The craft and business of writing and self publishing

Prose Pointers

By Pam McCutcheon

There’s a lot of misunderstanding as to the proper usage of some words in the English language, and many mistakes even make it onto the page, especially in these days of self-publication and rushing into print. It’s very difficult to proof your own writing, as I know all too well. As a freelance editor, writer, and avid book consumer, I see a lot of these mistakes. So, each month, I highlight a few of the errors I see most often.

 

He could of been a contender.

 

This is so wrong, I don’t understand how it ends up in print, but it often does. All right, I understand that “could’ve” sounds just like “could of” when you say it aloud. However, “could of” doesn’t make any sense grammatically. If you think you may be guilty of this, search your manuscript for every instance of “could of” and “would of” and change the “of” to either “have” or its contraction.

In other words, it should be written this way: He could’ve been a contender. Or, even better, use it without the contraction so you don’t get confused: He could have been a contender.

 

The wolf beared her teeth.pam

 

I edited a manuscript recently in which the author wrote this. Now, in one sense, the wolf does “bear” her teeth in that she possesses them in her mouth. However, since the author meant that the wolf was displaying her teeth in a threatening manner, this sentence is incorrect. Instead, she should bare her teeth, meaning to uncover them: The wolf bared her teeth.

 

The detective circled the grizzly scene.

 

What kind of scene? Is he investigating grizzly bears? If so, this would be correct.

A friend told me she’d accidentally published a similar sentence in her suspense novel. Unfortunately, she wasn’t talking about bears. So, since she meant to refer to a gruesome sight, she should have referred to it as a “grisly scene.” The words sound alike, but have entirely different meanings. It’s an easy mistake to make! In her case, it should read: The detective circled the grisly scene.

 

Prose Pointer:

Our characters nod their heads and shrug their shoulders a lot.

Is there something wrong with that sentence? Well, there’s nothing wrong, exactly. But it’s slightly redundant, and adds unnecessary words. If you aspire to “write tight” as I do, leave out the head and shoulders. They’re a given. After all, you wouldn’t see someone nodding with a foot or shrugging with an elbow, would you?

Here’s how I could have written it: Our characters nod and shrug a lot. Does the sentence lose any meaning written this way? Nope—it’s less wordy, more concise, and, I think, better that way.

 

Pam Jean Jacket small

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Pam McCutcheon is a freelance editor, writer, and speaker who pens romantic comedy, fantasy short stories, and nonfiction books for writers under her own name, and YA urban fantasy as Parker Blue. Her books include the popular Writing the Fiction Synopsis and The Writer’s Brainstorming Kit (with Michael Waite). Learn more about her at pammc.com.

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