The Five Most Common Errors

I review a lot of books--more than 80 last year, and some years over 100--and, as someone who’s worked as a copy editor for a major publishing house, I notice errors in them. 

I notice the same errors over and over, which is why I wrote The Well-Presented Manuscript. I'm not just talking about indie authors, either. I read a lot of trad-pub books as well, and I've seen all the same errors in books from major publishing houses as I see from indies. 

Some of the errors that I notice over and over are particularly common, so I thought I’d write a brief summary of them: what they are, and how to avoid making them. There are two tense errors, two comma errors, and an apostrophe error. I see them in books that are otherwise well edited and smoothly written, so it seems not nearly enough people are aware that they are errors. I’d like to change that.

In no particular order, because I see all of these about as often as each other:

Missing Past Perfect Tense

Most books--most books written for adults, at least--are written in the past tense. It’s not the tense we use most often in daily life, though. So there are a couple of pitfalls that I see a lot of authors dropping into in past tense narration.

The first relates to the “narrative moment”. If you’re narrating in the present tense, the narrative moment is the present--that’s when the story’s current action is occurring. But if you’re narrating in the past tense, the narrative moment is a specific time in the past. Whether it’s yesterday, last week, or a thousand years ago, there’s a particular time when the action you’re describing occurred.

The problem occurs when you refer to events that happened before the narrative moment, in what you might call “the past of the past”. For example, if I’m narrating action that happened yesterday, and I need to talk about something that happened the previous week, I need to signal my reader. The reader needs to know that the event happened at a different time, before the main action that I’m narrating, otherwise they’ll be confused.

There’s a tool for that, and it’s called the “past perfect”. It works like this:

John knew how to use the past perfect tense, because one of his professors had taught it to him.

At the narrative moment, John knew a skill. Prior to the narrative moment, one of his professors had taught it to him; the professor was not teaching him at the narrative moment. By using “had”, I signal the reader that the teaching happened prior to the time that the main action took place. It’s confusing to say:

John knew how to use the past perfect tense, because one of his professors taught it to him.

The teaching happened before the knowing.

Now, that example isn’t necessarily all that confusing. An alert reader will figure out that the teaching happened before the knowing without too much of a blip. But people who have a habit of leaving out the past perfect frequently do confuse their readers, when they switch, without signalling, from talking about the moment of the present action to talking about earlier events. Consider this sentence:

The implications of what she did struck him.

If “what she did” was a thing that happened at a previous time, say, the day before or the week before, this is disorienting to the reader, who is whiplashed from the previous week to the current narrative moment without notice. In the particular example I'm paraphrasing there, "she" wasn't even present in the scene, which made it still more disorienting. Much better and clearer to say:

The implications of what she had done struck him.

“May” versus “Might”

Another common error is also about past-tense narration, so I’ll talk about it next.

Consider these sentences:

I know that I can use tense correctly.

I knew that I could use tense correctly.

I say that I will use tense correctly.

I said that I would use tense correctly.

I hope that I may use tense correctly.

I hoped that I might use tense correctly.

Note that last one in particular. Surprisingly often, I see an author narrating in the past tense use “may” rather than “might”. I don’t know why people don’t get “can/could” and “will/would” wrong, but do get “may/might” wrong. (I have actually seen one author get “will/would” wrong, but only one).

It is wrong, though. There’s a narrative convention known as “free indirect speech,” which is a summary of what someone said or thought, rather than a quotation or transcription of their exact words or thoughts. All of the above examples are in free indirect speech, and when you’re using free indirect speech in a past-tense narrative, the speech gets converted into the past tense as well. All of the speech, including “may” being converted to “might”.

"May" and "might" do have some differences in usage, and they're used sometimes to mean subtly different things, but in the case of free indirect speech, convert "may" to "might". Otherwise, the effect is as if your past tense narration switched momentarily into the present. It draws attention to itself, and can cause readers to stumble.

The Coordinate Comma

The coordinate comma is the comma that goes between adjectives in a list:

Henrietta was a famous, wealthy aardvark.

You could replace the comma in that sentence with “and”:

Henrietta was a famous and wealthy aardvark.

Or you could mix them round:

Henrietta was a wealthy, famous aardvark.

Neither of those adjectives sticks more strongly to “aardvark” than the other. But consider this sentence:

Henrietta was a small grey aardvark.

You wouldn’t say:

Henrietta was a small and grey aardvark.

Nor would you say:

Henrietta was a grey small aardvark.

And because of those two tests, you also shouldn’t punctuate it like this:

Henrietta was a small, grey aardvark.

The comma doesn’t belong there. In part, this is because “grey aardvark” forms a unit that is more tightly bound than, say, “famous aardvark”; it seems to be a characteristic of colours and substances in English that they bind to their nouns, almost forming noun phrases. Hence, you’d say “a large stone castle” or “a thick red rug” or “long black hair” or “a thin cotton T-shirt,” all without the comma.

Now, in my book I say, “This is kind of an obscure rule, and if you don’t know it, or if you mess it up occasionally, most people won’t notice.” That’s true--unless you get it wrong constantly. As I write, I’m reading a book in which the author is extremely fond of the pattern “adjective adjective noun,” and almost always puts a comma in between the two adjectives, and is almost always wrong to do so. There are dozens and dozens of them, and any minor mistake repeated often enough becomes a major mistake. It’s driving me to distraction--distraction from the story, that is.

Not to mention that she does it in situations like:

one, sudden lunge

Yes, “one” is technically an adjective (like all numbers). No, you shouldn’t put a comma between it and another adjective, because you wouldn’t say:

sudden, one lunge

She also manages to write "regular, twenty-second intervals", "the prevalent, ammonia tang of fish", "his hated, human shape", and "black, drawstring trousers".

If you are going to use the “adjective adjective noun” pattern often, make sure you learn the coordinate comma rule--all of it, not just the “include a comma” part, but the “here’s when not to include a comma” part.

The Vocative Comma

“Vocative” just means that you’re addressing someone, so the “vocative comma” is the comma you use when you’re addressing someone--whether by their name, their title, or some other form of address.

Consider these sentences:

I don’t know, Jack.

I don’t know Jack.

Let’s eat, Grandma.

Let’s eat Grandma.

Shoot straight, boys.

Shoot straight boys.

The first in each pair uses the vocative comma, and addresses Jack, Grandma, and some otherwise unspecified “boys”. The second in each pair doesn’t, and it means something different. Instead of being addressed, Jack, Grandma, and the boys are the objects of those sentences, and are (as grammarians say) suffering the action of the verb. Grandma and the boys are suffering rather more literally than Jack is.

The vocative comma is always required, any time someone is being addressed. This is true whether the term of address is at the start of the sentence:

Mr. Watson, come here--I want to see you.

In the middle of the sentence:

I have to say, Colonel Baird, that’s remarkable.

Or at the end of the sentence:

What a day, bro.

The vocative comma comes after a term of address at the beginning; before and after a term of address in the middle; and before a term of address at the end.

If you leave the vocative comma out, not only do you risk suggesting to your family that you should cannibalize your grandmother, but your sentences will sound breathless and rushed. It’s one of the mistakes that, to me, most clearly distinguishes professional from unprofessional writing.

Plural Possessives

I’ve already explained these at length in the apostrophes post, so I’ll just point you there. I hope it’s clear and straightforward.

And if I had to pick a sixth most common error? Mispunctuated dialog, especially punctuating the "tag" ("she said" or equivalent) as if it was a separate sentence. It's less common than the other five, and tends to be an error of inexperienced writers (whereas I've seen the others committed by more experienced people as well), but it's not nearly as uncommon as it should be.

I’d say that, out of the authors whose books are appealing enough for me to actually pick up and try to read, about 70% make at least one of these errors. If you can eliminate them, that will make your manuscript cleaner than most. 

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