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To be a book author, you do not necessarily have to grasp the difference between a gerund and a participle (although such understanding doesn't hurt). You do, however, need to know enough grammar to write a readable—and publishable—book manuscript.
What is grammar and why does it matter?
Grammar is a system of rules that define the structure and functioning of language. Here are four reasons why brushing up your grammar is a worthwhile endeavor:
1. Writing is all about communicating clearly. Grammar aids clarity by giving you, the writer, a fixed set of rules, or conventions, that readers can readily interpret. If they have to struggle to find the meaning within erroneous or inconsistent grammatical usage, misinterpretation is possible and clear communication is compromised.
2. A knowledge of grammar empowers your writing by providing you with a set of tools that are always in working order and always available to you. These tools enable you to produce correct, original writing and reduce the likelihood that you will fall back on the errors of email writing style or the tired ploys associated with hackneyed writing.
3. Like every other author, you have an individual voice and personal vision of the book you wish to write. The better your grasp of grammar, the better your ability to bring your voice to its highest potential and effectively share your creative vision with your readers.
4. Writing a book with the greatest possible grammatical correctness will reduce the amount of editing required. For conventional authors, a manuscript that requires minimal editing will have enhanced appeal to agents and publishers. For self-publishing authors, a grammatically correct, carefully prepared manuscript will increase the chances that you will only need basic copyediting or proofreading—as opposed to expensive stylistic and substantive editing. Good grammar, in other words, can significantly reduce your publishing costs.
Your grammar foundation
You may never bother to find out the definition of a gerund or an ergative verb, and you don't necessarily need to do so. You will, however, do yourself a disservice as a writer if you ignore grammar altogether and make no effort to master its conventions.
Gaining a sophisticated, or merely adequate, grasp of grammar is an ongoing process for most people. Even high-level editors have to look things up and are always adding to their knowledge of the finer points of grammar.
For beginning writers who feel the need to strengthen their grammatical knowledge, my suggestion is to master a grammar foundation, to bear it in mind as you write, and to build on it as part of your overall growth as a writer. Opinions undoubtedly vary as to what is a minimally acceptable level of grammatical understanding. The following is what I consider to be a basic grammar foundation—that is, the very least you should know before starting to write a book:
A noun is a word designating a person, place, thing, or idea. Nouns usually form plurals by adding an s. For possible exceptions, check a reliable dictionary, such as Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. Nouns also have possessive forms that take an apostrophe: singular—the cat's tail; plural—the cats' tails.
A pronoun is a word used as a substitute for a noun (for example, he, she, you, it).
A verb is a word or set of words expressing action (We traveled by train to Paris.) or state of being (Paris is a beautiful city.) or possession of some tangible (Paris has many museums and galleries.) or intangible (Paris has an air of romance.) attribute(s).
Verbs have tenses, which signify the time of a verb's functioning. The most common tenses for book writing are present, past, and future: These days, I walk to work. Last year, I walked to work. When spring comes, I will walk to work. You may want to use the resources cited below to familiarize yourself with the nuances of the perfect and subjunctive forms of these tenses.
A sentence expresses at least one complete thought and must consist of at least one subject (noun, pronoun, or group of words functioning as a subject) and one predicate (verb).
A run-on sentence contains two or more complete sentences, each separated by a comma. For an example and how to correct it, see "E is for EMAIL," under "Self-editing email style"/"Break up run-on sentences."
A sentence fragment stands on its own and ends with a period, but is missing either a subject or predicate. Used in moderation, sentence fragments can add drama or emphasis.
A paragraph is a group of sentences treating a single topic or theme. When the topic changes, make a new paragraph. Most topics or subtopics of a longer discussion can be handled in paragraphs consisting of nine sentences or less. Paragraphs that run on for more than twelve sentences are tedious, as well as detrimental to readability and the aesthetics of the printed page. Occasional usage of one- or two-sentence paragraphs can create extra drama, suspense, or emphasis.
Resources for building on your grammar foundation
Not all grammar books are the dull texts you perhaps remember from junior high English classes. Check out Eats, Shoots and Leaves, by Lynne Truss. This book is both educational and fun to read. On the cover, there's a cute panda that, depending on the presence or absence of a comma, either subsists on a diet of green shoots and leaves or, after eating a sandwich, shoots his way out of a café. A comma is sometimes a matter of life and death.
The classic authority on grammar and elegant writing is The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. This little book is readable and entertaining. Take a couple of hours to read it from cover to cover, refer back to it as needed, and before long, you will be a proficient grammarian and stylist. You can purchase a recent, updated edition or find the first edition online for free.
The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS), the grammar and style bible for the English language book trade is my all-time favorite book. Where else would you find out whether your ellipsis should have four dots or three, how to quote things with or without quotation marks, and where to put hyphens in every possible scenario (unless of course you should be using an en dash)?! The CMS is available as a pricey hard cover book aimed at editors and other seriously dedicated grammarians and stylists. To sample the CMS for free, try the reference section of your local library.
Some college continuing education programs and other community programs include basic grammar courses. Quality no doubt varies but the ones that I know about have been popular due to instructors who make the effort to bring grammar to life through humor and lively examples. If you're the kind of learner who likes to take workshops and courses, it's worth investigating the educational offerings in your community to see if they include Grammar 101 or Syntax Made Simple.
The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) offers an online subscription. To sample a range of its content for free and to get answers to specific grammar and style questions, visit Chicago Style Q&A.
If you're after quick and dirty—but reliable—grammar tips, then try the blog and podcasts of Grammar Girl. Careful, though: they can get addictive.
Benefits of building on your grammar foundation
Building on your grammar foundation and knowing where to find the resources to do so offer significant benefits. Not only does your grammar improve, but your writing becomes stronger and easier. This in turn boosts your confidence as the kind of book author who has something important to say—and knows just how to say it.
Coming next week . . . "H is for HACKNEYED writing"