Grammar 101: 7 Grammar Rules for Writers

It's no secret that English is a difficult language. Even for native speakers and writers, it is common for mistakes to be made, and we see this all the time in works that are being published. Having an editor and combing through your own work doesn't guarantee that you'll have a clean, grammatically correct piece, as there is still room for human error. A way to minimize mistakes is to understand where these mistakes often occur. Today we'll be going over 7 grammar rules to help you keep your manuscript looking the way it should.

1. Avoid overusing phrases such as "there is", "it is", "there was", "it was", etc.

Example 1: There is a dark figure sneaking around the house.

Revision: A dark figure sneaked around the house.

Example 2: There was a woman staring out the window.

Revision: A woman stared out the window.

The biggest reason why you should avoid these phrases is because they weaken your writing and increase your word count unnecessarily. It's not grammatically incorrect to use them, and you can every once-in-a-while. However, it is much better to cut out the fluff and get straight to the point.

2. Use specific language not vague language.

Example 1: The woman was of average height with features that struck her as being normal.

Revision: At five feet, four inches, the woman's features were plain but pleasant, a girl-next-door type.

Example 2: The witness found the accused intimidating and scary.

Revision: The accused towered over the witness at seven feet, had burn marks on half of his face that had rearranged the skin into a death-mask, and wore a glower that could shake the bravest detective, let alone a witness he had attacked.

3. Clarify consecutive and simultaneous action.

Consecutive actions occur one after another, while simultaneous events occur at the same time.

Example 1: She unlocked the door and opened it.

This sentence doesn't work because logically you cannot unlock and open the door at the exact same time. You must first unlock the door, and then enter it, which makes example 2 correct:

Example 2: She unlocked the door, and then opened it.

While this may seem nit-picky, it does make a difference. Readers are notoriously picky and they notice (and get hung up on) the tiniest details. Don't doubt their intelligence by leaving mistakes like this and thinking they won't catch it, because they will and they won't hesitate to call you out on it.

4. Avoid dangling modifiers.

Modifiers are a word, phrase, or clause that gives more information about another word in the same sentence. When you have a dangling modifier it means that, while you have a word that provides more detail, it is unclear which other word it is adding said information to. This affects the overall meaning of the sentence because there are multiple ways it could be interpreted, therefore making your intended meaning unclear.

Example 1: I'm going to the coffee shop for decaf latte.

In this sentence, decaf is the modifier. This is because it tells us what type of latte the speaker is going to buy. Without it, the speaker is buying a latte but we have no idea what type it is.

Example 2: I'm going to the coffee shop for a latte because it's hot.

In example two, "hot" is the dangling modifier. Here we don't know if the speaker is going to get a latte because it's hot outside, or because the latte itself is hot and they want a hot beverage. Since we can't tell, that's the reason it's a dangling modifier as opposed to just a modifier.


(Option 1) I'm going to the coffee shop for a latte because I want a hot drink.

(Option 2) I'm going to the coffee shop for a hot latte.

(Option 3) I'm going to the coffee shop for an iced latte because it's hot outside.

Depending on what you intended, any of the above sentences work and are a lot clearer.

5. Use active not passive voice.

Active voice is when the subject of the sentence performs the action of the verb on an object.

Passive voice occurs when the object appears as the subject of the sentence instead.

Passive example: The wall was hit by my fist.

Active example: I hit the wall with my fist.

In the passive example, "wall" is the object, "my" is the subject, and "hit" is the verb. What makes this passive is that instead of "my" using the verb (which is the action), the object "wall" is doing the hitting rather than being struck.

In the active example, "wall" is still the object, "I" is the subject, and "hit" is still the verb. The difference is that here it is grammatically correct because the person (subject) which is "I" is the one doing the hitting whereas the object "wall" is what is being struck.

A great way to test for passive voice when you're unsure is to use Rebecca Johnson's zombie method. It's simple and fun to use. All you have to do is take the sentence you're testing and place "by zombies" after it. If the sentence makes sense once you add the zombies, it's passive. If it doesn't make sense anymore, then it's active.

Example 1: The house was attacked (by zombies).

Example 2: A killer attacked the house (by zombies).

Example 1 is passive because the sentence still makes sense when "by zombies" is added. Example 2 is active because the sentence does not make sense when you add "by zombies". This is because in example 1, there is no subject before you add zombies, which becomes the subject. In example 2, there is already a subject "killer", which is why zombies doesn't work.

6. Use "said" and "asked".

Be direct when using speaker tags, which are the words used to describe dialogue. I know there's a big debate about whether or not "said" is outdated or overused, and how you should use more descriptive adverbs instead. Personally, I find that this is determined by what genre you're writing in, and whether your dialogue requires modification or not.

For about 89% of your dialogue, keeping it to "said" and "asked" is appropriate. Think about the last book you read. Can you recall every time the author used the word "said" now that you're done reading? Or do you remember what happened and what was said by the characters? If the answer is the latter, it means that the writer used "said" a lot and they did their job well.

This works because "said" is a bland, overlooked word that places the dialogue into context (like framework) but doesn't attract attention itself. Which means that while you're reading, you're focusing on the flashier dialogue and action rather than word choice. Your mind is so used to reading "said" that it doesn't pay it any attention. That is the point. When you want your readers to remember what is being said, rather then how it's said, this is the route you want to go.

Also keep in mind that some descriptors cannot be used instead of "said." For example words like smile and sighed. It is not possible for someone to smile their dialogue or sigh their words, as these are actions that accompany speech, not descriptors for the words being spoken.

Example 1: "I can't meet you today," she sighed.


(Option 1) "I can't meet you today," she said with a sigh.

(Option 2) "I can't meet you today," she said. She sighed.

Example 2: "I'd be happy to see you," she smiled.


(Option 1) She smiled. "I'd be happy to see you," she said.

(Option 2) "I'd be happy to see you," she said with a smile.

7. Use adverbs sparingly.

Bouncing off of six, using adverbs as speaker tags is something you want to do in moderation. Think of this as the remaining 11% of your dialogue descriptors. It is the exact opposite of "said". Where "said" is bland and unmemorable, words like "glared" pull reader focus so that they pay attention to how something is said, versus just that it is being said. This is useful when you want your readers to pay closer attention or need to give them more clues about the tone of a conversation.

Where you want to be mindful is what words you choose to use as descriptors. Adverbs such as "happily" and "angrily" get the point across, but don't have much power behind them. Using stronger verbs to enhance emotions is much more effective. In the example, the weaker adverb "angrily" is upgraded to the stronger verb of "glared".

Example: "Don't say that," she said angrily.

Revision: "Don't say that." She glared at him.

Make sure that when you use these strong verbs that you resist the urge to use them as the descriptors themselves. Like I said earlier, you can't use "glared" as the speaker tag itself because it is an action.

Example: "Don't say that," she glared.

Revision: "Don't say that." She glared at him.

As much as we all wish it wasn't, when you write a book, grammar is important. By learning the rules and understanding how to use them you can improve the quality of your writing and your work, increasing your chance of publication.

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