Grammar 101

Don’t throw the reader out of your story. This is one of the prime caveats of writing. Any time you do or say anything that derails the reader, you are W-R-O-N-G.

 This is a contentious post. Please feel free to disagree with me.

 One of the things that will eject this reader from your book is the misuse of language, like using the word “further” when you mean “more distant.” The correct word is “farther.” While numerous highly-regarded authors including Flannery O’Connor have used further in this sense—and I by no means intend to place myself alongside or above such literary greats—because this usage is subject to debate, to so employ it, except in dialogue where a character’s questionable grammar may be appropriate, is wrong. Why? Because it throws me and others like me out of the narrative and into my chair where I fume for a minute before I can resume reading.

 Among its proper uses, further is a verb meaning “to promote” or “to enhance” as in to further a cause. It is also an adverb meaning “additionally” as in Further, when posting to a blog, one should not ramble, or an adjective meaning “additional,” e.g. without further ado. But if you persist in arguing it is interchangeable with farther, then you must accept that the sentence “How fur is it into town?” has ascended from patois into proper English… and it hasn’t. Fur, further, furthest? Don’t make me laugh!

 One clearly ungrammatical error is the substitution of “in” for “into.”

 At the moment, I am reading a military thriller by an author Brad Thor calls “the new Tom Clancy.” I agree. The man’s writing is rich and interwoven with detail in such a manner it enhances the work without distracting from the story’s thrust. Still, when he writes of a CIA operative throwing his gear “in the boat” from the water, he describes a ridiculous act and I pause to fume before I return to the plot.

 You can see I tend to fume a lot.

 When the agent throws his gear from outside the boat so it ends up inside the boat, the operative preposition is “into,” which designates a transition in location. On the other hand, in this situation, throwing his gear in the boat means he reaches over the side from the water, grabs some gear already within the boat and tosses it so it remains there. That is ludicrous.

 Why the fuss? I believe anything one attempts more than momentarily should be undertaken in earnest. If you have chosen to be a writer, writing is your job. Do it well. Do it better than anyone else if you can. If you can’t, try anyway. Aside from imagination, language is the only tool you have and English is an especially rich and nuanced one. Master it!

 Raymond Bolton


7 responses to “Grammar 101

  1. Raymond, I 100% agree with you about not throwing the reader out of the story. You can do it once or twice in a book, but more than that? They just get pissed off. But I think that the grammar you’re speaking of probably – for most people – doesn’t throw them out. These glitches of grammar (that should be the title of a book, I think, that you should write) are ones that are becoming more and more often used and I expect they will quite soon become officially okay.

    What DOES throw me out are spelling mistakes, added or missing words. I just finished a book (thank goodness I didn’t buy it but got it in a goody bag at a conference) that had extra words added or missing words all the way through it. It drove me crazy and I only finished it because the writer is a friend.

    These things are the responsibility of the copy editor and the writer in the final review before print. Obviously, neither of them did their job.


    • I’m with Kate. Those kinds of errors get noted, but I generally hold the editor equally accountable. What really knocks me out of a story – and this is a personal pet peeve – is the overuse of a word, especially one of those stand-out, jumps of the page words. (Like, for example, effervescent or amongst or outrageous.)

      I get bugged by inconsistent characterizations, too, and by clunky dialogue. (That’s probably the screenwriter talking.) And while I agree that a writer should know the difference between effect and affect, I’m not above writing one snafu off as a typo and moving right along.

    • Yup, me too.

      Mostly because I believe language is a fluid thing, not something locked away in a vault. It changes and grows. There’s different forms for different occasions. More formal, proper, and grammatically correct writing isn’t going to last very long in a YA book for example. Whereas it might flourish in something more practical like a non-fiction book.

      😀 But then I know for a fact I’ve used “in” in the context you’ve mentioned. So perhaps I’m biased.


  2. Raymond Bolton

    As I said, it was a contentious post. Now that I have aired that peeve, I can move on. Thanks for bearing with me.

  3. Okay, I’m a copyeditor by trade and a self-professed grammar nazi, so I get where you’re coming from. However, you lose me at “in” versus “into.” Is “in” grammatically incorrect? Yes, but only in the most formal, structured non-fiction writing. Fiction, by its nature, is less formal. Plus, if we’re being honest, “in” is used frequently for “into” in everyday speech.

    I must wonder, sir, what Mark Twain would think of such a peeve. 🙂

    • Raymond Bolton

      After stepping into the boat, I am now standing in the boat. Into refers to a transition or motion from out to in. In depicts no such transition. As far as Sam is concerned, we haven’t spoken in quite some time, although he’s currently catching hell from various school boards for his used of the “n” word in Huckleberry Finn. I think controversy is a good thing. : )

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