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Common Mistakes / Advice to Authors
by
Sara Schwager
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RULE ONE: Read, read, read — the writers of note, either British or American, depending on what you’ll be writing — preferable 18th and 19 century, even for contemporary writers — those are the authors who set the standard for good writing, at least the ones who have survived the test of time — Shakespeare should be on everyone’s reading list, but not as a writer’s guide. The best writers are typically voracious readers from childhood [writers who are parents, take note].

RULE TWO: Don’t just dive into a thesaurus for synonyms, you’ll get caught out for sure, learn the difference between connotation and denotation.

RULE THREE: Don’t use the book Eats, Shoots and Leaves as a guide — a delightful read but modern British usage throughout.

Most problematic in usage and form [culled over some 17 years of editing and copy editing]

  • its / it’s
  • lie / lay
  • affect / effect
  • council / counsel
  • imminent / eminent
  • those kind / those kinds [basically a problem in singular and plural matching]
  • hearty / hardy
  • everyday / every day
  • sometime / some time
  • anymore / any more
  • anytime / any time
  • amount / number amounts can be measured, numbers can be counted — amount of milk, number of cookies
  • upside down [adv] / upside-down [adj]
  • bring / take [this one is really hard to explain, it’s a problem of relative physical position] [“If you are going out, take Johnny with you.] [“When I come to your house, I’ll bring Johnny with me.]
  • principal / principle
  • adapt / adopt
  • who / which / that [and how to punctuate each]
  • into / in to
  • onto / on to [usually as in “hold onto” (wrong) rather than “hold on to” (correct)] the dictionary is your best guide here. place onto the table [wrong] / place on the table [right]
  • gravely / gravelly [usually wrong thusly “a gravely voice”]
  • snugly / snuggly [usually wrong thusly “the seams of the jacket fit together snuggly”]
  • accept / except
  • blond [masc noun, masc and fem adj] / blonde [fem noun]
  • flier / flyer
  • breech / breach
  • aid / aide
  • peek / peak
  • bore / bored [usually wrong thusly: His eyes bore into her.]
  • toward / towards — toward is the standard American form
  • palate / pallet / palette
  • desert / dessert [esp in “just deserts,” since this is so often misspelled as a pun, as in a cookbook titled Just Desserts — few people know that “just deserts” comes from the word “deserve” as in the implication that it’s what you deserve, hence deserts, not desserts]
  • trooper / trouper
  • capital / capitol
  • Columbia / Colombia
  • phase / faze [usually wrong thusly “He wasn’t the least phased.”]
  • confidant [masc] / confidante [fem]
  • checkout / check out
  • rollover / roll over
  • compliment / complement
  • may / might— this one is tricky, if you use “might” for the past tense and “may” for the present, you’ll have it right in almost all cases [British usage is entirely different]
  • further / farther farther refers only to actual physical of the temporal distance — farther down the road, farther in the past.
  • barred / bared [usually wrong thusly “barred his teeth”]
  • rein / reign [usually wrong thusly (being given)“full reign”]
  • separate / divide [another difficult one to explain— you separate two groups of people, you divide a pie into pieces]
  • could hardly / couldn’t hardly
  • discreet / discrete
  • tack / tact [usually wrong thusly “on a new tact” ] — another example of lack of knowledge about the derivation of an idiom, from the sailing term “to tack”
  • me / myself [usually wrong thusly— ”He spoke to John, Joan, and myself.”] usage is slightly different in period writing
  • reluctance / reticence
  • flouted / flaunted
  • that’s / that was
  • envelop [to enclose closely / envelope [what you put a letter into]
  • allusion / illusion
  • lead / led [past tense]
  • shimmy / shinny or shin(verb) [usually wrong thusly — “shimmy down a tree”]
  • sheath / sheaf [usually wrong thusly — “a sheath of papers”]
  • pour / pore [usually wrong thusly — “to pour over an old map”]
  • wove / weaved [usually wrong thusly — “She wove through the crowd.”]
  • horde / hoard
  • loathe / loath [usually wrong thusly — “He was loathe to hurt anyone.”]
  • vocal chords [wrong] / vocal cords [right]
  • wide / narrow and thick / thin — a wide road / narrow necktie: a piece of thin fabric / a thick sandwich. Each of these pairs describes a particular pair or dimensions — wide and narrow describe distance across something, thick and thin describe distance from top to bottom.
  • dove vs dived— although dove has recently made it into the dictionaries, most writers of high fantasy and historical fiction choose to use dived, as a matter of setting the tone of the prose

Clarity of reference of pronouns — be sure, especially when using several pronouns in a sentence or paragraph that it is clear to which each refers. This often requires the substitution of names for some of the pronouns — as the writer, you know to whom you refer, be sure to make it clear to the reader.

Redundancies: off of, in between, and then [most frequent of all redundancies, probably], nodded his / her head, rise up, knelt down, crouched down, went ahead and [ghastly that last one— newcomer from the nineties]

Expletives in three-dimensional person narrative— the narrator isn’t going to say “shit.” That could only come from the point of view [POV] of a character so convert it to internal monologue, usually done by italicizing with or without quotes.

Sensory verbs — feel, smell, taste, etc. — unlike other verbs, this group take adjectives, not adverbs. [to feel bad = to be ill, to feel badly = to have something wrong with one’s sense of touch]

Confusion of singular and plural: “Someone needs to make up their mind.” [one of the worst results of nonsexist language— maybe okay in occasional casual speech, but not in narrative and defninitely not okay in something like a Regency romance or other period or historical pieces] the latter use the sexist “he” of course [sorry, ladies]

Confusion of singular and plural: “Neither he nor she were going.” [“was going” is correct.]

Confusion of singular and plural “There’s three of them in the barn.” [“There are” is correct.]

Verb tenses and sequence of tenses. Most avid readers will usually get this right automatically. If you have problems or questions, a grammar book is your best reference source. If you have a copy editor you can trust, tag the sentence for him or her to look at.

Time referents in dialogue and narrative, for third-person narrative writing. For the most part, dialogue references to time should be words like today, yesterday, tomorrow, now, et cetera. On the other hand, such referents in narrative should be the previous day, the day before, et cetera. The reason for this is to keep the sense of time that separates the dialogue — what is happening in the speaker’s present — from the narrative past. In the same vein, words such as here and now should be used in dialogue, there and then in narrative. If the narrative says [incorrectly] something like “They were going now, ” that means that “they” were going in the present time— the present time of the reader, which makes no sense at all. Keeping to this rule deepens the sense of the past that makes for exciting more immediately involving prose.

Separating the characters from the reader’s present and thoroughly grounding the story line in the past— whether it be Regency or some other nonspecific past. This usage also prevents the ubiquitous “now” that some authors seem compelled to use about every other sentence. [Try counting them sometime, you’ll be amazed— you’ll also see how useless and inappropriate they are.] Don’t insult your readers, they know that what is happening in the narrative is definitely not happening “now.” In narrative now should only be used when there is a clear case of contrast. Example: He didn’t love her now even though he once had. This is probably the most frequently found kind of careless writing. Many authors simply seem not to think it through. For variety, a workaround that can often be used is conversion to interior monologue [unspoken thoughts] Example: Was he just going to leave her here? changed to Is he just going to leave me here?

NOTE: to writers of historical fiction, especially Regency: immerse yourself in the language and vocabulary of the time — the dictionaries that most houses use are Merriam-Webster 11th Collegiate and M-W 3d-unabridged— the former has dates on which words came into the language, admittedly for American English, but they are good baseline reference works to use.

Your usage does not have to be exact, give yourself a fudge factor of a couple of decades.

If a word refers to a person, like mesmerized, you must not use the word in a time period before Mesmer lived— same for a group like hooligans, which refers to a particular group of people in history. The ultimate dictionary for British vocabulary and usage is, of course, the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) — finally available on disc, thank goodness

For Regency writers particularly: Beyond dictionaries, think about the things / ideas / concepts that did not exist in the period within which you are writing, and the slang — avoid using anachronisms like the plague, period language will give you the overall “feel” you want— a good start for Regencies is to read every Georgette Heyer novel you can find, they are the real Regencies. And there are many good Regency sources on the net. Don’t forget to check such online sources as Project Gutenberg / US and Googlebooks— both incredible treasuries of period novels and nonfiction. Also check your local library and ask about interlibrary loan services. Remember to avoid modern slang such as okay, snuck, dove, going to “check on” someone, etc — the list is virtually endless. Again period reading is your best tutor.

Learn your nobility titles and order of importance, forms of address, [ see http://www.chinet.com/~laura/html/titles12.html] rules of inheritance, [there’s a great Web site entitled Addressing the Duke and Inheriting his loot] primogeniture, and entailment. If amounts of money are mentioned, there are several Web sites that give monetary equivalants and conversion to modern American dollars. Others that will give you an idea about how much various levels of servants earned annually, et cetera. Be prepared to be astounded, some of the amounts you find will be unbelievably minuscule. [miniscule is an anachronism for the Regenecy period] If you mention Parliament, find out how it works during the period during which you are writing, this changes substantially over the years.

Remember that much of what you’ll be reading was written in British English. So none of it will be a guide as to word forms — hyphenation, spelling, punctuation, et cetera. But if you accidentally pick up any Britishisms, your copy editor should set any such things right for you.