Grammar: Your Secret Writing Weapon
Looking for a way to achieve an edge that will raise your writing to the top of an agent’s or editor’s inbox? Dreaming that your pitches, cover letters, query letters, and actual prose will stand out and be noticed? Just want to be taken more seriously as a writer?
It’s a lot easier than you think.
There are a lot of writers out there whose books are being published in one way or another. There are thousands of bloggers with gigantic subscriber lists whose posts are appearing in online journals and magazines. But the truth is…
Most of the writing is pretty average.
The Unfortunate Truth about Writing Quality
To be perfectly honest, average will not get you a contract with a major publishing house or periodical. In the blogging and online magazine world, however, it doesn’t matter as much—just look at almost any blog in existence. In my opinion, this is a real pity. Why is this happening?
Online gatekeepers (and those in the vanity press and self-publishing business) have become so used to mediocrity that many of them don’t know the difference between good enough and remarkable anymore. Their eyes are permanently glazed over. You must, therefore, give them a virtual kick in the pants to wake them up and get them to take notice of you.
You need a secret ingredient.
You’d better sit down for this
It’s called grammar.
Okay, don’t panic. Take a deep, cleansing breath, and stay with me.
Happily, though, there is absolutely no need to learn a million rules and to memorize all the past participle/pluperfect/subjunctive stuff. I promise.
I could go on and on about all the grammar mistakes I see (and I cover them on my blog), but let’s just start with my favorite.
The Who/Whom Mystique
Don’t ask me why, but this one sends chills up and down my spine when I see it done wrong. It’s bad enough when computer geeks and other techies screw it up, but I’ve seen even some of the big guns make the who/whom faux pas, and even (gasp!) writing blogs. Every time I see it on one of these blogs I want to yell, “You went to Princeton, for crying out loud! What is wrong with you?”
But I digress.
It’s pretty easy to make the who/whom mistake, but it’s even easier to correct it. Here’s the only hack you’ll need:
How brilliant is that?
Let’s take some examples:
- To who/m did you give the apple? I gave it to him/Did you give the apple to him? Answer: whom.
- I have no idea who/m you’re talking about. You are talking about him/Are you talking about him? Answer: whom.
- It is David who/m runs the kindergarten. He runs the kindergarten/Does he run the kindergarten? Answer: who.
- It is David who/m I love. I love him/Do I love him? Answer: whom.
- David is the man who/m everyone thinks is the best teacher in the neighborhood. Everyone thinks he is the best teacher in the neighborhood/Does everyone think he is the best teacher in the neighborhood? Answer: who.
- David is the man who/m everyone thinks of when the word “teacher” pops into their head. Everyone thinks of him as the consummate teacher/Does everyone think of him as the consummate teacher? Answer: whom.
- Who/m makes the apple pie around here? He makes the pie/Does he make the pie? Answer: You’re such an expert by now that you can tell me.
- I can’t remember who/m told me. He told me/Did he tell me? I’m not even writing “Answer” over here (although I just did).
Who/Whom on the Master’s Level
This one’s far more tricky than the Bachelor’s-level examples I gave you above. Let’s do it together:
- The phone rang. She asked me who/m it was.
How many of you said the following in your head: “It’s him on the phone”/”Is it him on the phone”?
I rest my case.
This requires another mini-grammar lesson, which I call the ‘Tis I Rule. It goes like this:
Hello? Who is it?
If you can answer ‘Tis I for a question, go for the “who.”
(Fun fact: neither I nor he have the letter m in them, and thus the answer is who; me and him do, and thus the answer is whom.)
- Please share my blog with anyone who/whom you know would benefit from it.
This one’s tricky because had I said only, “Please share my blog with anyone who/whom you know,” the answer would be “whom”: I know him/do I know him? However, here, the last phrase (“would benefit from it”) takes precedence: He would benefit from it/Would he benefit from it? Answer: who.
British and Other Sundry Authorities
According to the British English section of the Cambridge Dictionaries Online, you can use “who” instead of “whom” when you are asking either who did something or to whom something was done, as well as in “indirect questions and statements” (huh?). I will quote them here because their explanation is classic. They even employ the Royal We. Read this with a British accent:
“We use who as an interrogative pronoun to begin questions about people, [and] we use who in indirect questions and statements.”
Love it, but who cares what an interrogative pronoun is? In any case, as a red-blooded American I beg to disagree with Cambridge. Here are two of their examples:
- Who did you talk to? No, no, no. You talked to him.
- Can you tell me who I should talk to? Poppycock; in the name of all that’s red, white and blue, you should talk to him.
(Okay, don’t trust me. See http://www.elearnenglishlanguage.com/blog/english-mistakes/who-vs-whom/. This is what they have to say:
- Whom did they tell?
Or take a look at http://www.grammar-monster.com/lessons/who_whom.htm. They say:
- Whom are you going to invite?
- Claire saw whom yesterday?
- Whom did you go to the cinema with?)
You Are Now on the Road to Bigger and Better Things
There is no such thing as superlative writing without superlative knowledge of grammar. It is part and parcel of segueing your first draft into a finished and publishable manuscript or article, and another step on the path toward an acceptance letter. Actively pursue that knowledge, and you’ll find yourself standing out from the crowd.
Do you have any grammar pet peeves? Let us know in the comments below!
Put on your editor’s hat and spend 15 minutes skimming through the most recent posts you read from your favorite bloggers (including The Write Practice!). Find as many who/whom mistakes as you can and correct them. Put the corrected sentences in the comments below. It will be interesting to see who gets the most…or is it whom gets the most? You tell me.
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