Avoid Common Grammar Pitfalls

Copy editors have few fans. After all, we’re the sort of people who correct you out loud when you say things like, “Where’s it AT.” The popular image—among writers, at least—is that we creep into newspaper offices late at night to hack their stories to pieces in the name of grammar and style.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. I’ve been a copy editor—grammar guru, janitor of journalism or soul-crushing suppressor of creativity, depending on whom you ask—for several years. In that time, I’ve learned a simple trick you can use to keep bleary-eyed, deadline-driven editors from performing last-minute emergency surgery on your stories: Do it yourself, before your editors have a chance. Be merciless with your own prose, and you won’t have to watch it suffer under someone else’s knife.

Editing yourself, of course, means you have to allow time for revision. Then, as you write and revise a piece, keep the following tips in mind—they can apply equally to fiction or nonfiction. Your editors will thank you.

Lose the flab

Your prose can be lean, if you watch out for these high-calorie fillers.

  • Modifiers that say nothing—such as “really,” “truly,” “genuinely,” “very”—and trumped-up phrases like “it is interesting to note that”; “in a very real sense”; “it goes without saying” (if so, don’t say it!); or “at this point in time” (why not “now”?).
  • Redundancies you barely notice because they’re so common: armed gunman, personal friend, totally destroyed, plan ahead, eliminate altogether.
  • Unnecessary extras that tell you things you already know from context. For example: The shirt was blue in color. (Better: The shirt was blue. (Better still: The blue shirt. …)

    Or how about this one: Shrek is a movie that is popular with kids. Shrek is a popular movie with kids. (Better still: Shrek is popular with kids.)

  • Here’s a hint: The preposition “of” frequently shows up in wordy writing. A quick and easy way to tighten your prose is to study each “of” and make sure it’s earning its keep. Sometimes you need it, but often you don’t. For example: He is the type of man who is never afraid. Better: He is never afraid.

    Or how about this one: We will be away for the month of August. Better: We will be away for August.

  • Sentences that start with “It is,” “There are” or similar language can often be tightened. For example: There are three people dancing on the street. Better: Three people are dancing on the street.
  • Keep an eye out for “which is,” “who are” and “who is”; they’re frequently unneeded. For example: The book, which is a romance, takes place in Tuscany. Better: The book, a romance, takes place in Tuscany.
  • Novice writers often inflate their writing by overusing adverbs. Do a search for words that end in “-ly.” Think of these words as dessert: They add instant flab, so don’t overdo it. Instead, look for powerful, high-protein verbs. The meaning you’re trying to capture in an -ly word can usually be better expressed by using a stronger verb or by showing your subject in action: He ran excitedly down the hill. Better: He bounded down the hill, breathless and smiling.

    Be precise

    The purpose of writing is to communicate. If your writing is unclear, your ideas won’t come across. Examine each sentence to make sure it says what you think it says.

  • Avoid vague modifiers such as “a lot,” “perhaps,” “kind of,” “really,” “truly,” “very,” “genuinely,” “somewhat,” “quite,” “seemingly,” “essentially,” “rather” and “fairly.” These are squirmy and evasive words; they can make you sound insecure or as if you’re hiding something.
  • Avoid jargon, particularly if you write about politics, sports, crime or business. Try not to quote public figures who use vague language, whether intentionally or by habit. Instead, ask them for specifics. Bully them into explaining what they mean in words the layman can understand.
  • Use specific verbs rather than general: Instead of “went,” try “ran,” “moseyed,” “hopped,” “strolled,” “skipped,” “drove,” “tiptoed” or “limped.” (Just be sure the word you choose is accurate!)
  • Watch for doubled-up nouns; they often indicate confusing euphemisms or redundancies: “action directive,” “crisis situation,” “entertainment experience.”
  • Match up your singulars and plurals. This can be especially tough when you’re writing about businesses and musical groups:

    Oasis is an excellent band, but their latest album stinks. (Is Oasis an it or a they? Choose one and stick with it.)

  • Don’t dangle. Check to see that your modifiers are modifying the right words: Coming down the hillside, the little white church was clearly visible.

    The church was coming down the hill? Let’s hope not, but that’s how the sentence reads. Rewrite it to say,“As we came down the hillside … ”

  • Location, location, location. With adverbs such as “only” or “not,” putting them in different places alters the sentence’s meaning. Adverbs should be as close as possible to the word they modify:

    George only likes one flavor of ice cream. (He doesn’t like anything else? Not even beer?) George likes only one flavor of ice cream. (In other words, he doesn’t like all 31.)

    Stay active

    Word choice and tense also affect a story’s flow.

  • Look at every passive verb to see if you can change it to an active one. First, a quick primer: Passive: The decision was made by the City Council. Active: The City Council made the decision.
  • Now, examine your verbs again. Can any of them be amplified? Can you, for example, replace “examine” with “scrutinize”? How about changing “change” to “transmogrify”? Using the verbs you like best will help make the story your own. Don’t be satisfied with the first word that leaps to mind until you’ve tested alternatives.
  • Purge all vague adjectives—”amazing,” “interesting,” “compelling,” “appealing”—and replace them with words that paint pictures. Readers like visual stimulation. Don’t say a shirt is “amazing”; say it’s “iridescent chartreuse with an orange quilted collar and 16 whalebone buttons.” If you let readers envision the details, they can decide for themselves whether the shirt is amazing.
  • Try to learn one new word each week. Several Internet sites (such as www.dictionary.com) will send you a “word of the day” by e-mail, or you can just flip through your dictionary.

    Logically speaking

    Have you ever read a newspaper story and wondered how the writer got from one paragraph to the next? Why the middle section wasn’t higher up, or why the best quote was stuck at the end? The story’s structure has a tremendous impact on the way readers absorb it.

  • Start small, by making sure your sentences are parallel. It can be helpful to dismantle your sentences to see how they fit together—or don’t: He was tall, dark and had nice eyes.
    On the Shelf

    To learn more about grammar and how to edit your own work, check out the following books.

  • Getting the Words Right: How to Rewrite, Edit & Revise (WD Books, $14.99) by Theodore A. Rees Cheney.
  • The Elements of Style (Allyn and Bacon, $6.95) by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White
  • Grammatically Correct (WD Books, $19.99) by Anne Stilman
  • Which of these things is not like the others? Let’s see … tall; dark; had? The sentence isn’t parallel and needs to be rewritten: He was tall and dark and had nice eyes. Or: He was tall, dark and kind-eyed. (Better yet, scrap the whole thing and come up with a more precise description!)

    How about this: She was both cool and had a killer wardrobe. “Both” is in the wrong place here. To see why, break the sentence into parts. She was both what? “Cool” and “had a killer wardrobe.” Instead, try “She was both cool and well-dressed.“Better yet, delete the word “both”—it’s unnecessary.

  • Your story will flow more smoothly if you have a beginning and an ending in mind before you start writing. These can change as you go, but you should have some idea of where you want to end up before you get started. Also, when a piece’s beginning and ending mesh, readers will feel a sense of progress—a journey completed.
  • Every story should reach its conclusion in a logical series of steps. As a test, try making an outline—AFTER you’ve finished writing. List the key idea in each paragraph. Then read the list. Does it flow logically from one idea to the next, or do you need to shift some paragraphs?
  • Finally, the tried-and-true: Read your story aloud. It does help. If you feel too silly, or your co-workers seem irritable, simply read the piece slowly and silently in your head, top to bottom, to make sure all is in order.

    From the August 2002 issue of Writer’s Digest.

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