Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Most Annoying Syntax Error

It looks like Blogger is back up and running correctly! At least for me. We'll see how long it lasts.

I know a couple other editors read this blog, so I'm asking you, as well as anyone else with an opinion: Does the following syntax error bother you as much as it does me?

"Thank you." She said.

Of course, that text should be:

"Thank you," she said. 

Dialogue with improper grammar—specifically, that improper grammar—is one of the most frequent errors I see in OTP submissions. It's happening so often, I can think of only two plausible causes:

1) An entire generation of writers has grown up learning how to use grammar correctly in other situations, but not dialogue. Quite often, that mistake is the only one I see in a well-written story, yet it happens multiple times in that story, as if the author learned different rules than I did. (It happens in poorly written stories too, but so do a dozen other kinds of errors, so I doubt the causes are the same in that case.)

2) Microsoft Word and other word processors are applying grammar rules of normal writing to dialogue. The stupid programs keep saying "a sentence can't end in a comma," and following that up with "the first word in the next sentence needs to be capitalized." 

What frustrates me is, I don't know how severely I should punish authors for this mistake. What if the last thing an author does before submitting a story is run "one last" spell and grammar check, and has the program set to fix errors automatically, and doesn't notice what the program is doing to dialogue? In that case, a good writer is being a bad software user, and those are different skills. 

True, for the last 20 years or so, all good writers had to learn to be good users of word processors, but this particular grammar "fix" seems to be a fairly recent development. And I've learned that even in 2012, a number of very good writers don't know crap about computers, word processors, or anything IT-related. Not even when they're younger than word processing itself (which floors me, but it's true--today's 20-somethings are NOT all skilled computer users, even though they grew up with computers even more than I did).

There's going to come a time when not knowing how to take full advantage of a word processing program's features will be as inexcusable as not knowing 

"Thank you," she said. 

is correct dialogue grammar. But until that day arrives, I think I have to be a bit lenient with this particular error.

What do you think?


  1. As a middle school English teacher (and as someone who has been published in OTP), I have a couple of theories about this. First of all, though today's youth is saturated in technology, it isn't always tech savvy. Spending hours on iTunes or YouTube doesn't mean they'll be able to use MS Word effectively. And while MS Word isn't auto-correcting commas to periods, it won't penalize you for using the period in the dialogue, either. In this instance, the writer needs to know what he/she is doing.

    Another possible cause is that, for at least the last 10-15 years, direct grammar instruction has been out of favor in education. Emphasis has been on content and development of thoughts rather than on observation of spelling or grammatical rules. It's a double-edged sword, because it rewards insight and thought process over nit-picking about misplaced modifiers and comma splices, but also results in a generation of writers who don't know/don't care about "minor" issues like grammar.

    As for your response, I would not weigh that one error too heavily, even if it's repeated. Let the author know his/her shortcoming during the editing process, but it would be a shame to reject a high-quality story because of a punctuation mark. If it's a borderline story...well, let's hope the author reads your post and makes the fix before it's too late!

  2. Formal writing must consider the grammatically correct formulas but when constructing characters and writing dialogue for characters of varying backgrounds and sophistication many of the rules for spelling and grammer are useless. The writing follows more along the lines of playing an instrument by ear. Without thinking about it, you must sense the pauses, emphysis and tone.

  3. I see stuff like that all the time. That error bothers me a lot because it shows that the writer did not proofread. Usually the error happens because the writer's computer has an automatic formatting issue, but still...I wouldn't publish anything sent to me by a writer who obviously doesn't proofread. Hate that.