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Tales From a Grammar Groupie: Sentence Basics & Style vs. Ignorance

I was chatting with some buddies on Facebook last night when the topic of apostrophe misuse came up. I had teasingly corrected a dear friend on the misuse of the oft-maligned punctuation and that escalated into a conversation about grammar and punctuation pet peeves. Believe it or not, I made new friends by the end of the conversation. There are a number of us Grammar Groupies out there and we're all dying a little inside at the state of modern grammar.

Facebook is, of course, a casual media medium and not really the place to get nit picky about punctuation. A writer’s work-in-progress (WIP), on the other hand, is just the sort of place to pull out those line-editing skills and put them to work. I have a number of beta projects in my e-mail inbox that need a little run-in with the Grammar Groupie. I understand that it’s tough, sometimes, to see where one’s work needs line-editing help, especially when one has gone over it again and again and again. So here are a couple of sentence related pointers to help clear up those problems I am seeing over and over again:

1) The complete sentence, at its most basic, is a subject and a verb which, together, form a complete thought. Another term for this is independent clause because it can stand on its own. John bites. Easy, no?

2) The fragmented sentence is missing either the subject or the verb, or may have a subject and verb but not express a complete thought. This is also known as a dependant clause because it depends on information that is missing from the sentence to form a complete thought. A doorknob. Not complete. And yes, that would be two sentence fragments.

3) The run-on sentence is just as it sounds; it keeps going and going and going so long that you know that if you were reading it out loud instead of in your head that you would run out of breath long before the period and would end up sprawled out on the floor with nothing left to do but let your adorable kitten Muffy lick your face until you regain sense and are able to sit up again and continue reading your novel in the hopes that not all of the sentences run as long as the Mississippi River which happens to start in Minnesota, as a matter of fact, and is even sung about in a great song by the Indigo Girls who came to your town to play an acoustic show two years ago but you weren't able to go, even though you'd bought tickets, because you came down with malaria. Whew!

4) The colon (:), the semi-colon (;) and the comma (,) are three indispensable tools that the writer absolutely must understand and know how to use. Check out Purdue’s online writing lab to learn all about them.

5) Okay, Grammar Groupie, I’ve read the OWL explanations. Now what?

Style vs. Ignorance: As Katherine Hepburn said, “If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun.” Writers must remember that words and punctuation are tools for their craft. Learn how to use them properly and then learn how to apply them best to your work. I use fragmented sentences all the time. They are wonderful when I want to create tension or fast pacing in a scene, or if I want to vary the word counts of clauses so that my words read with a good rhythm. I use commas to express a jumbled set of emotions that are spiraling out of control, even at the risk of run-on sentences. The crux of improper usage is knowing that you are doing it and yet knowing that the improper use is exactly what the book needs. Hence, style. Sloppy or ignorant usage does nothing more than confuse the reader and scare away the agents/editors. Learn the difference.

Maybe next time Grammar Groupie will revisit that apostrophe issue. Cheers!
Kristin Halbrook

Kristin Halbrook is the author of the critically-acclaimed young adult novels Nobody But Us (HarperTeen, 2013) and Every Last Promise (HarperTeen, 2015). She likes many things.

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  1. I love that you distinguish between style and improper usage. I will also be visiting the Purdue sight since deciding between semi-colons, commas, and colons trip me up repeatedly.

  2. Love it. Sometimes I think I use semi-colons too much. Perhaps I should read up on them!

  3. I love, love, love the semi-colon. There is something elegant and romantic about it. A bit of a sentence, a little stutter, a finished thought. Delightful!

  4. That was a fantastic run-on example.

    The thing that gets me most about the semi-colon is when it's used in dialogue. Am I wrong, Ms. Grammar Nazi, in thinking dialogue should use hyphens instead?


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Item Reviewed: Tales From a Grammar Groupie: Sentence Basics & Style vs. Ignorance Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kristin Halbrook