This is a quick Grammar for Dummies. As a reader recently pointed out, my article on the split infinitive may have gone over the head of anyone “…not well versed in Latin or [who] attended primary school after 1990”.
Keep in mind that these are the VERY basics and are geared towards writers. If you write, you probably already know these. When you break these down they sound complicated, but in essence they are about clarity in writing. You might even find you’ve been following them even if you don’t know the formal terms.
The Building Blocks
Nouns are concepts. A noun names a person, animal, quality, feeling, or place. Pronouns are words that take the place of nouns. Common pronouns are “they”, “you”, and “I”. Adjectives modify nouns and pronouns, providing an additional descriptive to the concept such as ‘tall girl’, or ‘angry boy’.
Verbs show the process. A verb is an action and can add tense (past, present, or future) to a sentence. Adverbs give you more detail about the verb. “They walked” can become “They walked quickly”. These add information such as when, where, why, and quantity. Linking verbs link the subject to the rest of the sentence and should be used sparingly in fiction. Some examples you should look for are “seems” and “appear”
Conjunctions connect separate words and clauses, the most common ones being “and”, “or”, and “but”.
A sentence needs to express a complete thought. In each, the subject is the star of the show, and the predicate tells us about the subject.
A paragraph contains all the sentences that deal with one set of ideas. Set is a deliberately vague word which is why I use it. What separates one ‘set’ of sentences from another is often debatable. The times you should always start a new paragraph are when something breaks the narrative.
- You skip forward in time
- The person who is speaking (dialogue) changes
- The person who is speaking changes subject
- You change the location (often in association with skipping time)
- The paragraph has just gotten too long and needs to be broken up so you don’t present a wall of text.
Dialogue is used where characters speak. If someone speaks aloud, this is shown as dialogue. The most important rule of dialogue is that inside the quotation marks realism is more important than grammatical correctness. The second rule is that Dialogue starts and ends with dialogue indicators.
If you write in US English, this means quotation marks ( ” ). As America English has dominated the international landscape, this is acceptable across the globe.
“Are you coming over tonight?” Jessica asked.
I’ll go more in-depth into dialogue, including the alternate styles and how to show one speaking character quoting another in a future post.
Dialogue Tags can be used before, after or in the middle of the dialogue itself. The simplest and most common follows the dialogue and looks like the example above.
You only need to use dialogue tags when it is necessary to clarify who is speaking. So when the situation clearly indicates who is talking, dialogue tags can be skipped. One school of thought on dialogue tags is that the only two tags you need are “said” and “asked”. The other thinks ‘said is dead’ and advocates using tags that add additional meaning. Using the common two tags forces you as a writer to show the action rather than just telling the reader what to think, however not everything needs to given that level of detail. Personally, I’m on the fence.
Clarity of Communication
Punctuation gives meaning and structure to what is otherwise just a string of words.
Capitalisation is important. Uppercase letters indicate the start of each sentence and are used for the titles of people, books, specific places, organisations, and compass points.
The end of every sentence is marked by punctuation that can change the entire meaning. The most common are the period ( . ) exclamation ( ! ) and the question mark ( ? ). As a writer, the exclamation is considered a no-no. Use it sparingly.
I’ll skip colon and semicolon for now. As a general rule, if you are uncertain how to use the semicolon or colon, avoid them. They are used in lists, but writers shouldn’t present lists to their readers.
Commas are fun. I have literally seen people come to blows over the correct use of a comma. A comma is used to separate things and mimic the pause in spoken language. Such as in that last sentence. ‘Basically’ is the introductory phrase. Which is separated from descriptive clause.
Comma use will vary depending on the style of your writing and the intended audience age. If you write YA or romance, the removal of commas to create simple sentences is encouraged. An epic fantasy or complex sci-fi aimed at high vocabulary adults allowed for more complex grammar structures. In the first example you want an easy reading experience, in the second your audience is looking for complexity and expects to be challenged. The comma is also used to separate to separate the city from the state in addresses and the day from the month in dates.
Apostrophes are used to show ownership such as “Jane’s knife” and in contractions to take the place of one or more letters such as replacing “could have” with “could’ve”.
Parentheses enclose things that clarify but are not grammatically integral to the sentence. Such as above where I gave examples of a period, exclamation, and question mark. It wasn’t necessary for the sentence but was a visual aid providing the symbols themselves. In fiction writing, parentheses should be rare outside glossaries, timelines, and footnotes.
Application and how it applies to your ‘Voice’.
I planned to do a section on knowing the rules, and how to apply them. Once you know the basics, the next important steps are distinguishing between “active vs passive voice”, and how to “show not tell”. This has already gone on long enough and left you with enough to consider, so those will also have to be articles for another Wednesday.
Grammar Basics (thanks to Grammarly Blog)