Writing Tips Wednesday – Proppa Grammar!

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!

my grammar and IThis 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!

Homophonia!

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:

  • aloud/allowed
  • fair/fair
  • pale/pail
  • beach/beech

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!

###

Do you have any grammar tips or quirky stories/legends about the English  language?

If you have any writing tips and advice and feel like sharing, pop me an email or rant in the box below!

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About Dave Farmer

Wordsmith & Lifetime member of Imaginationland! Writing is my passion. I'm working on my novel, The Range - a story of survival, friendship & courage. Every time I sit down to write I look forward to reaching The Zone, that place where words flow from mind to hand and everything slips into place.

Posted on August 24, 2011, in Writing Advice and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 23 Comments.

  1. Very helpful hints Dave! I’m definitely guilty of the ”alot”. To me it looks better as one word thus I type it that way BUT not when I write it on per. Strange huh? Oh yeah, take a look at your ” father/further”. You did mean ”farther” right?

    Again, great tips. I definitely needed the refresher. :-P

  2. An excellent refresher, Dave. Grammar remains one of those murky, shadowy aspects of writing to me. I require constant reinforcement of the rules!

  3. I always get confused with effect and affect.
    The effects of the ash cloud affected our flights ( I would actually write delayed, but could not think of an example where both were used in the same sentence
    ??

    • Okay, this straight from My Grammar and I:

      Affect is a verb and effect is a noun. So you affect something by having an effect on it. The exception is if you effect a change; that is, cause a change to happen.

      Useful tip:
      RAVEN: Remember Affect Verb Effect Noun.

      So I think your example is correct then. Um. Right?

      • hmmm Ok well my example was more luck than judgement

        Ok so noun was Ash and Flights verb? I better go and buy the grammar book you recommend. To be honest we never disected grammar when I was as school, or if we did, I was not listening LOL :)

        • I paid attention in English at school but my teacher was a bit ignorant. We read a book once called Summer of my German Soldier, set in Arkansas in the US. My teacher pronounced it as Ar-Kansas, basically Kansas with an Ar in front of it. I knew that was wrong because I’d heard it spoken as Arkansaw on Smoky & The Bandit with Burt Reynolds!

          So I told my teacher how it was supposed to be pronounced. She smiled and said thank you. Guess what? Next day in English class, whilst discussing the book, she still said Ar-Kansas and not Arkansaw!

          She didn’t believe me. That annoyed me big time. She just assumed I was talking crap and didn’t even bother to check if I was right. I still loved the subject but I found it hard to take anything she said seriously after that.

  4. Some good advice! I have to check this book out!

    I’ll appreciate it if you checked out my blog http://janachantel1.wordpress.com/ it’s about me trying to become a successful published author. And please feel free to subscribe!

  5. Wonderful top-up, thank you. We were forbidden to use the words “can” or “got”, written or in speech, unless referring to a can of peaches or whatever. So many trip ups to be aware of but the one springing to mind now is the difference b/w less(er) and few(er). As for tenses . . .

    • Ooh now tenses are where I love to get picky, though I often get them mixed up at times myself, especially when writing in the first person.

      We had similar forbidden words too, and yes, “got” was one of them. Weird!

  6. Webster’s book is full of typos, from my point of view!

  7. I am a a bit of a grammar punk. So many times a day I intentionally skew words or phrases because I prefer the way they sound despite their being “off”. I am an English professor’s worst nightmare.

    • I think that’s why I love writing and reading dialogue so much as you can really put a slant on the words as not many people speak using the correct grammar. Every character can have slight variations on how they blend their words together and that’s what I find so interesting.

  8. Great tips Dave! I know I am guilty of some of the mistakes listed.

    I love the differences of British English and American English. I just adore they way British people talk and write. :)

    • Thank April! It’s really weird because just lately I’ve developed something of a fascination with American English, or at least thing like sidewalk instead of pavement. I don’t quite know where this has come from but it gives me something different to think about when writing.

  9. Again, another useful post I will be keeping close at hand for future use!

    In regards to Webster, my linguistics professor said he specifically created his dictionary with variant spelling in order to create an AMERICAN language and differentiate it from those nasty Brits. Guess they were still filled with that pesky revolutionary thinking or something ;) I may be a Yank, but I still prefer British English. In High School I used to spell things like ‘colour’ and drove my teachers to insanity… hehehe

    Alright/all right — wow! That is completely new news to me! I always though alright was an actual correct, proper word to use.

    Finally, my pet hate — people who pronounce height as if it is ‘heigTH’!! I HATE this! It is not ‘hi – th’, no, no, no, it is not spelled ‘th’ but ‘ht’ but people just insist on pronouncing it all silly and ridiculous like. Even though they know it is wrong they still do it “just because.”

    Thanks Dave, always look forward to Wednesday tips :)

    • When I read about Webster I got the feeling it was some kind of payback or push to separate the Brits from the Americans. I have a big problem with some British English pronunciation, mainly due to regional dialect. I love how even a hundred miles can make a huge difference on how folk speak.

      But one particular element of speech that’s a constant source of arguments in our house is that of common English compared to the correct Queen’s English. Since I come from the West Midlands, and now living in Cambridge, I am very aware of how I pronounce words like grass, path, bath, duck, luck etc. My accent has softened considerably since living away from the midlands, home of the famous Brummie (Birmingham) accent. However, I refuse to pronounce it grarse, parth an barth!

      There’s no R in them! This debate rages around our dining table. I don’t speak the Queen’s English, therefore I’m a commoner! I try to point out that more people speak common English than the Queen so therefore I speak normally and it is others who talk strange. But my arguments fall on deaf ears!

      Oh, and the duck, luck thing is annoying as hell! I used to put a lot of emphasis on the U with a deep sound, but now I naturally say the U as a softer sound, something like dook and look, but where the O’s are shorter. So instead of Uh it’s more of a Eh. I’m so not explaining that very well!

      Anyway, English language is fascinating, that’s my point!

  10. Love to effect changes so am off to buy the book!

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