Grammar: a word that can make many writers tremble in fear. I hated the section about grammar in AP English. Pronouns and objective clauses and prepositions made my head spin. Maybe because the rules my teacher was trying to teach me seemed to have very little to do with the language I spoke.
None of my friends used the word "whom." My aerobics instructor used it the other day, and it sounded strange to my ears. I never heard the proper and smart Dana Scully say, "It is I, Mulder." Even Winston Churchill joked, "Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which we will not put."
The biggest problem with English is that it is alive. It changes, grows, as people speak it. Laws come and go, are made and discarded. That evolution makes it hard to remember the rules.
Sometimes the evolution even makes rules that aren't really rules--like never ending your sentence with a preposition. Many English teachers still teach that stupid preposition rule which was given to us in the 18th century by a clergyman by the name of Robert Lowth. It was a rule for Latin, not English. Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton are full of sentences that end in prepositions. And trying to follow that rule to extremes can make for awkward sentences.
So why bother learning grammar rules anyway? I can give general reasons why everyone needs to know grammar, but I'm going to focus on writers. That's what this article is about. The writer's job is to convey his or her story to his or her readers. Grammar is the key to conveying that meaning. If bad grammar keeps a reader from understanding the story, the writer failed in his or her job.
I'll use an old joke as an example. An English professor put a sentence on the board. He told his class to punctuate "woman without her man is nothing." The men in the class thought the punctuation was obvious. "Woman, without her man, is nothing." The ladies in the class also thought it was obvious. "Woman! Without her, man is nothing."
Same sentence, slightly different punctuation, vastly different meanings. Both versions are grammatically correct, but a writer has to know which one to use to get the meaning across.
Which leaves the writer in a quandary: what do you do to make sure your grammar is correct?
For professionals, get an editor and proofreader. For fanfic writers, get a beta reader (preferably more than one). The beta reader will act as editor and proofread (among other tasks), without charging you the two dollars or more that a professional would do to read and comment on it once. Please get a beta reader whose grammar is superior to yours. Don't hesitate to ask writers whom you admire. Picking someone whose skills are below yours might help your ego, but it won't help you improve.
Next, pay attention to your beta reader. Letting them send you pages of notes that you ignore won't help your grammar. Read them, study them, notice what mistakes you constantly make and work hard to stop making those mistakes. One of my biggest problems is homophones. I know the different meaning of waste and waist, but for some reason I have typed the first one when I meant the second one. And having a man hug his wife's waste is amusing for the readers, and it drags them out of the story (a big no-no). Thanks to constructive criticism and beta readers, I'm aware of the problem and work hard not to make those mistakes.
But don't wait for those beta readers to teach you everything; they have enough work to do without becoming teachers, too. Take it upon yourself to learn grammar; it is an important part of your craft. Purchase books that teach grammar. The essential book about grammar--the little book that everyone should own and every writer should consult--is Strunk and White's The Elements of Style. It was first published by Strunk in 1914. His student, E.B. White, of Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little fame, revised it 1957, and the publishers continue to update it. It's a beautiful book in its ease of use and clean style.
However, I admit that my favorite book on grammar is Woe Is I by Patricia T. O'Conner. I can't help it; I love laughing and this is the first and only grammar book that has ever made me laugh. It is well laid out--although not as clean as Strunk and White's--and the index in the back has always taken me where I need to find my answers.
However, don't wait to buy the books before learning. The World Wide Web has several places that can help answer questions on grammar, and teach the grammar challenged, like myself, the basics. Every fanfic writer should consult Kipler's "The Elements of Phyle." ** Yes, it is X-Files specific in some areas, but the advice she gives applies to all fandoms; for example, make sure you spell the characters' names correctly. As the name implies, she also follows the style of Strunk and White, which makes it easy to use.
For a more general guideline to fanfic grammar, read Ms. Nitpicker's How to Write Almost Readable Fan Fiction. She gives excellent general advice also. She even has a test for you to take if you'd like to test your grammar skills.
Two non-fanfic related sites on grammar that I visit are Common Errors in English Usage and A Handbook of Selected Punctuation Marks. They are both great primers and contain other links for you to explore.
It might sound like a lot of hard work, and for some it will be. However, it is worth it. Your readers deserve it, and your number of readers will probably go up as you continue to produce fanfiction that doesn't confuse the reader with bad grammar.
Finally, knowing the rules of grammar will allow you to break them for effect. Sounds like Iím giving contradictory advice but I'm not. Style is just as important as grammar, maybe even more so. A beta reader can help you correct the grammar before publishing, but no one can help you find your style. Knowing the rules will help you find your voice and finding that voice can be a lot of fun. It's what makes us unique as writers and as people.
Robin, aka "icyfire," loves to write fanfiction. She also loves to read well-written fanfiction, and if you don't find her staring at her computer monitor, she probably has her nose in a book. She wrote her first published piece of fanfic in the X-Files fandom, on the Scullyfic list. It answered the question of why Scully *always* wore a black bra to bed. Fortunately, she does not have a copy of that fic.
Then, she drifted over into the "Zorro" fandom. She unfortunately does have copies of her early work in that fandom--ouch. She also wrote in the "Scarecrow and Mrs. King" fandom.
She is now focused on Jack in the "Alias" fandom. She is a huge "SpyDaddy" fan and most of her "Alias" fanfic centers on him. :) (Will Tippin is also another favorite.) If you read or write a great Jack story, please let her know. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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