Why Grammar, Spelling, and Usage Matter

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Grammar is Sexy

Photo by Thomas Leuthard (Creative Commons)

Anyone who has been following The Write Practice since day one knows how I feel about the semicolon, sentence structure, spelling, and other grammatical foibles. If a writer lacks any of these things in his or her work, it drives me crazy. I'll start railing on about the destruction of the English language, the dumbing down of society, blah blah blah.

But why would any writer care about what I think?

Writing Is Subjective, but Grammar Isn't

Some writers completely throw the rules of structure and grammar out the window, and they're massively successful. Cormac McCarthy comes to mind right away, and there's always the bane of my existence, Twilight author Stephenie Meyer, who wouldn't know what to do with a semicolon if it held her hand and guided itself to its proper placement. If those writers can sell ridiculous quantities of their novels, what's to stop you from following in their footsteps with all your comma splices?

While Ms. Meyer seems to be the glaring exception, if you're a writer looking to publish your first work, these details are of the utmost importance. Why? Because you are an unknown commodity. Readers don't know anything about you or what you've written. They don't know anything about your writing style, and will be judging your work on two fronts: the story, and the structure.

Don't Make Me Abandon Your Book

If no one is familiar with your work, then you have to convince them to continue reading. Sloppy sentence structure, poorly placed punctuation, and spelling errors can tank the reader's opinion of you, and you are the one who needs to earn the reader's attention. I've abandoned books because I've gotten frustrated with the author's poor writing and poor structure, and I'm sure I'm not the only one.

When you're a starting writer, you need to establish your credibility with the reader. Abandoning the rules of structure will do the exact opposite. As annoying as you might find the rules of commas, it will make the reader's work easier. Their attention is yours to lose. Don't let a run-on sentence be the straw that breaks the reader's interest.

Have you ever abandoned a book because of the bad grammar?


Joe here. Liz couldn't think of a practice today, and so she left me to the task, which is always dangerous. While Liz spends her time writing grammar textbooks, I spend mine trying to break each one of their rules.

And so today, let's see what the world would like without good grammar. Free write for fifteen minutes, breaking as many rules as you can think of. Use commas instead of spaces. Bathe yourself in passive voice. Be as rebellious as you like, because Liz is right, if you want to be a successful writer, this might be your only opportunity to break those rules.

When your time is up, post your practice in the comments section. And if you post, be sure to comment on the rule breaking of your fellow writers.

Have fun!

Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.

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  1. Natalie

    I have most definitely abandoned books due to bad grammar! Usually they’re self-published novels. In general, the publishing houses seem to make sure that grammar is at least semi-decent. Bad grammar is a deal-breaker for me, though. I don’t care how intriguing the story sounds—if it’s written with rampant grammatical and/or spelling mistakes, I don’t read it.

  2. Katherine James

    I’ve abandoned a few books simply because the grammar was so bad, it rendered the story unreadable.

    I read a lot of self-published eBooks, so I do give a little bit of lee-way when it comes to grammar. However a few authors would have benefited from an editor running a careful eye over their work.

  3. Rebecca Foy

    This practice was really hard for me– I, too, am a grammar geek; I find improper use of words and punctuation inexcusable. For me, correcting grammar is like breathing. It’s involuntary.
    Okay, I really have no idea where this came from, but here’s my practice:

    Justin looked at the Page Looked at me Looked at Mrs. Akins whose Back’s turned.
    Then He slowly carefully tored the Picture of Obama and his Wife out of his West Virginia history Book crumpled It up and gave It a toss It sailed through the Air and landed silently in the Wastebasket.
    None of Us says Anything. We re as quiet as Four Oclock in an old mining Town.

    Writing this was like stabbing myself! Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go write several pages using perfect grammar and punctuation.

    • Lujain Alkhateeb

      I totally loved this :))
      I am a grammar and spelling officer.
      My friends and family hate it.

      • Rebecca Foy

        I knew I wasn’t the only one!
        And thank you. 🙂

    • Joy Collado

      I had to read it three times to get the picture. lol!

      • Rebecca Foy

        Thanks. That was what I was going for!

    • Morag Donnachie

      I love your inappropriate capitalisations, masterfully done.

  4. TheCody

    OK this is kind of randomly dumb. But passive voice is always fun to write LOL

    The groceries were bought by me. The house was cleaned by me. The kids were picked up by me. His loins were tamed by me. The dinner was made by me. On and on the list goes.

    Yet content my husband is not.

    No matter all the things that get done by me my husband seems entirely completely unhappy.

    He cares only about one thing. But here’s the problem; that one thing I don’t know. The black hole in our relationship is the one thing he needs.

    Everyone has a love language they say. Affection is mine; one hug or touch or caress and the pain goes away. His is apparently a secret. How utterly completely infuriating.

    Can anyone sympathize?

    • Tiktaalik2

      TheCody – yes I can sympathize, and I am sorry you’re in that situation. I have a similar dissatisfied husband (of many years) and it has gradually dawned on me that perhaps — just perhaps — the permanent dissatisfaction could have one or both of 2 causes:
      1.) He has been “dissatisfied” since childhood and it’s become a feature of his personality. It has nothing to do with you – he goes through life that way.
      2.) Being “dissatisfied” is profitable. Especially in a marriage with a compliant spouse who’s eager to please. The more disgruntled and vaguely unhappy he appears, the harder you work to Please the Great and Mighty Oz (Himself, with a capital “H”).
      You could try a harmless and interesting experiment to test cause #2, as follows.
      Detach. Continue your ordinary life with him and make no drastic changes, but continue with a reset in your mind. You no longer recognize the black hole that he sustains and nurtures. You don’t care. That is to say: you care about him, the kids, the groceries and so on, but you have a life of your own. You might have a hobby or a book to read and you have stopped noticing the black hole, entirely. Therefore you pick up the kids and clean the house NOT to please Himself but because it’s the way you do things. If cause #2 is his M.O. he will notice this immediately. DON’T notice that he has noticed, just go on about your business and appear to be content yourself. If he starts moving towards you or his behavior changes then you have nailed cause #2.
      If he continues with no changes, and doesn’t notice the difference then something else is at work with him. Could it be depression? Has he always been like this? For how long?
      I hope things get better for you – marriage is a long road and you should be happy, it’s the only life you have. Also Himself actually owes you and the kids something: He owes you a cheerful husband & father – he really does. People who are perpetually dissatisfied are selfish and manipulative. The best of luck to you – I mean that.

  5. Lujain Alkhateeb

    if the world were black and blue, id know what to do with you, i would know the flavoue of sunshine and the smell of anticipation.
    i would shout out off the rooftops of my love for you; i would whistle and dance and write poems of our romance. but alas, our world is stark & bright. nowhere to be free
    no where to remove the blight
    the blight of judgment and censure
    it is harsh and unforgiving
    you cant breathe without the world checking
    that the levels of carbon emissions coming out of your mouth are agreeing
    with the made up quotas in their heads.
    you know what?
    they’d judge you, even if you were dead

  6. Lucy Crabtree

    You are speaking my language, Liz! It’s kind of like cooking — even the most delicious meals can become unappetizing if the presentation is overlooked.

  7. Adelaide Shaw

    What annoys me the most is the use of “they” when only one person is the subject.
    For example: Someone came in the house, and they left muddy footprints on the floors.
    I would like to see “he or she” or just “he” when the gender is unknown. Some writers use “s/he” which is o.k, too. However, when speaking this doesn’t work.

  8. Morag Donnachie

    Liz wept to see the mess Joe had made by opening up the practise to bad grammer, she thought he didnt know what he was doing, but he knew that by making people write badly deliberately they would have to think hard about the rules of grammar. I struggled to do this properly it pained me right to my core to mess up the language like this when it’s dun well like Cormac McCarthy for example its masterful but when its done badly its just cringe inducing I dont think I can finish the full fifteen minutes it hurts to much.

  9. Michael M Dickson

    This guy is guilty of lazy writing from time to time.

  10. Linda

    I actually have a discussion going on a review of a book I recently did because it was so poorly and sometimes not even punctuated that it was impossible to tell when one sentence started and one stopped if it did. So before you through your arms in the air and wonder what the heck I was talking about if anything at all know that he really did kill her and she him. At least in his dreams.( or maybe not). It’d been not clearer then water under the George washington bridge what the point really was. but I’m pretty sure somewhere it was there or maybe not..

  11. Carol

    Bad grammar irritates me. If you know your grammar stinks, you can learn it via the internet; there are many good sites.



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