I’ve got a gripe, and you may share it. Conversely, my airing of it in such a combative way might make you mad. In fact, you may be one of the perpetrators of my current peeve: people who think they know grammar and mechanics but do not. It wouldn’t matter if these people had no contact with or influence over me, but sometimes — like in the case of contest judges — they do.
I’m tired of getting my much-awaited contest results back with low scores in grammar and mechanics that I don’t deserve! “Be sure you get a critique partner to look over your manuscript before you send it out.” (Always smart, but when the judge points out no typos or other errors.) “Watch out for run-on sentences — you know, the really long ones?” “Editors frown when you don’t use enough commas.” “You are very wordy. Editors don’t like words.”
Well, thinks my reader, you’re certainly full of your little self, aren’t you? Maybe these fine, hard-working contest judges are simply giving you some advice you need to be taking? What makes you so right and them so wrong?
Simply this: grammar and mechanics, for the most part, are not a matter of opinion. Diss my dialogue. Tell me my opening is boring. Point out that I’m telling and not showing. I’ll thank you for the observation and work on it. But don’t, and I mean don’t, tell me a word is misspelled that is not. Don’t tell me I have run-on sentences when I do not. Don’t sprinkle commas through my story that aren’t supposed to be there. And don’t give me a low score in grammar and mechanics without sufficient explanation! You’ll just convince me that you don’t know what you’re talking about, and all your hard work on my submission will have been wasted.
Alright, I feel a little better now. I’m not in this boat alone, although those of you in here with me might want to toss me overboard by now. Those of you who are helping me paddle the boat sent in many supporting examples when I polled you, and here are the most commonly mentioned errors in contest judge (or contest entrant) grammar and mechanics:
1) Its/it’s. Its is possessive; it’s means “it is”. Get it straight. In fact, go brush up on the general rules for plurals, possessives and plural possessives. One of my respondents said she saw as much confusion in this area as she did with commas in general. Speaking of which…
2) Single commas between compound verbs. Don’t put them there! Don’t put them in your story, and don’t stick them in mine. Harbrace allows for infrequent use of a single comma to emphasize distinction between the parts of the predicate, but it’s rare, it’s technically incorrect, and you’re not E.M. Forster. Frankly, this is the most common error I see.
Important Note: commas do not go everywhere you have a “natural pause” when you are speaking. As one respondent pointed out, “There are approximately nine reasons to use commas, and they should be used correctly — not because someone thinks it’s a good place to put one.”
3) Definition of a run-on sentence: wrong, not long! It occurs when neither a conjunction nor appropriate punctuation joins two independent clauses. Don’t mark a sentence as run-on just because it’s over twenty words. Instead, say, “My, this sentence is lengthy. Perhaps you could break it up into smaller sentences so you don’t lose your reader?” And that’s not grammar, my friend, that’s style.
4) Incorrect spelling corrections. If you think a word is misspelled, check it with a dictionary first, especially if you don’t recognize it or think it looks weird. For your information, “eking” is a word. It is the gerund form of the verb “eke”. Both of those words look damn weird, but they’re not spelled wrong.
5) Fragments: sometimes they are okay. Not all fragments are heinous errors, although the longer the sentence is, the more likely it is to be a true fragment instead of a stylistic fragment. Either way, don’t knock off for every single fragment you see. Contemporary writers are quite fond of them and use them knowingly.
6) Pronoun/antecedent agreement. Ok, so far I haven’t actually had a contest judge correct me on this, but many contest entries contain instances of p/a disagreement. Subject/verb disagreement is more rare and usually exists when there is a clause of some sort in between the subject and its verb.
7) Homophones-R-Us. Many judges who responded to the survey noticed a lot of homophones, sometimes called homonyms, and actual-word-typos in contest entries. This is probably caused by an over-reliance upon spellcheck programs, because I don’t want to think that folks actually don’t know the difference between “there” and “their”. An example of a common typo would be “from” and “form”. Be cautious and don’t let your fingers get ahead of your brain.
8) Stylistic preferences that get allocated to the grammar and mechanics category. Judges, make sure that the score you allot is actually based on grammar and mechanics and not your personal preferences in sentence structure, vocabulary, point of view, that sort of thing. I’m thrilled with every person who helped me with this article, but I asked for “grammar and mechanics issues in contests’ and initially received several lists of general pet peeves instead, like wordiness or passive phrasing or head hopping. To me, this hints that there is a general uncertainty about what parts of writing, exactly, comprise grammar and mechanics. A person’s story and writing style can totally blow even though his or her grammar and mechanics are clean.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’ve been a contest judge and I know how hard they work and how unpaid they are. I know how few rewards come to judges after all that labor, and I think it’s great when people volunteer to help out. But, judges, keep your Harbrace, your Strunk & White or your Chicago Manual of Style close at hand. Grammar and mechanics are as close as you can get to the two plus two equals four of the English language and should thus be carefully tallied.
The same goes for you contestants. Don’t drive your judges, your editors or your agents batty by disregarding the basic rules of English grammar and mechanics. They matter. The plot and characters are certainly important, but if somebody can’t interpret your meaning due to poor grammar and mechanics, you’re not going to make a sale.
This is not to say that everything having to do with grammar and mechanics is cut and dried. Take the serial comma, for example. Journalistic, or AP, style says omit the comma before “and” in items in a series unless it’s needed for clarity; academic style says never omit it. A savvy contest judge or critique partner will be aware of these gray areas — or are those grey areas? — and not mark off for them. British versus American spellings and other nitpicky items are also murky areas for which a contestant should not be penalized, although let it be noted that American publishing houses and editors do prefer American style. Feel free to alert aspiring authors to that fact, but don’t tell them they are “wrong” when they are not.
So that’s my rant for the month. If I have given you the urge to red-pen my article and send it back to me, feel free! I probably mixed a modifier or two, and I’m always happy to learn something new.
Some Web sites where you can conduct research, take quizzes and brush up on grammar rules:
More from the Grammar Wench
And Then? And Then?
Contest Judge Series: The Basics
Contest Judge Series: The Difficult Manuscript
Grammy, What’s a Run-On
Punctuating Compound Predicates
Why Present Participial Phrases are Evil