Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Grammar Snark

I've been mulling this about for weeks. And today I'm feeling just snarky enough to write about it.

If you hate me, you hate me. If you love me, then I guess you always did. *wink*

It's like this. We all have different tastes in books--genre, voice, storyline, author. One man's trash is another man's treasure, so to speak.

We're also in a process of trying-to-get-noticed-while-wondering-why-others-get-noticed-first. Not in a bitter sort of way (at least not for me), but rather in an honest, and sometimes frustrated, WHY? sort of way.

We wonder why an author who doesn't write very well gets published, and we decide it's because the story was timely or well plotted or just commercial enough to grab the attention (and wallets) of the masses.

We wonder why an author who writes quite well has an obscure, midlist book lost in the cracks of a dusty shelf of a library, and we're not sure we have a ready answer.

And, of course, we wonder if our own writing will ever "measure up" -- whatever that may mean.

Whatever "good writing" may mean to each individual, I'm willing to agree that we will all have different opinions. And that's okay. That's what makes the market--and literature itself--so diverse.


When I read a novel by a bestselling author--a many times over bestselling author--that is rife with grammatical errors, my patience runs out. Completely.

I'm certain there is no such thing as a PERFECT book. As in, the author-copyeditor team didn't miss a thing. Not a missing semicolon. Not a teensy spelling error.

I'm not that delusional.

I'm not talking about the odd error, though. I'm talking about egregious grammatical errors. Seven of them, to be exact.

That's right. I've recently read a novel (by a bestselling author) that contained SEVEN MISUSES OF THE VERB "LAY".

That's right. Seven.

I'm sorry. I don't have the time of day for this. Sure, the plotting was brilliant. Even the cover is beautiful. But misusing the verb LAY? SEVEN TIMES?

First of all, I'm certain the copyeditor must've seen these errors. Must've. If she didn't, she's in the wrong profession. So let's give her the benefit of the doubt and say that, yes, she marked them. All seven.

That puts the onus back on the author. Either he a) marked them all "stet" or b) never got back to the copyeditor with final approval.


Now let's turn the tables. Let's say (though I find it hard to believe) that the copyeditor missed precisely seven misuses of the verb LAY.


No, I can't go there. I can't imagine that kind of sloppiness. Lack of basic grammar skills, even.

And if the copyeditor missed them, it bothers me to no end that the writer WROTE SO POORLY IN THE FIRST PLACE.

I'm sorry. It has to be said.

I know the lay/lie confusion has permeated society at all levels. Grammar books devote entire chapters to figuring out the difference. Blows my mind, but there you have it.

Nevertheless, if you are a WRITER, for goodness's sake, you'd better know your basic grammar. As in, Grammar 101. Or, What I Should Have Learned In Seventh Grade.


This author had a woman "laying" on the table. He had folks ordered to "lay down" on the bed. Someone was "laying" beside the water.

I died twelve times with each subsequent error.

A brief grammar lesson, then, in order to make me feel (slightly) better:

LAY is a transitive verb; it needs an object to which it "transfers" the action:

Please LAY the BOOK on the table.
LAY aside your WORRIES.


She LAY quietly in the bed until morning.
The vegetables LAY on the wooden table.

LIE is an intransitive verb; it does not need an object:

His tools WERE LYING on the grass.
LIE quietly while I dress your wounds.

Right. Enough about that. I just had to do my part. I'm sure not many of you actually needed that.

No, I'm not going to mention the book or the author. That's petty. Suffice it to say that it's a name many would know -- and that he truly is a brilliant storyteller. All the more reason for him to take more care with his craft.

We wouldn't trust a surgeon who didn't know a scalpel from a suture.
We wouldn't trust a bricklayer who didn't know mortar from Elmer's Glue-all.

And I can't trust an author who doesn't know the difference between LAY and LIE. I won't diss him; I won't smear his name around snobby writer circles. But I certainly will not LAY my money on the counter for another of his books, which will LIE, undisturbed, on the bookshelves as I walk by.

Rant over. Snark complete. And now I will shuffle off to find something chocolate.


  1. I am so glad I'm not the only Grammar Nazi out there. My pet peeve is misuse of commas.

    Bless you.

  2. I say give her a break! I'm a grammar snob, too (although I try to hide it), but that lesson that you just described is one I still, to this day, cannot remember. And, I can't remember which is right: wierd or weird? (Except that the spell check just told me it's weird.) Even us editors have little things we mess up from time to time.

  3. My peeve is "less" vs "fewer". Grocery store lines make me crazy. When I'm feeling extra snarky, I get picky about "between" vs "among".

    Maybe the woman was laying eggs on the table? :D

  4. I'm right there with you. I had my own grammar rant about a month ago on my blog. It was about apostrophe's. (misuse intended to show irritating punctuation.)

  5. I'm an editor for a living, and I can tell you with 100% certainty that grammar is not what makes the writing good or bad.

    We all have our grammar quirks--that one rule that we just can't seem to keep in our head. But you can hand me the cleanest copy in the world, and it can still be trash. On the flip side, pages riddled with errors can still be brilliant.

    Grammar, punctuation, and style are all part of learning craft. They are important, and the goal should always be to strive for perfection. But six misuses of a word doesn't make a book unpublishable.

    I think lack of integrity in conflict resolution, shallow characterization, and plot-less naval gazing are more serious crimes.

  6. "But I certainly will not LAY my money on the counter for another of his books, which will LIE, undisturbed, on the bookshelves as I walk by."
    This is gold! I have serious issues with the upswing of typos in novels that were obviously rushed to print so fast no one cared about petty things like grammar or crutch words.

    But here's the thing; those editors, they don't really care. The book buying public probably won't think twice about the egregious misuse of words, possibly won't even notice. Other writers will notice, but who cares what we think unless we're published and on a best-seller list?

    Still, it makes me feel better to know that there are others out there who appreciate the work of good copy editors.

  7. Oh how I agree with you - Lay/Lie misuse drives me nutty! Thank you!

    I'll add that another thing that drives me CRAZY is the really sloppy error, like a character's name that changes halfway through. How does no one at all catch that?

  8. While reading the second book of a certain popular series, I actually got to the point of keeping a pencil in my hand so I could fix the errors.

    It was the split infinitives that were bugging me. I wanted my daughter for whom I was reading the series to recognize bad grammar when she reread it.

    However, as HWPETTY pointed out, perhaps if I'd been enthralled by the writing, I wouldn't have noticed all the errors, but instead, I was rather bored by the book.

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  10. Ewww, I HATE lay/lie, quite possibly because I was never taught it properly. I had perfect attendance in high school (insert the nerd banner here), so perhaps I zoned out during that lecture. I remember someone later saying, "Lay is for objects; lie is for people." I'm thinking that was wrong, but you know what?

    I. Don't. Care.

    I just don't use either of them.

    My personal peeves? to/too/two, it's/its, and there/their. Drives me batty every time.

    (p.s. My last comment went all screwy. Don't know what was up with that ...)

  11. I feel your pain and agree -- since I started writing seriously, as in trying to finish something and get published, I have been more aware of writing errors I see in published novels. I've read all the advice agents and editors and other writers give to newbie aspirants like me and yet, I see all these errors in best-selling novelists time and again. I try hard to edit my writing and I let others edit my writing and yet, I see big-time bestselling authors get away with every single mistake I've been told I must not make if I ever want an agent to read past the first page.

    I realize that the key to understanding this is that the publishing biz is a biz. Period. It's a market and what counts is what sells.

    Once a person is a bestselling author, it doesn't matter if there are a few mistakes or writerisms. Editors and publishers and readers know the bestselling writer can deliver the goods -- as in a cracking good story. Little things like grammar and beginner mistake?

    Who cares as long as they can move product?

    Case in point, as I understand it, is Anne Rice. She's so big, or was so big at one point, that I understand NO ONE was allowed to edit her manuscripts.

    I hate to be so crass, but that's the facts, ma'am. Until a writer can prove themselves to editors and publishers and agents, and until they have a group of loyal fans who will read whatever they write, they have to be stellar to get looked at.


  12. Loved this post. I think you should forward it to the author and the publisher. They have to learn to keep the customer happy!

    One thought though: did you really like the book? I've noticed that when I love a book...when I can't peel my eyes from the page, I don't notice any typos or grammatical errors. If the book is slow or unrealistic, the errors stick out like thorns. But that might just be me...sometimes ignorance is bliss!

  13. I used to have problems with lie/lay. But after my DH jumped on my case every time I misused the verb (he wanted to make sure our daughter knew the difference), I became painfully aware of the difference. He's also made me hyper-sensitive to it's/its and your/you're.

    And I agree with those who commented that if you're really enthralled with the book, you're more apt to overlook little things like that.

    But I think the thing that kills me is when authors get so prolific that they repeat themselves. I caught one of my favorite authors cut-and-pasting entire scenes...twice in the same book. The scenes were basically word for word the same...only thing that changed were the characters involved and a few adjectives. Needless to say, I haven't read another of her books since then. Sigh.

  14. I have only ever published a few pieces of fiction, so my voice might not be relevant here.

    I view writing fiction as an art form not a technical exercise, so I often take liberty with grammar and structure to weave the tapestry of rich imagery that I enjoy creating when I write.

    Following the rules of grammar and structure, to a degree, definitely helps but I think people who quote from the 'Elements of Style' and are self proclaimed 'Grammar Nazis' often miss the beauty that the written word can offer when unconstrained by boundaries.

    Each to their own, but I think super technical writing lacks soul.

    Just my two cents.


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  16. Very well written and to the point!
    I will say though that I am not the best at grammar and definitely not editing, I believe myself to be a storyteller and if I do get the chance to have my novel picked up then I hope for only the best in professionalism, to include an editor and copy editor to help fix my problems, to finally give the public a piece of art, which I agree with Scott; is an art form. I am sure in this short writing I have done that my errors will offend a, but hey, just stating my two cents worth.
    Vent when you need to Authoress. You have done more than many to help others on here, so you are allowed your two cents worth!

  17. I completely agree with you. Spelling and grammar should be automatic to writers. Yes, it's demanding, but that's what we're here to do. I can understand passages or themes that don't work as well for me, because that's an opinion. But the rules of grammar are out there in black and white, and you better have a damn good reason for breaking them.

  18. Every writer's nightmare

    There are seven instances of the misuse of lie/lay in a book and Authoress dies 12 times with each occurrence. How many times during the course of reading this book does Authoress kick the bucket?


  19. I'd like to play devil's advocate today.

    Granted, in real life, most people don't notice, use correctly, or understand lie/lay and others.

    In all but omniscent POV, the author tries to represent his characters in dialogue, summary thought, and direct thought, either in past or present tense.

    These characters, unless they're authors themselves, or the few who remembered and then used every grammar rule, would not use correct, or formal English.

    So I ask you, are you being true to your character, when you lay it on the line?

    Okay, I don't personally have the guts to leave grammar oddities in place, not because their wrong, but because some agent out there won't know that I actually know the difference between lay/lie, but my charcater didn't. I console myself with little cuties in dialogue and the knowledge that the vaste majority of authors do the same.

    I challenge all writers everywhere. Lets get together (safety in numbers) and really screw around with the language, for the sake of the surreal people we write about.

    Gutless in San Diego.

    Just my 2 pennies.

    p.s. I also agree with HWpetty

  20. Locksley,

    I agree that a character's dialogue needs to reflect that character's idiom/region/shortcomings/whatever.

    However, in the novel to which I am referring, the lay/lie errors occurred primarily in the narrative, with perhaps a couple in a character's dialogue, INCONSISTENTLY. If a character is going to misuse lay/lie, it needs to happen every single time that character says something.

  21. AMEN, Sister! I get so tired of finding serious infractions of grammar usage in otherwise good books.

    Clean up your acts, people.

  22. I guess I'm not quite in agreement from a writing standpoint. To me it's an editing issue.

    (Innocent FYI to Debora Blake. It should be "Clean up your act, people.")

    When writing, I get the story down and there will be errors. The time to correct them is not during the creative process. Heck, I even have a bizarre issue which causes me to skip words without realizing, even when editing! Sometimes it just takes a second pair of eyes to find the most simplest of mistakes, or stupid.

    But I do have a suspicion that too many wannabe's rely solely on word spell check to determine if there writing is grammatically correct. This type of laziness needs to stop.

    I also have to wonder about the rush to market. My favorite NYT bestselling Y/A author just recently released a book that has a few words that don't exist, such as 'Fhe' (s/b 'The') and this was not hidden in the depths of a paragraph, but the first word of a chapter. Spell check would have caught what's the explanation? We don't typeset things anymore, right?

    I've learned to deal with it, but what really is hard to handle is an author who doesn't trust their audience. I'll paraphrase here on what I mean...

    "The green air floated all around her, streaming forth from her fingers in green mist."

    This was written by another NYT Y/A bestseller. And he/she didn't stop there. No... Instead he/she described two unique smells the characters noticed, not once, or twice, but maybe twenty times in a span of 5 pages or so. I, like you, cringed to the point of almost putting down the book but I didn't. Why? Like a jackass, I bought the two subsequent books in the series at the same time through amazon and it wasn't worth the shipping to return them. :( So I will suffer through them as a learning experience as what not to do.

    Since the publishing house has a vested interest in the books success, the copy editors should be speaking up regarding glaring issues.

    Sitting back and saying, "'s not my problem" is unacceptable.

    I have one other observation. I guess I'm not surprised by the lack of quality when so many are addicted to 'text'ing. The art of effective communication has been decreasing ever since email came on to the scene. (Ooops, showing my age now!)

    So, get the story down, then edit, then get other sets of eyes on it to find out what you missed or need to trim. And remember, you will only get better if you take your work seriously.

  23. Thanks for the refresher course and I needed it. But...

    I've worked as a journalist and I can tell you I'd rather have a copy editor who missed something as minor as lay vs. lie, than one who takes an interesting story and in her own special anal way, flattens it out to the point it's milk toast.

    The guy's a bestseller. That says a lot for him and his edtiors.

  24. If "lay/lie" are the only errors you find, the publisher is doing good. In a recent mystery I read, The University of NORTH CAROLINA was in Georgia and so was Duke (Durham, NC)!

    This was obviously a universal find and replace correction on the heroine's backstory that went horribly wrong and no one caught it.

    In defense of editors, with the exception of most writers, they are the most underpaid and overworked people in the publishing industry. They are involved in all aspects of the publishing process from acquisition, contracts, editorial work, marketing, etc. etc., etc.

    Even before the current business downturn, publishers were firing editors to help the bottom line without cutting the number of books published, and now they have done it again. Editors who were overworked a year ago have it much worse now.

    Copyediting has always been of less importance than most of the other elements of the publishing process, and it will only get worse.

    Any writer who can afford his own copyeditor should avail himself of one, and those of us who can't need to beg one of our grammar Nazi friends to go over the manuscript and the galleys.

    It's not the publisher, but the author who is blamed for these errors.

  25. Making the NYT BS has alot more to do with marketing than the writing, as brought originally by Authoress.

    Also, I'm saying it's the job of an editor to point out a 'glaring' issue, if one exists. Not rewrite your copy. A kinda of 'Are you sure you want to delete this?'

    Regardless of work conditions, a book is a marriage of the author, agent, and publisher. You can't single out one over another.

  26. Authoress,

    I agree about consistency in character dialogue, unless they're growing or influenced during the novel by the speach patterns of characters influencing them. My real question was, is it right or wrong to continue the character's direct and/or indirect thoughts, in the same way? I vaguely remember Mark Twain, James Joyce, and Stephen King doing this. Maybe I'm's been a while.

    I'm not referring to Omniscient POV.

    Can we remain true to our character by editing him, when in his POV?

    If the answer is, that's the way it's done (usually), I'll not argue art vs. artform, or subconscious competent writing vs. conscious competent writing.

    Thanks...I'll take my answer off the air.

  27. Hi,
    Adding on. I hope not to send anybody on a wild goose chase regarding Twain, Joyce, and King. I found in Jack Bickham's book "Writing and Selling Your Novel" a reference to Elmore Leonard's "Rum Punch." Bickham says, about a charcater named Ordell, whose POV comprises all of Chapter 3 . . . "largely background information that could have been written in neutral language, everything is worded and phrased in Ordell's pacing and vocabulary."

    page 54 within the chapter on viewpoint.

  28. I think, personally, I agree with HWPetty. Language is such an evolving thing. Not only English but all languages evolve.
    Lay/lie. Both can sound perfectly legit in the context in which it is written. In a published work, I would say if I were writing the dictionary I'd ditch the lie and use

    "Lay down," she said. He laid down.

    "That is a lie," she said. "I know a liar when I see one."

    If words cause such common confusion then choose. A lot of Americans say 'off of'. Why?

    Speaking is different to the written word. Lie is one balky word.

    If you lived in the ROTW (rest of the world) there are people who are pedants re spelling and a small battle going on. I guess you could name it War of the Words.

    Consider these:

    A good grounding and knowledge of the language and how to use it is a basic requirement, but as in art, knowing how to break rules because you can and it works makes some art great art. Art has broken through the crash barriers of absolute formalism - and without it we would not have had the modern movements over the decades. Sure there are some who don't want that to happen but it does. And new generations move in, take it as their own and you have evolution. So too in the written word and how it is used. (and punctuation too - punctuation as we know it today was not a formal set of rules three hundred years ago).

    I hope though that the current evolution doesn't break any barriers.

    ur R go.g 2 luv that 1!


  29. I had an uncle who was a copy editor for a daily newpaper. He also suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder. It was a good combination. He was exactly the one you would want to edit your text before publication. But you would not want to have dinner with him. He did write to the Webster Dictionary and point out their errors in the new edition back in the day.

  30. Ok, my grammar peeve - writers who write such convoluted run-on sentences that after reading through them and getting deeper and deeper, while trying to follow the main point, and keep track of which character we're actually talking about, that is, which character is actually doing the action the clause is referring to or, on the other hand, which object the action is being done to, deliver you, finally, inevitably, but indirectly, through incredible circumlocution, obfuscation and way too many commas, to the end of said sentence, in such a state of confusion you forget what the main point was, have no idea of what the heck she was trying to say in the first place and decide in the interest of self-preservation, to give up and go get a drink (or take a nap or pop some aspirin) instead!

  31. Even though I've read The Elements of Style several times, I still make the lay/lie mistake on occassion. My version of Microsoft Word slaps me in the face every time - do I have a special version...? If so I'd be willing to share!

  32. Hi Karla,
    I wondered the same thing about ms word. Then I investigated "tools" across the top bar. In tools, you will find Options, in Options is a Spelling & Grammar Tab, in that you will find a writing style box...choose Grammar & Style, then click on settings right below grammar & style, and choose what you'd like word to flag for you. I highly recommend not checking the first person box. In fiction, that can be extremely agravating to click by and ignore. I hope I lied that there one to rest.

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  34. Once upon a time, I was an Adult Ed instructor. I encountered so many people who had no understanding of these two words I finally had to add them to my list of words confusions. (Dessert = Something Sweet/Desert = just Sand, etc.) For this the hint was to replace the word with PLACE or PUT. If it worked you had the correct word, if not reconsider. Terribly simplistic but, most of the time, it worked.

    And, believe it or not, I once posted a thread on a writers' forum inquiring as to opinions on writing and grammatical errors on a writers' forum. I was chagrined at the number of people who responded with comments such as, "It's just a forum"; "It's not real writing"; and "This writing doesn't really matter."

    And you wonder about big name writer? Sadly, the mistakes should not come as a surprise. Or, maybe they SHOULD. Maybe more people need to take up arms against such sloppy writing and the attitudes which give birth to them!