Erin again, just trying to confuse you by posting my picture right under Amanda’s name. Last time, I started to share some of the common mistakes I see in manuscripts and why such seemingly minor usage errors can incur such harsh and swift judgment on my part. (The short version is: agents are cranky. Usually because we’re hungry.) Several readers commented to add their own pet peeves, and as it turns out, agents aren’t the only ones who are judging you for your grammar and punctuation mistakes. Felicia and Rick are judging you for apostrophizing your plurals (here are your menu’s, the Smith’s live in this house, etc.), Ted can’t stand when you use “I” as an objective pronoun (she went to the park with Kim and I), and April, Brian, and Sally judged ME for not proofreading the blog I typed on a touchscreen the size of a postage stamp in the gol’ dang middle of the night after a 16-hour day at Disneyland, and are henceforth banned from this blog. (Okay, fine. This is an equal-opportunity judging zone. Consider yourselves on probation.)
Several folks commented on it’s/its confusion, your/you’re transposition, and the there/they’re/their problem, and I thought it was worth mentioning that those are probably the three most common mistakes I see, but strangely, they don’t bother me as much as some of the other errors I cited, maybe because I’ve become desensitized to them from overexposure, or because I assume that, nine times out of ten, the offenders really could use each correctly if they were to think about it long enough and are just writing lazy. Laziness doesn’t bother me as much as ignorance, apparently. The mistakes I selected for my list (using a painstaking scientific ranking process in which I wrote down the first eight things that popped into my head) aren’t much more confusing or complicated than the more common problems, but I read manuscripts from a lot of people who just don’t seem to have a handle on the correct usage for many of these.
Now, I’m not pretending these two posts contain all the rules and scenarios for every use of every one of these words; this is simply a list of the words I most often see used incorrectly, and if my examples provide a little clarification on their general correct use, great. If you didn’t catch the previous post, here’s the first half of the list again:
1. Should of/would of (never correct).
And the much anticipated conclusion of my list:
5. Than/then. Basically, “than” is used when making comparisons, and “then” is used when talking about time/sequence of events (or WHEN something happened– and “then” and “when” conveniently rhyme to help you remember this). So, you like one thing more THAN another (you’re comparing your preference), you would rather die THAN admit you listen to Justin Bieber (comparing one scenario to another), etc. Once Justin wins a Grammy, however, THEN you will proudly shout his praises from the rooftops (when one thing happens, then the next event in the sequence will take place). “Then” can often be removed without changing the meaning of the sentence, as above– “Once Justin wins a Grammy, you will proudly shout his praises” works just as well when the “then” is implied.
6. Affect/effect. This one can be a little more confusing because each word can be used as both a noun and a verb, and both words have slightly more archaic/obscure uses in which they have the opposite function of their most common uses. The majority of the time, “affect” is used as a verb meaning “to influence” and “effect” as a noun meaning “result” or “consequence.” “The three cups of coffee affected him more than he let on” vs. “he felt the effect of the three cups of coffee when he tried to fall asleep that night.” However, “affect” can also (and much less commonly) be used as a verb which means “to put on or feign,” as in, “he affected an attitude of lethargy, but really, he was buzzed from all the caffeine.” “Effect” can also be used as a verb (again, less commonly) meaning “to bring about,” as in, “Our goal in putting a coffee machine in the break room is to effect a change in the energy level around here,” not to be confused with “our goal in putting a coffee machine in the break room is to AFFECT the energy level around here.” “Effect” in the first sentence is acting on “change” (bringing it about), while “affect” in the second sentence is acting directly on “energy level” (influencing it). And both those words are starting to look and sound like gibberish to me, so I’m going to stop there.
7. Breath/breathe. This one isn’t as common just because the words aren’t used as often as some of these others, but the prevailing opinion on these two words, if the manuscripts I receive are any indication, is that they are interchangeable, and they’re not. They’re pretty cut-and-dried, actually. “Breath” is a noun, rhymes with “death,” “breathe” is a verb, rhymes with “seethe.” You take a breath, but you breathe through your nose. I doubt any of the authors who misuse these in print would use the wrong word when speaking, which leads me to conclude that many people simply haven’t memorized which pronunciation corresponds to which spelling– they’re pronouncing “breathe” as “breath” when they read their writing, and vice versa. So, breath = death, breathe = seethe, and if you need a silly little mnemonic, you can remember that “breathe” pronounced “BREE-th” has two “e’s” in it (and yes, the apostrophe is correct when pluralizing a lowercase letter!), so even though they’re not sequential, you can remember that the “brEathE” with two e’s is pronounced like the two sequential e’s in “seethe.”
8. Were/we’re. While I don’t see a lot of people using “we’re” (contraction for “we are”) in place of the past tense verb “were,” I do see a lot of people use “were” when they mean “we’re,” and, as is the case with so many of these errors, spellcheck won’t catch that mistake because “were” is a correctly-spelled real word. I don’t know whether it’s my obsessive-compulsive tendencies or my long immersion in English and grammar or what, but literally EVERY time I write or proofread, I automatically separate each contraction into two words to confirm to myself that the use of the apostrophe is correct, which means I read a sentence like this one: “They’re going to make sure we’re doing everything we can to ensure that he’s comfortable” as “They (are) going to make sure we (are) doing everything we can to ensure that he (is) comfortable.” It’s annoying, but I can’t turn it off, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve caught myself misusing a “their” or an “it’s” with this method, which leads to the big takeaway for this post:
EVERYONE makes mistakes. I have no illusions regarding my own perfection as a writer or grammarian, and I know that none of the authors I represent are ever going to be perfect. Even if someone could claim to write perfectly by one set of standards or style manual, someone else could come along with a different style manual or different regional standards and argue otherwise. The point I want to make is that the correct way to use these words is not an unfathomable mystery, and that even a writer who’s not a grammar expert can spend some time learning the usage distinctions, paying attention to correct usage when reading quality writing, or having a couple semi-literate people proofread their manuscript. When I get a manuscript full of errors like these, my assumption then is not that you’re an idiot, but that you didn’t put the time and effort into learning your craft and/or perfecting your writing sample before sending it out, and nine times out of ten, that means you’re not ready to be published yet.
That’s it for my list; if I missed one that you struggle with and would like me to address in a future post, please let me know in the comments. I’ve already gotten some great requests and suggestions for future grammar posts, so you’ll see more of those in the future. Come back next time when I’ll take the discussion in a less grammar-y direction and talk about great dialogue, which is basically just an excuse for me to talk about P. G. Wodehouse, so if you’re not familiar with him, your homework for this weekend is to read THE GIRL IN BLUE. Or anything he wrote, really. Class dismissed!