“The Elements of Grammar for Writers” Review

3-star rating

This little book is outdated in some ways, yet it has certain charms and retains some value.

Written in 8 BG (“Before Google”)—that is, in 1990, when BG still referred to the Brothers Gibb, personal computers were a new thing, and the internet was mostly a gleam in technologists’ eyes—it’s amusing to see references to hand-written student papers and reminders to make sure you use a new typewriter ribbon when getting a paper ready to turn in.

It was also clearly written primarily for college student writers facing the near-future prospect of having to write papers for employers, not just professors. And it relies on memorization of some rules (only a few, mercifully) and tables and appendices in which the reader can look up grammatical terms and irregular verb forms, because, of course, at the time there was no Google to ask and get 3,578,227 possible answers in 0.0286 seconds.

These quaint antiquities aside, this little book’s first five chapters, and parts of the sixth, do have some value. For example, Chapter 1 kindly clarified for me exactly what a comma splice is, and Chapter 2 reminded me that what I’ve been calling a gerund (like “calling” just now) is actually a verbal, not a verb. Well, dang!

Professors Funk, McMahan, and Day, the authors of this little tome, are still at it. The 9th edition of this book’s replacement is available on Amazon, but at nearly $50 a copy, I have a hard time believing it has the same value as this one, also available on Amazon for a mere $4.59.

Adverbs: Less Is More

It’s common advice in writers’ workshops that adverbs should be replaced with active verbs whenever possible, and that you shouldn’t use too many adverbs.  But how many adverbs is too many?  I decided to find out.

My Methodology

I went to three respected literary magazines and randomly selected the following three stories:

Bogdonoff, Nathan. ”Indoor Animals.” New England Review, Vol. 39, No. 4 (2018).

Li, Yiyun. “All Will Be Well.” New Yorker. 11 March 2019. 

Roth, Philip.  “Goodbye Columbus.” Paris Review, Issue 20, Autumn-Winter 1958-1959.

I copied and pasted the stories into Word, searched for “ly” and highlighted the adverbs in blue.  Then I copied the phrases or sentences in which they appeared into a separate document, and counted the number of occurrences (no, I am not always this OCD).

Then I averaged the three to find a good target number (okay, maybe I am always this OCD).  In all three instances, the number of adverbs represented less than 1% of the total number of words in the story.

What I Learned

Adverbs should represent less than 1% of your total word count.

When you do use an adverb, it should be to describe an action for which there is not a better verb.  Examples:

  • “I never called ahead, and rarely had to wait” – we don’t have a verb that expresses waiting as a rare occurrence.
  • “I may say it a bit too ringingly, too fast, too up-in-the-air, but I say it” – again, there’s no particular verb to express this particular style of speaking
  • “The fawn is peeing, steadily and unabashedly, all over the floor.” – I don’t mean to be gross, but we don’t have a polite verb for sustained or shame-free urination.

Sometimes, adverbs are used deliberately for effect:

  • “these were my most tiresome traits, and I used them tirelessly”
  • “They looked like two lambs, impeccably prepared by their elders as sacrifices to appease a beast or a god.”

Sometimes it seems to be about characterization or voice:

  • “She dove beautifully”
  • “The darker it got the more savagely did Brenda rush the net”
  • “I wasn’t entirely free from the demands of stating my opinions”

Adverbs also appear to be commonly used to express time:

  • rarely
  • finally
  • suddenly (which should be used sparingly, BTW)
  • recently, etc.

Click here to see the data set.

Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, July 31, 2012

Back to busy days, again. Today we’re covering the range from craft to publication.

  • We’ll start with the very most basic of skills: grammar, spelling,and  punctuation. This first article actually wasn’t a blog post but an article in the Harvard Business Review, which I found thanks to Brian Klems (@BrianKlems) and the Writer’s Digest e-newsletter. Kyle Wiens (@kwiens) writes I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar. Here’s Why. Now, Mr. Wiens runs a couple of businesses that are writing-focused, but then, so do we. If we claim to be writers, but can’t tell the difference between their, there, and they’re, is our claim legitimate? Don’t think so.
  • Gabriela Pereira (@DIYMFA) continues her series of posts on what she learned at ThrillerFest with a post on Plot and Story Structure, in which she introduces us to Daniel Palmer’s 4-step approach: The Rhino, The “What if?”, The McGuffin, The Characters. Which would you think is most important? Answer at the end of the post.
  • Jeanne Kisacky introduces us on Writer Unboxed to Writing in the Discomfort Zone, the idea that getting out of what makes us comfortable is what gets us into our best writing.
  • Transitioning us out of “craft” and into what I might call “post-production” topics, Michael Hyatt (@MichaelHyatt) recommends 15 Resources for Pro Bloggers (or those who want to be). While most of these tools are specific to blogs and blogging, and two (Byword and Mars Edit) are Mac-specific with no Windows counterpart mentioned, a few, like Evernote and SnagIt should be useful even to those who don’t (yet) blog.
  • Speaking of blogging and “platform” in general, Porter Anderson (@Porter_Anderson) posts a provocative discussion on “Shadowy Platforms” on Jane Friedman’s (@JaneFriedman) blog. The platforms he’s referring to aren’t locations for thrillers or mystery novels, but all the ways the whole platform-building enterprise can be a time-suck for writers.
  • Moving beyond “platform” to querying, Rachelle Gardner (@RachelleGardner) reprises a 2010 post on The Top Ten Querying Mistakes authors can make (plus a bonus one). The info’s good but be sure to check out the street sign in the photo, too. 🙂
  • And last but not least, we go back to controversy with Kathleen Pickering’s (@KatPickering) Kill Zone post, Kirkus Indie: When a Review Is Good for You. The thing that gets Kathleen’s commenters so riled up is that authors pay for the reviews on Kirkus Indie, the independent-publishing side of Kirkus Reviews magazine. For those of you who have never heard of them, Kirkus provides reviews to librarians, bookstores, publishers, agents, and other movers and shakers in the entertainment industry. A positive review is A Very Good Thing. And hard to come by. BUT! There’s no guarantee that buying a Kirkus Indie review will get an author a good review (morally, that’s as it should be), but that also means the author might pay as much as $575 for something he or she can’t use (morally, that’s questionable: is Kirkus exploiting authors’ need for approval to improve their bottom line?). So as you might imagine, the commentary to Kathleen’s post is, shall we say, animated.