Advice, tips, and info for fiction writers and aspiring authors, from a highly respected fiction editor and author of craft-of-writing guides, the award-winning FIRE UP YOUR FICTION, CAPTIVATE YOUR READERS, and WRITING A KILLER THRILLER. Jodie's craft-of-writing articles also appear alternate Mondays on The Kill Zone blog and on the 1st Thurs. on Fiction University.
I don’t want to
come off as some kind of “grammar gestapo” here, as the English language is in
a constant state of flux, and that’s a good thing. Our language is always evolving
and changing along with technological changes, changes in attitude, the
influence of other cultures, street language, slang expressions, etc. That
means the English language is vibrant, not stagnant, just as is our society.
Language needs to keep up with changes to facilitate communication.
probably a good thing to try to have some degree of consistency and standards,
so we don’t all sink to the lowest common denominator of texting-style, “fast-food”
language. Plus there are still lots of literate readers out there, so it’s best
to err on the side of correct accepted language, to keep the respect of the
So here are
a few common grammar blunders I see in both my editing and general reading, and
some areas where even good writers sometimes goof. (All rules are per Chicago Manual of Style.)
WHO, THAT, WHICH:
-“that” for “who” –“that” is
for things; “who” is for people. I’m probably not the only one who winced a bit
the first 100 times I heard Katy Perry’s great song, “The One That Got Away.” I
even heard the radio announcer saying, “It should be ‘The One WHO Got Away,’ of
of correct usage:
children who were playing ran in when
it started to rain. The bikes and toys that
were left outside got wet.
boats that were in the harbor got
tossed around in the storm.
ladies who organized the church tea
were surprised at the attendance.
-“that” versus “which” (This one’s directed at North Americans, as Brits use
“which” where we use “that,” so they have their own rules.)
quick way to remember whether to use “which” or “that” is that “which” always
follows a comma, while “that” almost never follows a comma.
Or think of it this way: If the sentence doesn’t need
the clause/phrase that comes after the word to make sense, use “which.” If what comes after the word is
essential to the sentence, use “that.”
Here are a few examples to illustrate:
The library, which is on Main Street, has about 30,000
The library that is on Main Street has about 30,000
In the first sentence, the one with “which,” we don’t
need the extra information that it’s on Main Street for the sentence to make
sense, as there’s only one library, and it’s on Main Street.
In the second sentence, we need the “that” part, as
that tells us we’re talking about the library on Main Street, not some other
library in town. So what follows “that” is essential to the sentence.
Let’s look at another example:
The car, which was a Toyota, was badly crumpled in the
The car that was a Toyota was badly crumpled in the
The first sentence implies that there was only one car
in the accident, and by the way, it was a Toyota. That’s nonessential information,
so it’s enclosed in commas and introduced by “which.”
The second sentence tells us there was more than one
car involved in the accident, and that the Toyota, unlike the others, was badly
crumpled. The “that” clause gives us essential information.
So another way to look at it is “which” introduces nonessential info,
and “that” introduces essential info.
Use caps for proper nouns but not for generic nouns: the doctor, but Doctor Wilson; the president, but
President Obama; the general, but General Eisenhower; the judge, but Judge
Judy; the sergeant, but Sergeant Wilson; the prince, but Prince Charles; the
police department, but the Chicago Police Department; the library, but New York
Public Library, the hospital, but Toronto General Hospital.
when you’re addressing the president, it’s “Mr. President,” and when you’re
addressing anyone else with a title, you still use the capital, even if you don’t
use their name, as in “Yes, Sergeant, I’ll do that right away.” Also, “Yes,
Your Majesty.” And “No, Your Honor.”
sir, ma’am, my lord, my lady, milady, etc. are not capitalized.
-Don’t capitalize terms of endearment or pet names, like dear, honey, sweetie, son, buddy, etc.: “Yes,
-Family names: Capitalize family names like father, mother, etc.
only when using them as a name, as in “Dad, can I borrow the car keys?” or “Where’s
Mom?” or “Thanks, Grandma,” but no caps when just referring to family members,
as in “my dad” or “your mother,” or “his grandmother.”