Does grammar still matter?

It seems to me that in this day of texting and tweeting and Facebook messages we have great communication channels but our language is suffering. People are in too much of a hurry to worry about spelling and grammar, so misspellings become so common that they seem to be becoming the norm, and the same is true of many grammatical errors.

My question is whether writers have an obligation to set an example in correct usage and spelling.

I believe that we do. I’d like to hear comments from other writers and from readers on this topic.

When writing fiction you may have your characters use incorrect grammar as part of their persona. In writing dialog you must be true to your character’s level of education, his personality, his social status, etc., so if it would be natural and normal for the character to use careless sentence structure and incorrect grammar, that would be the way you would write his dialog. If you are writing a first person narrative and the narrator would speak informally and would often use colloquialisms and pay scant attention to grammar, that would be evident in your narrative style.

But what about a straightforward third person narrative in which any error in spelling, grammar, or punctuation would be seen to be the author’s error?

Unfortunately, with the ease of self-publishing and the proliferation of books by indie authors or books published by small presses that give manuscripts only a cursory editing, such errors abound. Do they matter if the author knows how to tell a good story? Will the reader overlook them or even notice them if the work is well plotted and the characters are well developed?

Most readers probably won’t care. Many will not be aware that errors have been made. So it’s easy to shrug off complaints from readers like me who are bothered and distracted by such errors. Unfortunately, we are probably a minority. (Or maybe fortunately?) I do believe that when an agent or the editor of a large publishing house receives a manuscript riddled with spelling and grammatical errors, he will be unlikely to give that manuscript a careful reading before rejecting it.

I believe any author, whether independently or professionally published, needs to know and use correct spelling and grammar. If you are weak in these areas, either pay to have your manuscript professionally edited or make an effort to review and learn grammatical rules and to master the spelling of commonly misspelled words. No author should confuse such common words as its and it’s, who’s and whose, you’re and your, their, there, and they’re. Any author should know that words are not made plural by adding ‘s. And is it really too much to ask authors to know the difference between lay and lie and know that the past tense of lie is lay, not laid, which is the past tense of lay? You lie down to take a nap, you lay something down. These two verbs are very commonly misused in the past tense. It’s wrong to say, “She laid down, hoping to rest awhile,” but you would say, “She laid the book down and shut her eyes.”

Authors should be sure they know the difference between words that sound alike or very similar. I often see mantle and mantel confused, for example. Or discreet and discrete. Or pouring and poring. The list could go on and on. A spell checker would not catch the misuse of any of these words. The author needs to make certain she’s used the correct one. Even when you know the difference, it’s easy, caught up in writing an exciting scene, to type the wrong one and not notice. That’s why it’s important to read and reread what you’ve written and also have your work read by someone who is a careful reader and will catch an error you’ve missed.

No matter how hard we try to have an error-free manuscript, errors will creep in. It’s impossible to catch every one. But I believe that a book in which errors abound is an insult to readers. To me grammar does matter.

What do you think?


About E. Rose Sabin

Fantasy and science fiction author.
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One Response to Does grammar still matter?

  1. J. Anne Levesque says:

    As a reader, grammar matters. When I notice an error, it puts distance between me and the story. Since I don’t trust myself to notice all my own errors, I will need to have a sharp copy editor review my work before it goes out.

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