!

sheepish said...

Good topic Lane.I was also taught grammar at school and took Latin and French so I think i have a reasonable grasp. But I also have a terrible memory so I have no idea of rules anymore and just decide whether a sentence sounds right. I am also lucky in being able to spell although that has got worse since moving to France. But I do have problems with overuse of certain words such as "BUT" and "ALSO" and the ubiquitous exclamation mark!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
However grammar is less of a problem than actually finishing the first draft!!!!!!! oops!!!!
I am having trouble getting going again so am typing up instead.

JJ said...

Oh dear. I'm having a bad day.

Uuhm, well, I used to think I was okay and I knew what was what. Now that I must not make silly mistakes, my confidence is a-wavering!

Less and fewer... no problem - unless you ask me why and I have no idea. I just know... Things either sound right or wrong, don't they? I haven't a clue why though.

I have lots of grammar books. I am hoping to absorb some of their contents through osmosis because when I look in them, I spontaneously fall asleep.

Rowan Coleman said...

Hello everyone - Happy New Year!

Gosh, grammer. Well you all know I'm dyslexic, plus unlike Cathy I had seventies education where I essentially learnt to paint pictures of flowers and do music and movement. When I first had a real job at a publishers I didn't want to tell them I was dyslexic (I don't know why) So laboured over every document I produced looking up everything and double checking and there was always something I got wrong. For me probably my worst thing is adding 's where they don't belong. It's. It's is my worst one. On the bright side being edited by very lovely and patient editors and copyeditors has taught me most of what I didin't learn at school even if I miss it sometimes in all the writing excitement. Like Lucy I struggle with repetion - not words so much but phrases. I obviously get one in my head that I like (in one book it was 'she clung onto to the glass/cushion/table edge like it was a life raft...) forget I've used it and don't realise how much I've repeated it until the edit. On my last copy edit I became mildy annoyed becuase the copyeditior took every single instance of the word 'until' that I had used and changed it to 'til' which I think is more a question of style (hers) than grammer? Correct me if I'm wrong, I might be.....x

Zinnia Cyclamen said...

Cathy (and anyone else in the whole world who ever wishes they could find something text-based they used to know), try Google, for example there's a version here and others here Love it! I wish I'd known about that poem when I did an OU course on grammar last year (E303, Grammar In Context, very interesting indeed). I'm still shaky on lots of things, e.g. I'm rubbish at spotting adverbs that don't end in 'ly'. My overuse phrase is 'a bit' and my overuse word is 'just' (must remember to write less apologetically!!). And my pet hate is nouns used as verbs. 'His demeanour impacted the meeting' - no it didn't, it either had an impact on it or impinged on it, so there.

liz fenwick said...

I'm totally hopeless - possibly a lost cause, but what the h*ll I bunble along. I know for a fact that my writing would be far better if I knew grammar because I constantly revise sentences and words in my head so that I can get the structure straight and spell them. I too am dyslexic!!

Great post and loving the comments too!

Lucy Diamond said...

The best way to remember practice/practise is to think of advice/advise. 'ice' for the noun, 'ise' for the verb.

liz fenwick said...

BTW I was already to continue with the new book but have someone interested in AR so will be rewriting it very quickly. Revisiting Toby's story on my blog has opened my eyes so to speak :-)

liz fenwick said...

Calling Capt. B. _ I have quite a few requests to change catagories and I took a look at the beautiful new structure and ran. Please help!


Leatherdykeuk said...

I don't have any recurring problems left but I started out with plenty - apostrophes and adverbs, mainly. Like Zinnia, I still have trouble spotting non-ly adverbs.

Haven't got into the swing of writing yet, alas.

Calistro said...

Like Rowan I wasn't taught grammar at school so am expecting LOTS of edits to come back from the proofreader at some point (but it just goes to show you can get published even if you're a bit lax about grammar!)

I can't think of anything specific that I struggle with (probably because ignorance is bliss) but I did notice that, in my Amazon blurb, my editor has changed a line from the original, this:

"I felt like life just couldn't get any better."


"I felt that life just couldn't get any better."

So I obviously made some kind of grammatical mistake in the original but not sure what!

In reply to Kate's question about novel progress - I started my first draft of Novel 2 in December and am now just under 15,000 words written. 'Just' 12,000 more words to write before end of Jan if I want to stay on schedule to get the first draft complete by the beginning of June!

Graeme K Talboys said...

I had a formal education in grammar and I taught it when I was an English teacher (usually by mugging up the night before) - but I have never really understood it beyond the basics. Many years ago I was given a booklet by a grammarian; it was about 28 pages and contained 'everything you need to know about English grammar'. Sadly it 'disappeared' (along with a whole load of my books) during a messy divorce.

I am doubtless prey to grammatical errors in my writing, but I'm long past caring. I just call it my 'unique style' or 'my writing voice' if anyone asks. ;-)

Leigh said...

Great post!
I only learned, through being taught French, that such things as tenses existed. No one ever taught me that in English classes.

I guess many of us are of an age to have hit the grammar-is-unfashionable period at school, which I consider to have been an unforgivable lapse in education.

Good on you for championing the cause!

CC Devine said...

Leigh - I am exactly the same as you in terms of learning the grammar rules of my own language in order to learn two others (French and Spanish).

I struggle with the labels for certain grammar rules and likewise the explanation behind them which has proved tricky when doing informal language classes over the years. I have a good sense of what is right or at least sounds right to my native ear but can't explain why!

I tend to have problems with few and less and also get stuck with punctuation.

Wonderful post Lane! I'm a nerd when it comes to this stuff and really enjoy it.

K.Imaginelli said...

I don't think too much about grammar when I'm writing. I think I go by how the sentences sound and whether the order of words is logical.

Cathy said...

Zinnia, thank you! Now why didn't I think of Google to track down the rhyme?

That is definitely the one, though it appears there must have been a number of variations on it, the one I remember certainly had differences. But it was a great way to teach 11 year olds, I know I could still remember it for years afterwards.

SpiralSkies said...

For my sins, I used to work as a proofreader, correcting school reports written by teachers so badly I had to edit them before they reached the parents' hands!

I'm far from perfect myself in the grammar (or any other!) department but missed basics do make my teeth itch.

Apaprt from the obvious ones, I hate it when people say they'll have a 'slither' of cake... aaaarrrgh!

KAREN said...

I once spelled grammar wrong when having a rant about it to the children (blush). There's one. I never know whether to put commas inside or outside a bracket!

I sprinkle commas about far too freely, but usually know when to remove them when reading back - otherwise I'm not too bad, though readers may disagree!

Rowan Coleman said...

Just to say how lovely all your comments are - I've missed you!x

Lane said...

Quite agree Rowan.

Thanks for all your comments. I'm glad it's not just me who slips up all the time:-)

Oh by the way - Liz - good luck with AR.

KeVin K. said...

I also taught ESL and spent a good deal of class time telling my student's not to speak the way the southerners around them spoke. (An engineer who'd escaped from Cuba and spoke flawless textbook English used to come by my class once a week or so with a list of words he didn't know. "What is 'Hon'? The waitress at the restaurant addresses me as 'Hon'.")

I happen to hate 'that' and will avoid it almost as much as I eschew words ending in -ly. This has lead to confusing sentences and occasional misuses of "which."

English is of course a living language -- or rather a community of living languages interacting within the faded context of very bad German. Most of the "rules" people try to impose on English are exercises in foolishness. Anyone ever tell you never to split an infinitive? They're right if you're speaking Latin, you can't find a time in the history of English when "to boldly go where no man has gone before" wasn't standard usage.

And usage is the key. Grammarians and students of language never peak in terms of the correct word or the correct rule. They speak in terms of prevalence. Someone, and I can't find the post now, recently commented on trying to resolve a debate over "acclimate" vs. "acclimatize" and discovering that while the prevalence of usage depended on location both words were equally and perfectly correct.

Of course, you must pay attention to where you are when it comes to writing. In preparing Medicaid reports -- and I write 30-40 of them a week -- I must refer to myself in the third person (so there will be no confusion over who "I" is) and in medical argot. In academic writing deviating from the passive voice indicates poor scholarship and lack of discipline. Storytelling? Use whatever works. And if you can't find what works, make something up. When it comes to telling tales, we are gifted with a wonderfully malleable and varied language.

wordtryst said...

I don't think grammar is one of my challenges, partly because the schools I attended taught lots of grammar, my father is a grammarian who had a no tolerance approach to language errors, and partly because of 22 years of teaching high school English. Two years ago I got a copy of The Elements of Style by Strunk and White which helps with the little grey areas.

I also champion the teaching of grammar. I studied both Spanish and French at my high school, and the instruction was grammar based. My sister attended another school and she was a couple years younger, so the whole 'eschew the grammar' movement was just gathering force. She was taught Spanish by singing songs and listening to recordings, and still credits my emergency instruction in grammar at nights with getting her through her exams.

All that aside, this language of ours is so diverse and complex that I continue to learn something every day. That's part of the pleasure of writing for me: you never 'arrive', as such. The thrill of discovery never ends.

Lovely post, Lane.

PS - I just finished reading the comments and have to agree with Kevin that what is demanded in one sphere of usage is considered bad form in another. It wasn't until I had completed my first novel and started exploring writing sites on the Internet that I found out that whereas I'd always been taught the passive voice was the way to go, commercial fiction considered it a fault. Then there's the whole 'schooled in UK usage but writing for a US market' caboodle. Makes life interesting!

QUASAR9 said...

lol I wrote Mare for Mayor

and was wondering why the awe in some of the students faces looking at the black-board, as it was in those days.

Anonymous said...

Some of my grammatical weaknesses and irks are...

* Apostrophes: I'm with Lynn Truss on this one. I feel like shouting when I spot a missing or misused one.

* Not really a grammatical error, but I often put in too much starting and beginning of things. For example: "He started to walk across the room", rather than simply "He walked across the room".

* Okay, listen very carefully: "LOL" means "Laughing out loud". It is not a full stop.

* Affected/effected, there/their, hear/here...

I'm sure there are loads more. Please let me know if you spot any in my writing!

Annieye said...

I must admit that grammar doesn't give me any particular headaches. I don't know all the technical terms, though. I just tend to go with my instinct and hope for the best. If it reads 'right' and the punctuation is correct then it's good enough for me.

My old boss's committee reports were always littered with split infinitives, which I used to correct and he used to get all uppity about!

I think I stopped worrying a few years ago when one of our councillors paid me a compliment. (He was a retired Head of English in a local secondary school). I was really chuffed!

Annieye said...

Reading my post - aagh - I sound like some pompous old school marm!

I really meant to say that I really don't get stressed about it. I am blissfully ignorant.

(I did have a very good English teacher, though.)

Un Peu Loufoque said...

Firstly, sorry to arrive late, I tripped over a discarded semi-colon on the way in....I too taught TEFL and English and alwasy relied on the" lets look it up" system to cover gaps in my memory of what is what. However I do know that Grammar teaching is sadly lacking in English Education , or was in my day, my bilingual kids will sit in the car discussing verb conjugation like others discuss TV series, its frighteneing but very French! Grammar is a common dinner conversation amongst adults too! Thank God I'm foriegn and not expected to know!

I am a dyslexic married to an Australian Pedant who given any chance would rewrite everyting I write into crisp short grammatically correct dead sentences!! Is it better to be wrong but witty or right but dull ? Ah now there's the rub!

Sass E-mum said...

I've dropped by this blog via Lucy Diamond. I found links to the poems Cathy mentioned at - Great stuff.

I edit a lot of business writing and work with a colleague to maintain an in-house style guide. See that - 'style' guide - not grammar guide. We are making decisions about what we like, because there is some ambiguity in a number of grammatical and spelling rules.

I'm a freak for spotting split infinitives and correcting singular/plural errors like 'them/it' and 'theirs/its when people write about single groups(say, a company or a team).

I query the need for 'that' and 'then' - usually they aren't necessary. People appear to use these in an attempt to sound informal and relaxed, but longer sentences are harder to read.

And I don't like passive sentences. It's really important to be clear about who's doing what.

Clare Sudders said...

I'm so late here I doubty anyone will ever read this, but...

I hate hate hate it when people muddle up their tenses. People often do it, they switch from past to present and back to past again in the space of a paragraph, and it drives me nuts. For me it is a glaring error, but other people don't even seem to notice it. I guess we all have different sensitivities. I also hate the current trend for documentary voiceovers to be all in the current tense, even when they're often talking about stuff that happened long ago. I know it's supposed to make it all zingy and immediate, but it just seems like a gimick to me, and a nonsensical one at that.

As for mistakes I make... hmmm. I get that and which mixed up, I'm rather inconsistent with my who/whom-ing and there are various other little errors, but I don't think it's one of my weak points.

Amelia's Poetry Blog said...

Cheat Sheet: Grammar In Rhyme

Three little words you often see,
Are articles — a, an, and the.
A Noun’s the name of any thing,
As school, or garden, hoop, or swing,
Adjectives tell the kind of Noun,
As great, small, pretty, white, or brown.
Instead of Nouns the Pronouns stand–
Her head, his face, your arm, my hand.
Verbs tell of something to be done–
To read, count, sing, laugh, jump, or run.
How things are done, the adverbs tell,
As slowly, quickly, ill, or well.
Conjunctions join the words together–
As men and women, wind or weather.
The Preposition stands before
A Noun, as in, or through a door.
The Interjection shows surprise,
As oh! how pretty–ah! how wise.
The whole are called Nine Parts of Speech,
Which reading, writing, speaking, teach.
Source: Dr. Chase’s Recipes, 1863