102. About Writing: Knowing How Language Works

There’s more to writing than understanding the mechanics of language. Grammar and spelling are no substitute for imagination, humor or a really good story.

All the same, serious writers should make an effort to understand their language. Only naïve writers think spelling, grammar and usage aren’t important. Even writers who use language inventively should know the rules before they break them!

Here are a few miscellaneous pieces of advice about spelling, grammar and proper usage of the English language.

Will and shall mean different things

Knowing the difference between will and shall could save your life.

Well, not really, but my grammar professor in college once told a story that illustrates the importance of understanding the difference between will and shall.

Two men fell into a swift river. The first man shouted, “Nobody will save me! I shall drown!” The bystanders immediately threw him a rope and rescued him. The second man shouted, “Nobody shall save me! I will drown!” The bystanders did nothing, and he drowned.

In the first person, will indicates intention and shall indicates inevitability. If I say, “I will drink coffee,” I mean, “It is my intention to drink coffee.” If I say, “I shall die someday,” I mean, “I’m going to die someday whether I like it or not.”

This pattern is reversed in the second and third persons. In the second and third persons, shall indicates intention and will indicates inevitability. If I say, “You shall bring me some coffee,” I’m issuing a command. If I say, “You will die someday,” I’m simply stating a fact.

According to these patterns, the first man who fell into the river expressed his fear that no one would save him, and the second man stated his intention to drown without anyone’s interference.

Remember the difference between will and shall. It might save your life someday.

Never, never, never use alot

It’s two words: a lot. You don’t use abunch, ahouse, acoffeecup or atypewritermonkey. Please, for the love of language, don’t use alot.

It’s improper to split infinitives

What is an infinitive, and why shouldn’t we split it?

To put it simply, an infinitive is a form of a verb consisting of to followed by the present tense of the verb: to eat, to drink, to be (or not to be) and so on.

It’s messy to split infinitives—that is, to insinuate other words into infinitive phrases. Consider the infinitive to drink in the phrase “to drink coffee happily.” I split the infinitive by moving the adverb happily into the middle of the infinitive phrase: “to happily drink coffee.”

Why is it improper to split infinitives? The grammatical rule was adapted into English from Latin, and it’s actually useless. There’s no practical, logical reason not to split infinitives. Some writers, even professional writers, split infinitives all the time.

However, it’s still grammatically proper not to split infinitives. (Notice I wrote “not to split infinitives” instead of “to not split infinitives.”) If you’re composing a formal essay—or writing dialogue for an educated character—it helps to be as grammatical as possible!

It’s improper to split phrasal verbs, but pronouns provide an exception

First infinitives and now phrasal verbs. Why can’t I split things? I want to split things!

A phrasal verb is simply a verb consisting of a phrase instead of a single word. Pick up is a good example. I can “pick up a phone,” but I can’t “pick a phone” or “up a phone.” The verb requires both words to retain its meaning.

It’s incorrect to split up a phrasal verb. I can “pick up a phone,” but I can’t “pick a phone up.”

However—and this is where it gets tricky—pronouns are an exception to the rule. A phrasal verb can be split by a pronoun. Let’s use pick up once more as an example. I can “pick you up from work,” but I can’t “pick up you from work.”

I know, it’s complicated. Welcome to the English language.

All right is more correct than alright

All right is standard. Alright is considered nonstandard and should be used sparingly.

Where indicates place, and in which indicates subject

Where describes a place. “I went to Ecuador, where I drank coffee.” Ecuador is a place.

In which describes a subject. “Going to Ecuador is a circumstance in which I will drink coffee.”

I do not say “a circumstance where I will drink coffee.” A circumstance is not a place. It’s equally incorrect to say, “a case where someone died” or “a situation where I panicked.” Cases and situations are not places. It should be “a case in which someone died” or “a situation in which I panicked.”

Don’t use emoticons, texting lingo, Internet slang or nonstandard abbreviations in formal writing

’Nuff said.

Be wary of common errors

Know the difference between to, too and two, and between theretheir and they’re, and between its and it’s. Common errors like these are the fleas that suck out a writer’s lifeblood. (Yes, that was a terrible metaphor, but I’m trying to make a point.)

Things are not always written the way they sound

Don’t ever use of as a verb instead of have: I can write, “I would have drunk coffee,” but I shouldn’t write, “I would of drunk coffee.” It’s not standard to use old fashion as an adjective: I can write, “Typewriters are old-fashioned,” but I shouldn’t write, “Typewriters are old fashion.” The correct way of writing something isn’t always the way it sounds phonetically.

And break the rules when you need to

Prepositions are sometimes the best things to end sentences with. And sentence fragments can be useful.

I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

Why do spelling, grammar and usage matter?

First, readers are quick to dismiss poor writing. A writer’s ideas or stories may be truly amazing, but many readers won’t bother reading them if they’re presented poorly. Writers owe it to their readers to give them their best possible work.

Second, understanding language can be helpful in writing fiction. One character might break all rules of grammar every time he opens his mouth, and another character might use language perfectly. So much can be done to develop a character using the mechanics of language.

Grammar and spelling and usage aren’t as much fun as, say, plot or setting or characterization, but they’re just as important.

No matter how talented a musician might be, her music won’t sound good if her instruments are out of tune. No matter how gifted a writer might be, his writing won’t succeed if his understanding of language is weak.

Even for artists, technical stuff matters.

7 thoughts on “102. About Writing: Knowing How Language Works

  1. One of those common errors that I’ve come across a couple times in the last couple days is assure vs. ensure vs. insure. I know the difference when I think about it, but it’s not always intuitively obvious.

  2. Pingback: Animator Island » Four Lessons in Storytelling from Disney’s Latest Animated Films

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