>How to write a novel: part 4


The most common grammar mistakes can sink an otherwise excellent manuscript with a potential publisher. People need to be very diligent about learning and relearning the rules in the English language. The more polished your manuscript is, the more likely a publisher will be to take interest. The story can be expertly crafted and the characters can be incredibly compelling, but if you don’t seem to care enough to edit for basic errors before submitting it, a publisher will not give you the time of day.

So what I’m going to do here is illustrate some very common errors found in manuscripts and how to correct them.


Incorrect: “Let them eat cake.” Said Marie Antoinette.
Correct: “Let them eat cake,” said Marie Antoinette.

The reason why dialogue and dialogue tags are separated by a comma in a continuous sentence is because they form a complete sentence together in most cases. In the incorrect line, Said Marie Antoinette., is a sentence fragment. If it was reversed, you would be writing: Marie Antoinette said, “Let them eat cake.” You would not write: Marie Antoinette said. “Let them eat cake.” That doesn’t make sense. Therefore, the incorrect version is a sentence fragment and the correct version is a complete sentence. If you aren’t sure, try removing the quotation marks.


There, their, they’re. These words are used incorrectly all the time. Even though they are pronounced virtually the same, they mean different things and are NOT interchangeable! There is a term of location as in “over there”. Their is a term of plural possession as in “their stiletto heels”. They’re is a contraction of they are as in “they’re gorgeous”. Can you see the difference?

Your vs you’re. This one is very simple and I find it maddening that more people don’t understand it. Let me make it very simple. You’re is a contraction of you are and should ONLY be used in sentences in which you mean to say something like, “You are a moron.” Your is a possessive word and should ONLY be used in sentences in which you mean to say something like, “You’re a moron and your brain must be lacking a few cells.” There you go. Very simple.

Affect vs effect. Like above, these two words are pronounced virtually the same but they mean different things and are NOT interchangeable! In the majority of cases, affect is paired with a verb (an action word like going, walking, strutting), while effect is paired with a noun (a person, place or thing). Effect basically means a result of something. So you could say, “She put twinkle lights in her back yard and the effect was stunning.” Affect, on the other hand, means a feeling. So you could say, “The movie affected her heart and mind.”


And etc. Etc. is short for the Latin et cetera which means literally “and so forth.” Therefore, when you say “and etc.” you’re really saying “and and so forth.” This is clearly redundant. Just say “etc” (or preferably “et cetera”). (It may help you to remember that “etc” was once abbreviated &c.)

ATM Machine. The letters ATM stand for “Automated Teller Machine.” Therefore, when you say “ATM Machine” you’re really saying “Automated Teller Machine Machine.” This is obviously redundant. Just say “I’m going to the ATM.”

PIN Number. PIN stands for Personal Identification Number. Therefore you’re saying “Personal Identification Number Number.” Again, redundant. Just say “I need my PIN.”

HIV Virus. Human Immunodeficiency Virus. Are you sensing a trend?

SAT Test. Scholastic Achievement Test. You get the picture.

Comma Splice

A comma splice is the incorrect use of a comma to connect two independent clauses. (Recall that an independent clause is a phrase that is grammatically and conceptually complete: that is, it can stand on its own as a sentence.) To correct the comma splice, you can: replace the comma with a period, forming two sentences; replace the comma with a semicolon; join the two clauses with a conjunction such as “and,” “because,” “but,” etc.

Incorrect: I like Xena, she is very sexy.
Correct: I like Xena. She is very sexy.
Correct: I like Xena; she is very sexy.
Correct: I like Xena, because she is very sexy.

Dangling Participles

A participle is a verb-form that ends in -ing. It is called “dangling” when it doesn’t agree with its subject. “While walking down the road, a tree caught Xena’s attention.” The subject of the sentence is “a tree,” but it is not the tree that is doing the walking, therefore the participle “walking” is dangling. To correct the sentence, write: “While walking down the road, Xena noticed a tree.” OR: “A tree caught Xena’s attention as she walked down the road.” Remember that not all words that end in -ing are participles (e.g. thing) and some participles are gerunds depending on context. (A gerund is a participle that is functioning as a noun, e.g. “My favorite activity is sleeping.”)

Ending a Sentence with a Preposition

Contrary to popular belief, there is no agreement on this one among English professionals. In general, especially if your audience is strict about rules, don’t end a sentence with a preposition. Prepositions are little words that indicate position and such: with, at, by, from, etc. In general a preposition should come before (“pre”-position) the noun it modifies. So you should change: “That’s the warrior I must talk to” to “That’s the warrior to whom I must talk.” However, if too many “to whom”s and “of which”s are making your writing unnecessarily clumsy, go ahead and end with the preposition, especially in informal writing. Remember the famous example (credited to Winston Churchill) that goes: “This is the kind of thing up with which I will not put!”

Split Infinitives

An infinitive is the form of a verb that begins with “to.” (This problem does not exist in any other language of which I’m aware, since infinitives are single words in every language but English.) Splitting an infinitive means placing another word or words between the “to” and the infinitive. This is considered bad by purists, but, like the sentence-ending preposition, it’s mostly a matter of style.

Incorrect: Xena seems to always win a fight.
Correct: Xena always seems to win a fight.

Some semi-purists say it is okay if only one adverb separates the “to” from the infinitive: “To boldly go where no one has gone before.” As with the sentence-ending preposition, though, don’t worry too much about this. Especially if the split infinitive makes your sentence clearer or more graceful, go ahead and use it.

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