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.
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 up 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 ;):
The monkey screeched when it fell out of the tree, and it grabbed for a vine.
When it fell out of the tree, the monkey screeched, and it grabbed for a vine.
When it fell out of the tree, the monkey screeched; it grabbed for a vine.
The monkey fell out of the tree, and it screeched as it grabbed for a vine.
The monkey fell out of the tree; as it grabbed for a vine, it screeched.
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…