Note: This post was originally scheduled for October 2014. It didn’t post to MailChimp, so I’m posting it again now. I’ve revised the original post so it’s up to date.
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Well, let’s get right to it. First, I am a professional fiction writer as well as a copyeditor. For details, or just to learn what comprises a good copy edit, please visit Copyediting. It costs less than you think.
Many writers today use “if” and “whether” as if those words are interchangeable, but they aren’t.
Countless times I’ve seen, in both newspapers and novels, sentences like “I don’t know if I should go.” Can you hear the implied “or not?” If so, you know it should be “I don’t know whether I should go.”
Another example appeared in a local newspaper awhile back: “The company has yet to determine if more meetings will be necessary.” Nope. The company has yet to determine whether (or not) more meetings will be necessary.
And there’s more— much more. I’m not sure when it happened, but the word “till” is now acceptable as synonymous with “until.” Those allegedly in the know say the truncation of “until” (’til), which sounds EXACTLY the same, is archaic. But isn’t a “till” either a cash drawer or what a farmer does to the field in preparation of planting? Why yes, yes it is.
And more and more often, I’m seeing so-called professional writers actually use “are” for “our” when they mean “belonging to us,” and “then” for “than” when making a comparison (this is better then that).
I constantly explain to writers that “all right” always is spelled as two words, not as “alright.”
Many MANY writers use “may” when what they want to say is either “is” or “might.”
And in every single case, the writer NEVER means to write “try and.” The protagonist was going to try and win the war? Nope. The protagonist was going to try to win the war. To win is an infinitive; and win is— well, proof that the protagonist did considerably more than try.
Besides, try is weak anyway. As ol’ Yoda says, “Do or do not. There is no try.”
When I was still in the Marine Corps and one of my young Marines said “I’ll try” or “I’m trying” or “I tried,” I’d conduct him to the nearest chair and ask him to please be seated. Then I’d say, “Now, I’m not sure I know what you mean by try. Perhaps you can show me. Try to get up.”
One multi-published, highly successful author with a mid-range publishing company wrote that her protagonist had to “run the gambit of insults.” It took me three hours and a dictionary (finally) to convince her the word she wanted was “gamut,” not “gambit.” And get this: even then she wouldn’t change it because “if it were wrong, the publisher would have changed it.”
Sadly, no, the publisher wouldn’t. Chances are, neither would the acquisitions editor or the development editor.
Many publishers and the editors who work for them either are ignorant of these things or simply don’t care.
Then you have someone like e.e.cummings, who wrote poetry with no capitalization, or Cormac McCarthy, who wrote dialogue IN ONLY ONE NOVEL with no quotation marks.
The problem with that is compound:
- one, their work actually somehow managed to get published anyway, causing readers to believe it must be all right; and
- two, unpublished writers come to me for editing and say things like, “But e.e.cummings wrote without capitalization, so why can’t I? Cormac McCarthy wrote dialogue without quotation marks, so why can’t I?”
Yes, and Michael Crichton writes “would of” instead of “would’ve” and James Michener’s works are replete with misplaced modifiers.
But the fact that a few “name” authors got away with something doesn’t make it right, and if you do the same thing, it will make you, the writer, look like you don’t know the tools of your trade.
Besides, I want readers to remember my stories, not the flaws in them.
We writers have to hold ourselves to a standard. It’s up to you, of course. After all, it’s your novel or short story or essay or memoir.
If you happen to be a news anchor, it’s your reputation that’s on the line when intelligent people hear you say “It likely will rain” or “This afternoon American troops discovered a weapons cachet” or “I just can’t quite figure out if I’m stupid or merely ignorant.”
That clicking you hear in the background is the sound of changing channels.
If you take pride in yourself as a writer, “good enough” isn’t good enough, not by half—not if you want good reviews and recommendations and a steadily increasing readership.
Don’t just be a writer for whom “acceptable” is all right. Be a guardian of the language. More importantly, be a guardian of your own credibility.
‘Til next time, happy writing.
I am a professional fiction writer. If you’d like to get writing tips several times each week, pop over to my Daily Journal and sign up. In the alternative, you can also click the Pro Writer’s Journal tab on the main website at HarveyStanbrough.com.