The Red Pen: Top 3 Errors in Grammar

Following up on my previous post, below are the three most-recurring grammatical corrections I make in my editing assignments.

1. Tense consistency:

All manuscripts I’ve edited so far have been narrated in past tense. While it’s still okay (and necessary) for their dialogue to use present tense, sometimes there are incorrect lapses into it in the narrative. More often, though, I’m correcting the times when past tense is used instead of past perfect.

Past perfect is basically the past tense of past tense. If the main action of your narrative is already in past tense, events described as having occurred prior to that are denoted as even further in the past by using past perfect tense. e.g.:

  • I called him. (past)
  • I had called him. (past perfect)
  • I was upset. (past)
  • I had been upset. (past perfect)
  • Why didn’t he tell me this before? (past)
  • Why hadn’t he told me this before? (past perfect)

[Brief flashbacks can be easily handled this way. If ever writing a lengthy flashback, though, in which you think using past-perfect for paragraphs or pages on end might be awkward / distracting / lacking immediacy, you can alternatively offset the scene in italics and/or as its own section.]

2. Commas for coordinating conjunctions:

Unless denoting a pause for particular emphasis, a comma is only needed before and, but, or, for, so, nor, yet if the clause following one of those conjunctions could stand alone as its own sentence. e.g.:

  • I called him, but I hung up before he could answer.
  • I called him but hung up before he could answer.
  • I called him, and I asked about tonight.
  • I called him and asked about tonight.

3. Semicolons:

A semicolon is basically the same thing as adding a comma + conjunction (and, but, or, etc…). It separates what are otherwise two complete sentences that could stand independently from each other. e.g.:

  • I called him; I hung before he could answer.

The easiest test for when it’s appropriate to use a semicolon or comma+conjunction is to ask yourself if you could use a period in place of either. And the point of not just always using a period in that case is to vary your simple sentences with complex ones.

This goes right back to what I was saying last time about varying sentence structure. Unless repeating a certain structure for emphasis, it’s good to change it up. Of course, sentence fragments can also be used for an effect, but you’ll use those only to a limited extent. As long as I’m totally dorking out here, I’ll take this opportunity to share the basic sentence formulas for evaluating structural soundness.

The cheat-sheet of basic sentence structure & punctuation:

I = Independent clause (it can stand alone as its own sentence)
D = Dependent clause  (it can’t stand on its own, unless for stylistic emphasis)
c = coordinating conjunction

Starting with the simple sentence below, the subsequent compound sentences can be formed a few different ways:

I .           The monkey screeched.
I , c I .    The monkey screeched, and it fell out of the tree.
I ; I .      The monkey screeched; it fell out of the tree.
I D .      The monkey screeched when it fell out of the tree.
D , I .    When it fell out of the tree, the monkey screeched.

So there you have the basic building blocks for any sentence you could come up with, like the compound-complex ones below that combine the above in different ways for all sorts of crazy fun ;):

ID,cI.
The monkey screeched when it fell out of the tree, and it grabbed for a vine.
D,I,cI.
When it fell out of the tree, the monkey screeched, and it grabbed for a vine.
D,I;I.
When it fell out of the tree, the monkey screeched; it grabbed for a vine.

I,cID.
The monkey fell out of the tree, and it screeched as it grabbed for a vine.

I;D,I.
The monkey fell out of the tree; as it grabbed for a vine, it screeched.
I;ID.
The monkey fell out of the tree; it screeched as it grabbed for a vine.

And blah-blah-blah, blah-blah. I think you get the idea. How we phrase our sentences usually comes from a more innate, magically creative place, but the basic formulas above remind us of the options and, at the very least, are a great way to check commas and semicolons. Even if you want to play with this punctuation, too, for stylistic reasons, you still have to know the writing rules in order to break them.

I’d better leave it at that before the red pen editing section of my brain lights your brains on fire, too…

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About thefallenmonkey

Primate that dapples in writing when not picking others' fleas or flinging its own poop. View all posts by thefallenmonkey

8 responses to “The Red Pen: Top 3 Errors in Grammar

  • Glen

    As ever – bloody useful info!!

  • Milo James Fowler

    Okay, so I’m totally stealing your monkey sentences for my English classes this fall! I’d have to say that #1 is problematic for me, mainly because I often can’t decide if I want a story to be in past or present tense, and when I finally make up my mind, I have to go through the entire manuscript and change it. Being my own editor is a chore, but I do enjoy the process; what I hate, however, is finding an error or two once I’ve already submitted the story.

    • thefallenmonkey

      Please do, Milo! I used ’em in my classes; well, a version of them that incorporates the morbid punch-line of that joke about why the monkey fell out of the tree…let’s just say, he wouldn’t have been able to screech or grab a vine. 😉 I, in turn, had stolen the sentence formulas from the woman I used to team-teach with!

      You know, I’ve been suspecting that perhaps this current story I’m looking at was first written in present tense. It’s really random when it crops up, and would definitely explain why past perfect is hardly used anywhere, as I think this author would know the difference; her writing is otherwise strong and sound. And for some reason, I’m struggling more because it’s in 1st person. I think it’s because if the character is telling the story, at some points it might actually be appropriate for her to say something in present tense—she’s not speaking from the grave, so there would be some conditions that are presumably ongoing for her that could be present tense. Eck. Just makes me glad there are two more editors reading it after me to catch anything I myself might let slip through the cracks.

  • Eva

    Ooooh, I LOVE your cheat sheet! Especially as a non-native English speaker it comes in handy for hopefully improved blog posting in the future. And even my German ms came back riddled with stupid mistakes like punctuation and shit. After multiple editing from my side, of course.
    So thanks a mill for this! Keep posting, one day I will need to pay you for all your advice!

    Having said that, thanks to my advertising background I am used to butchering language rules as soon as I see them. But guess that’s a different story … 🙂

    I prefer to write – and read – in past tense, by the way. Every other tense, no matter how popular, irritates me personally. Recently I read an excellent book by a German writer, a nasty thriller, and he used present tense, 2nd person “you do this, you do that”. That was most strange, but the rest of the stuff was so well written I could finish the book at least.

    • thefallenmonkey

      Awesome, Eva, glad the formulas help! I can be paid in either US dollars or British pounds. 😉
      I of course see exceptions to these rules all the time, so never fear if your advertising expertise kicks in to wreak havoc—your writing will be all the more clever for it!

      I’m with you on preferring past tense. Even when I wrote a segment of my manuscript in present tense, the narrator mostly spoke of past events, so I was able to do the bulk of it in past tense anyway. I otherwise find 1st person present tense to be really distracting and cannot even imagine 2nd person! That might make my head explode, feeling like the author is constantly pointing at and poking me in the chest with a stern index finger. 🙂

      • Eva

        Hahaha – maybe that indeed is easier to pull of in German language … confrontative style and stuff. (man, I should stop building those clichés :D)

  • Nicki Elson

    Hey Monkey, this post was so good, I was compelled to link it at my blog today. 🙂 That way I’ll always be able to swing on over to refer to it. Double 😀 😀

    We missed you SO much at the movie viewing! Especially after when I wanted to talk to you about it sooo badly. 😦 Let me know when you see it and we’ll discuss! Brandon came up w/ a hilarious way to remedy the one (teeny tiny) improvement I thought they could’ve made, heeheehee…

Pick my fleas!

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