One of my favorite scenes (of which there are many) from the television show Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman has Sherlock interrogating a prisoner in a very chilly room in Belarus. Already looking bored and annoyed, Sherlock’s frustrations mount as the man he’s questioning keeps making grammatical errors. Sherlock lets the first one slip, but on the second “I weren’t” the detail-oriented Holmes corrects him. This continues throughout the scene and eventually the man pauses to correct his own sentence much to Sherlock’s amusement.
A Big Mistake
Now, I’ll admit, I too would get a bit tongue-tied around Benedict Cumberbatch and probably end up sounding like a complete idiot, but when I’m writing a book or an article, I strive to not come off as someone who barely passed high school English. I’m not saying I’m a grammar expert. I make mistakes and have my doubts about the correct usage of some words, phrases, and even punctuation. Luckily, my inner Sherlock knows my weaknesses and chimes in whenever those grammar doubts creep in.
Unfortunately, too many writers ignore their inner Sherlocks and this is a HUGE mistake.
Grammar is Important
There are some who say grammar isn’t important. I think they’re idiots. Proper grammar, correct punctuation and good sentence structure are vital if you are going to write things other people must read. Minding the rules of basic English is a gift you give your readers. It helps them read over your words with ease and it helps them process the information or lose themselves in the story you are trying to tell.
Think about it, if your bad grammar leaves your audience having to re-read a sentence three or four times to get its meaning, you have ruined your narrative. Likewise, if your readers’ own inner Sherlocks are mentally editing all your incorrect uses of there-they’re-their and your disagreeing subject-verb construction, they (just like Sherlock) are going to get annoyed. Annoying your audience is not good. Annoying your audience often means losing your audience.
You Don’t Have to Be an Expert
You don’t have to be a grammar expert. After all, English has a crazy number of rules, exceptions to the rules and rules that are just plain confusing. The key isn’t to memorize every grammar rule, but to kno which ones are your weaknesses. For example, no matter how many times I read the rules, I believe I will never fully absorb the whole lay-versus-lie-versus-laid-versus-layed thing. It just doesn’t stick to my neurons.
So what do I do? Do I just write whatever I think sounds right, tossing a lay here or a lie there? No. Sometimes I’ll simply use a different word (thank you Thesaurus), but most of the time I will look up the rule that dictates my grammar nemesis.
You also need to understand that you may not know rules you think you know, especially regarding grammar points you don’t often use such as whether or not you capitalize the first letter after a colon. I don’t know about you, but colons don’t appear much in my daily use of English and may only show up twice in a 300-page book. Their usage is something I’m sort of familiar with and think I pull off correctly, but because there is a tiny hint of Sherlockian nagging about my knowledge, I stop to look up the rule when needed.
Where to Go for Help
Unless you happen to have Sherlock sitting across from you as you type, you’re going to need to find sources to aid you in your quest for super grammar skills. Some of my favorites are…
- Grammar Girl – Mignon Fogarty makes grammar fun
- The University of Chicago Writing Program – VERY detailed explanations of The Rules
- The Blue Book – Even provides grammar tests, if you’re into that sort of thing.
And remember, if you’re writing an article for a newspaper or magazine, be sure to find out which style guide they use. What’s incorrect in the Chicago Style, may be perfectly fine in AP Style (it’s completely maddening!). And don’t forget those British rules (mainly spelling) when writing for publications outside of the U.S.
Good luck, everyone and have a great weekend!