GUM In Our Writing

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by Martha Rogers

As a former English instructor at both the high school and college levels, I am much more aware of the GUM of writing. That’s Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics for those who may not know. Grammar rules do change and the Chicago Manual of Style is what we all go by for our writing. However, some things still get by those copy editors, and when they do, people like me find them and cringe.

Now, we’re all human and we’re going to miss a few things in editing our work. After all, we look at it so much that some things we just don’t see. Sometimes that happens with copy editors, too. It’s much easier to correct those little mistakes in our writing than it is in our speaking, so we should be more aware. Reading our work aloud is a good way to find awkward sentencing or misused words.

I’m not talking about punctuation marks here. I’m talking about words, phrases, and even clauses that are used incorrectly. Misplaced modifiers, dangling participles, and over used phrases are the most common errors. One or two can be overlooked and understood, but when a writer gets hung up on one type of phrase or a particular word, those things begin to jump out at the reader, English teacher or not.

The most glaring one I’ve noticed recently is beginning a sentence with an ing word that allows for two actions at one time. Many times those actions are impossible together and it grates on my nerves something fierce. Like I said, once or twice isn’t so bad because those things do slip through, but when I find page after page of this type phrase starting paragraphs or sentences, it begins to jump out at me as a reader.

In one book I read over the Christmas holidays, I counted fifteen such phrases in one chapter alone. Most of them were correct, but a few had two things being done simultaneously that can’t be done. “Reaching into her purse for her keys, she unlocked the door and walked into the empty house.” Maybe, but it’s a stretch. One little word could change it. “After reaching into her purse…”

A phrase like this can become a “pet phrase” much like words that we use over and over again. Once in while I don’t notice but three times on one page gets my attention. Such things as this will cause me to toss a book and not finish the book.

Do writers become so caught up in making sure they use action words, show instead of tell, use the senses, or limit dialogue tags that they overlook sentence structure? They forget about pronouns and antecedents and change the meaning of a sentence.

Some of those pronoun/antecedent issues can become quite funny. When I was a college instructor, several of us who taught Freshman Comp 101 made a list of some of them. The most common mistake is using a pronoun that refers to the wrong person.

“She was adopted by her mother when she was only seven years old.” The mother was seven years old? That’s what the sentence says. Although I know what the reader means, it still stops me for a minute.

I found many like that then, and now I’m finding them in our books. Of course that probably doesn’t bother anyone else but an English teacher. The Chicago Manual of Style, although expensive, is the best source for what is right or wrong. Asking on the loop is another way of getting correct answers. Then again, some authors don’t ask, don’t check, and end up with errors that slip by.

After saying all this, I must end with the statement that the story rules. Even repetitive writing can be overlooked when the story trumps style. The errors, repetitious words or phrases, or awkward sentences jump at me, but the story is so good that I can’t put the book down and must keep turning pages to see what happens next. Give me a good, solid story with characters who are alive and a plot that keeps me reading, and I’ll forgive just about any GUM errors.

Martha Rogers’ book credits include the novella, Sugar and Grits and A River Walk Christmas, as well as the historical romance series, Winds Across the Prairie. She has also written seven Bible studies, contributed to various compilations and several anthologies including recently released Blissfully Blended, Devotionals for Step-moms from Barbour. Her latest series is Seasons of the Heart. Book 3, Winter Promise, released in January along with Amelia’s Journey, the prequel to Becoming Lucy. Martha sings in the choir at her church and is a co-leader for a First Place 4 Health group. She loves to scrapbook when she has the time. She is a retired teacher and lives in Houston with her husband, Rex where they enjoy spending time with their grandchildren and attending football, baseball, and basketball games when one of them is playing.

Comments 0

  1. Martha, I agree. Especially where you say “Do writers become so caught up in making sure they use action words, show instead of tell, use the senses, or limit dialogue tags that they overlook sentence structure? They forget about pronouns and antecedents and change the meaning of a sentence.”

    For a long time I’ve been concerned (annoyed even) by the dictum that adverbs are usually bad, and the passive tense is verboten! And, by passive people seem to mean anything which uses the verb “to be”. And the meaning is definitely altered by trying to adhere to some of these rules.

    As they say, “You are scratching where I’m itching.”

  2. Well said, Martha. GUM errors, while entertaining,can be grating. They are easily corrected in most cases. I have always enjoyed grammar. I guess it’s the idea of putting the right thing in the right place. However,I definately agree with you that story trumps all

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