Wednesday, October 16, 2013


As well as being friends with Lynn, I also happen to be her editor for most of her Torquere Press releases. The other day, I wrapped up my notes on her novel that's scheduled for release next year and sent her the marked-up file, along with the assorted paperwork that goes along with each release.

The next day, she caught me on Facebook and asked me a grammatical question. I answered, and she said, "I ought to take a class or something. I've forgotten all this stuff." (Mind you, Lynn majored in English, so it's not like she just didn't learn it.)

I chuckled and said, "I've been thinking of writing up some of the most common errors that I see and posting it. But the ones who most need it probably won't read it."

"I'd read it," she promised. I could feel her making big googly eyes at me on the other side of the screen. "Please?"

Well, all right. Since you said please.

Let's start with homophones and other similar-sounding words.

You know about them already. Stop relying on your spell-checker for combinations like: its/it's -- your/you're -- then/than -- effect/affect and their friends.

Do a search for both variants (yeah, I know, to/too/two has three, but I don't usually see this one screwed up outside of the occasional typo) and make sure you feel good about your choice. Look the rule up online if you have to.

I still have to look up the rules for lie/lay/laid/lain every. single. damn. time, myself, so it's not like I have any special knowledge, here.


Semicolons are not hard! There are two correct uses for a semicolon. Only two. Ready?

1) Joining two complete sentences that need to be linked. Note that they must be complete sentences. If you could not correctly replace the semicolon with a period, then you cannot use the semicolon. Example: I went inside; it was starting to rain.

2) The semicolon replaces a comma in lists if the list items have commas of their own. Example: Your dinner options are meatloaf, peas, and potatoes; chicken, broccoli, and rice; or soup and salad.

That's it. That's the only two uses for a semicolon in prose. For better (and funnier) examples and explanations, you can check out The Oatmeal's comic ( but that's the lot, right there. All the other uses I see ought to be a comma or a colon.


Dialog tags. Oh my sweet gods and little pink toasters, but it seems like almost nobody can use a dialog tag.

Tags have several rules, but they're not actually that hard.

The first -- and the one that gets broken constantly -- has to do with the choice of verb for the tag. I can't tell you how many times I've seen this:
"That makes me happy," he smiled.
Here's a rule of thumb for you: If the verb does not imply a vocalization of some sort when it stands alone (said, shouted, coughed, laughed) then you can't use it for a dialog tag. A smile does not make any noise, and therefore it cannot be used to deliver dialog. (Neither does a smirk or a grin.) The above example is more correctly rendered:
"That makes me happy." He smiled.
"That makes me happy," he said with a smile.
"That makes me happy," he said, smiling.
Don't even get me started on dialog tags that don't have anything to do with the dialog, e.g.: "I'll answer the door," he stood up. AAAAAAARGH. Either add a proper dialog tag (...he said, standing up) or make it two separate sentences.

The other rule has to do with punctuation. If you are not going to use a dialog tag, then the sentence ends with the end of the dialog. You should, inside the quotation marks, use whatever sentence-ending punctuation makes sense. Period, question mark, exclamation mark. And then the first word outside the quotation marks should be capitalized, because it's the beginning of the next sentence. "Are you coming?" He looked back, waiting for a response.

If you are going to use a dialog tag, then your sentence is not finished yet. Replace your period with a comma. (Note that question marks and exclamation marks, as they convey more information than simply "end of sentence", should be left alone.) The first word outside your quotation marks should be lowercase, however, (unless it's a name) because the sentence is continuing, no matter what punctuation you used to finish off the dialog. "Yes, of course!" she answered.


A participle is a verb that modifies a noun or noun phrase, which is a very stuffy definition and much easier exampled than explained: "I'll answer the door," he said, standing up. In this example, "standing" is the participle, modifying our speaker.

Unfortunately, I see a lot of participles being used as the next action, rather than a modification of the current one. For example: He stood up, walking to the door. In this case, the noun phrase being modified is understood to be the first whole first clause: "He stood up". And since you cannot walk to the door and stand up at the same time, this is incorrect.

An easier way to keep track of it is this: If you're going to use an "-ing" verb, try slipping a "while" at the front and seeing if it makes sense. For example: He stood up (while) walking to the door. This does not make much sense, and therefore is incorrect; the correct way to write this would be: He stood up, then walked to the door. Or possibly: He stood up and walked to the door. They have moderately different emphases; choose the one that best suits the situation at hand.

On the other hand: He walked around the room (while) staring at the ceiling. This does make sense, and so you can correctly say: He walked around the room, staring at the ceiling. (He should be careful not to bump into anything, though.)


Pronoun confusion! This is not a hard rule of grammar, but part of Torquere's style guide. As such, you have somewhat more leeway here -- but I've found it makes for much smoother reading (even if not necessarily writing). The rule here is that each pronoun set should only have one antecedent per paragraph.

Wait, "antecedent" is one of those fancypants grammar words, so let's back that up a smidge for those of you who had better things to do with your brains than storing 8th grade grammar lessons:

An antecedent is the thing that a pronoun refers to. If I have a scene with Joe and Mary, then most likely all the (he/him/his)s in the scene refer to Joe, and all the (she/her)s belong to Mary, and so Joe is the antecedent of "he" and Mary is the antecedent for "she".

But Torquere, being a publisher for mostly m/m romances (or sometimes f/f or m/m/f, but in all cases at least two people of the same gender), runs more often than most into this sticky situation where you could easily have two antecedents for the same gender pronouns. For example: Jerry shivered as he took off his shirt. Who do those pronouns belong to? I can see several different interpretations here: Jerry is taking off his own shirt; Jerry is taking off someone else's shirt; someone else is taking off Jerry's shirt; or someone else is taking off his own shirt. Without further context, there's no way to tell which interpretation is correct.

So the rule Torquere has is that in each paragraph, all the pronouns of a particular gender must have the same antecedent (and that antecedent must be made clear by the context).

I will say that this is a very difficult rule to abide by strictly, and since it's a house rule, I don't follow it 100% -- I'll skim past the occasional slip as long as all the antecedents are crystal clear. (Other editors are extremely picky about this rule, though. Your mileage, as they say, may vary.) But I've found it's an excellent rule to keep in mind for the sake of clarity, anyway. You may know perfectly well what you're trying to say -- but are you completely certain that your reader will?


There. Those are the grammatical mistakes that I trip over most often. I hope that's at least vaguely helpful! Any other grammar questions you've stumbled over and could use some help with? Please ask!

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