All of us as writers try to find our voice, but at times this conflicts with what we learned, – and taught – in those dreaded English Grammar classes. I have found 3 books particularly helpful in releasing me from that straitjacket, and recommend them to writers of essays, short stories and novels.
It is easy to look things up in the timeless “The Elementsof Style” by William Strunk and E.B. White. The first chapter, on ‘Elementary Rules of Usage’ includes reminders of when to use the singular verb form, and how to avoid dangling modifiers. Chapter 4, ‘Words and Expressions Commonly Misused’ includes examples such as ‘state’ which should be used in the sense of “expressing fully or clearly”, as in “He refused to state his objections”, and not simply to make a change from ‘say’ or ‘remark’. The fifth and final chapter, ‘An Approach to Style’ ends with the observation that “Style takes its final shape more from attitudes of mind than from principles of composition.” All of us who write can find gems in this handy reference book.
It’s also available in a Kindle Edition.
“The laws of grammar come and go,” says Patricia T. O’Conner in her book “Woe is I - the Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in PlainEnglish”, another favourite of mine. In a readable style, she takes a logical approach to the rules of grammar. She advises us, in chapter 9, which laws of grammar should be followed and which are passé, for example splitting the infinitive. I was trained never to put another word between ‘to’ and its related verb. Then came “To boldly go where no one had gone before”. Nothing wrong with that, says O’Conner – be guided more by the sound of your sentence than following a rule.
One would not expect a book on punctuation to be entertaining, but I enjoyed “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” by Lynne Truss. In her enlightening chapter “That’ll Do, Comma”, she quotes Sir Ernest Gowers, “The use of commas cannot be learned by rule”.
She also gives examples of the effect of changing the position of the comma. “Go, get him surgeons”, and “Go get him, surgeons” have different meanings; as do “Verily I say unto you, This day thou shalt be with me in Paradise”, and “Verily I say unto you this day, Thou shalt be with me in Paradise”.
A final note to writers, it’s easy to be so taken up with rules of grammar that creativity is stifled. To prevent that happening, when writing your first draft, turn off your inner editor and let your writing flow. After writing that, you can turn the inner editor back on. Then you can battle out with a critique group partner, or an editor, your interpretation of rules of grammar.