This is a grammar guide written by Kelly Mortimer from the Mortimer Literary Agency. While she closed the agency a few years ago, I asked her permission to post this information so authors can have some idea on what agents look for when it comes to editing their manuscript. I know I’ve come back to it time and time again when I edit. I hope you find it useful!
PLEASE remember this is copyrighted information and not written by me.
Grammar Guide For Self-Editing or Editing Groups
by Kelly Mortimer ©2008
A – Awkward Sentence Structure – Rearrange, rephrase, or try deleting unnecessary words.
Aa – Additive Adjunct – No comma before “too” when it’s the last word of a sentence, and “too” means also. Ex: “Jane graduated from high school too.” Use a comma when “too” appears elsewhere and still means also. Ex: “Jane, too, graduated from high school.”
Ap- Attribution Punctuation – When using an attribution such as “said,” don’t use a period at the end of the preceding sentence. Use a comma, a question mark, or an exclamation point. Don’t capitalize “he, she, they.” Exs: “I have to move into a new house,” she said. –“It’s huge!” she said. — “I’m going to live here?” she asked [or ‘said’]. If the attribution comes before the sentence, use a comma. Ex: She added, “But I know I’ll love it here.” Only capitalize the first word after the sentence if it’s a proper name. Exs: “It doesn’t look small to me,” Jane said. — “It’s huge!” Jane said. — “I’m going to live here?” Jane asked [or ‘said’].
Use a period with a tag or beat: “It doesn’t look small to me.” Jane shaded her eyes with the back of her hand to maximize her view.
Aw- A while vs. Awhile – Never follow a preposition with the word “awhile.” “Awhile” is an adverb that means “for a while.” Ex: “Stay awhile” means “Stay for a while.”
“A while” is a noun phrase that follows a preposition like “for” or “in.” Ex: “Stay for a while.”
B – Blond/Blonde – Blond is an adjective used to describe. Ex: “She has blond hair.”
Blonde is a noun. Ex: “She’s a tall blonde.” (The “e” is rarely used when referring to men.)
Bc – Because – When possible delete “because” and form two sentences. Subordinate conjunctions can annoy readers if overused.
Bg – Began/Begin/Started – When does beginning become doing? Immediately! Ex: Correct: “He walked toward the door.” Better: “He began to walk toward the door.” (There are exceptions.)
Bi – Backstory or Internal Thought – Don’t write long paragraphs of internal thought or backstory to “info dump” every detail of a character’s past. Break it up. Change to dialogue or action whenever possible. No backstory allowed in the first chapter (at least).
Bs – Be Specific – Forget it. Forget that. Forget this. Huh? Be more descriptive. Ex: Bad: “He handed it to her.” Better: “He handed her a drink.” Best: “He handed her a frosty mug of root beer.” You can use unspecific words in the second part of a sentence if the first part is specific. Ex: “She took off the necklace and put it away.”
C – Contractions – Without contractions, writing is clunky. Read both sentences aloud. Ex: “I have hurt my knee and cannot exercise, but do not let that stop you.” Better: “I’ve hurt my knee and can’t exercise, but don’t let that stop you.” Exception: Dialogue. Characters have different speech patterns. Most people who speak English as a second language don’t use contractions, as well as those who like to sound … educated.
Cd – Character Description – When a character is in their POV, they shouldn’t describe themselves. Bring out features through another character’s eyes. Ex: “Jane grabbed her brush and tugged it through her blond hair.” Correct: “Jane grabbed her brush and tugged it through her hair.”
Cl – Colors – Instead of using an ordinary color, choose a more vivid word. Ideas on last page.
Cn – Colon Use – A colon denotes you’ve described something in the preceding text, (1) A phrase or a list. Ex: “Jane went to the cupboard needing only two ingredients: salt and pepper.” (2) If the phrase after the colon is a short, complete sentence; there’s no need to capitalize the phrase. Ex: “Jane found a simple recipe to make soup: she had to mix broth, vegetables, and salt and pepper.” (3) If the phrase after the colon is a long, complete sentence and denotes a different thought; capitalize the first word. Ex: “Knowing how to make the soup was vital: Jane couldn’t risk having her friends decline an invitation to her next dinner party.”
Cq – Colloquialism – Using two possessives to modify one noun. Ex: “Her friend’s dad’s car is old.” Correct: “Her friend’s dad has an old car”
Cs – Comma in a Series – (1) Place a comma before the “and” in the last element in a series to prevent ambiguity. Ex: “I’m going to the park, the school, and the store.” (2) If the last element has a pair of words joined by “and,” the comma goes before the first “and,” but not the last. Ex: “Jane’s going to the park, the school, and the store to buy salt and pepper.”
Csi – CSI Syndrome – Ever watch the TV show CSI? The two investigators stand over the body and say things to each other they’d obviously know, and would never say aloud. The characters are speaking to let us know. Sorry, no-can-do in a manuscript. Find another way.
D – Dash – Don’t overuse. No spaces before or after a dash. (1) Placed at the end of dialogue, a dash shows interruption. (2) Can replace commas, but be consistent. Use either two commas, or two dashes. Incorrect: “Jane loved the soup, as it tasted great—but what if her friends hated it?”
D/t – Day / Time – Avoid starting paragraphs with the day/time. It’s telling. Exs: “The next morning…” (or) “Two hours later…”
Des – Delete Extra Space – One space after ending punctuation. Or, I noted an extra space in your manuscript.
E – Ellipses – Shows hesitation, a pause, or omitted words. Don’t overuse. Spaces
before and after mid-sentence ellipses. Regular punctuation for ellipses at the end of a sentence.
Ex – Exclamation Points – Use when a character shouts, or the mental equivalent! Use SPARINGLY! If not, the exclamation point loses its effect!
F – Farther vs. Further – “Farther” describes distance, literally. Ex: “I can’t walk any farther.” Use “Further” in a figurative sense. Ex: “I don’t want to research the subject any further.”
Fbp – Floating Body Part – One shouldn’t “take a hand,” or state, “her eyes flew to him.” You can lead someone, and a character’s gaze can fly to another’s. Those parts need to stay attached.
H – Hyphenate – (1) Hyphenate when modifying a noun. Ex: “Jane has a five-year-old child.” (or) “Jane has a five-year-old.” (child is implied) Incorrect: “Jane’s child is five-years-old.” (2) No hyphen after a “ly” word. Correct: “Jane ran to a brightly lit room.”
I – Intensifier – Emphasizes the word it modifies. Ex: “Monday turned really cold.” Use a stronger word instead of a weak one, plus an intensifier. Better: “Monday turned frigid.” Other Examples: very, totally, quite, extremely, severely, etc. (There are exceptions.)
Ia – It and As – Avoid starting sentences with the words “it” or “as.” Be specific on the “it,” or delete the “as,” and add the word “and” after the comma. Ex: A: “As he turned the car around, his heart sank.” Ex: Better: “He turned the car around, and his heart sank.” (There are exceptions.)
Iu – Intended Use – Use words for their intended purpose. Ex: “She has pretty hair.” Incorrect: “She arrived pretty late.” (or) Ex: “She has a little dog.” Incorrect: “Her dog ate little.” (I wonder if ‘little’ tasted good? Sorry; couldn’t help it.)
Iw – It was/wasn’t – If the sentence makes sense without, delete.
Lo – Locution – Delete phrases like “she wondered,” and rephrase into a question. Ex: “She wondered why her sister always cut her hair.” Better: “Why did her sister always cut her hair?”
Lp- Long Paragraph – Break it up. Readers like to see some white space on a page.
Ls – Long Sentence – Break it up. If you have to pause to take a breath, the sentence is too long.
Ly – Use of “LY” Adverbs – These sneak emotions into attributes, or weaken a sentence. Ex: “You’re not nice,” Jane said angrily. Better: “You’re despicable.” (There are exceptions.)
M – Media – Italics – Movies, TV shows, books, book-length poems, magazines, plays, radio shows, works of art, instrumentals, operas. Also ships/boats.
Quotation Marks – TV episode titles, songs, stories, articles, poems, and photographs.
Mm – Misplaced Modifier – Placement of a word, phrase, or clause that modifies an unintended word, causing ambiguity. Ex: “Slim and beautiful, the crowd applauded for the new Miss America,” which reads, “The crowd is slim and beautiful.” Correct: “The new Miss America was slim and beautiful, and the crowd applauded for her.”
Mr – Motivation/Reaction Problem – Putting the character’s reaction before what motivates him/her to react. Check sentences with “as” in the middle. Switch the sentence around, ditch the “as,” and add “and,” or make two sentences placing the motivator first. Ex: “Jane shivered with fright as footsteps sounded on the stairs.” Correct: “Footsteps sounded on the stairs and Jane shivered with fright.” (or) “Footsteps sounded on the stairs. Jane shivered with fright.”
Np – New Paragraph – Start one when you introduce a new speaker, new subject, or, use a one-sentence paragraph to make the statement more dramatic.
Nu – Negation Use – Phrasing your sentence in the negative. Ex: “The park isn’t more crowded on a Sunday than a holiday.” Delete “no, not, never, etc.,” to change the sentence in the positive. Correct: “The park is as crowded on a Sunday as a holiday.”
Nx – Next Page – See next page.
Op – Omniscient POV – Also called Author Intrusion. The author or a narrator is talking to the reader. Considered the least preferred point of view by many. Ex: “She prayed for her friends. If she could’ve predicted the future, she’d have prayed for herself.”
P – Passive vs. Active Sentence Structure – Write in an Active Voice. Active structure: (1) is “A” does to “B.” Passive structure is “B” is done by “A,” or, the subject of the sentence is acted upon. Ex: Passive: “The soup was stirred by Jane.” Active: “Jane stirred the soup.” (2) “Was” before words ending in “ed,” and “ing.” -see “Pr.”) Passive: “Jane was confused when she read the soup recipe.” Active: “The soup recipe confused Jane.” (3) Replace expressions with a transitive in the active voice. “Was that”: Passive: “The reason Jane wanted to make soup was that her skills were rusty.” Active: “Waning skills drove Jane to make soup.” (4) “There were/is”: Passive: “There were many vegetables included in the pot of soup.” Active: “Vegetables abounded in the pot of soup.” (5) “Could be”: Passive: “In ten minutes, the soup Jane made could be eaten.” Active: “They could eat Jane’s soup in ten minutes.” (6) “Had been”: Passive: “Jane had been sure her soup would taste good.” Active: “Jane thought her soup would taste good.”
Pl – Pleonasm – A form of redundancy. A phrase or word that repeats itself. Exs: Incorrect: twelve noon, one a.m. in the morning, round in shape, I saw it with my own eyes, etc. Correct: noon, one a.m., round, I saw it, etc.
Pov – Point of View Problem – (1) If you switch to another character’s POV, show the break with an extra space or start a new chapter. (2) Your character can’t see certain things in their POV. Ex: “She turned her back on him and he frowned.” (She can’t see a frown if she turns her back.) (3) Your characters can’t see themselves. Ex: “Her face turned bright red.” Correct: “Heat rose to her cheeks.” (4) Avoid: he saw, she heard, he knew, etc., when in that character’s POV. We know who’s seeing, hearing, knowing, etc. Incorrect: “She saw him moving across the room.” Correct: “He moved across the room.”
Pp – Purple/Poetic Prose – A stylistic device. Flowery, poetic speech. Lengthy descriptions and/or too many metaphors. Stay away from these. Denotes a newbie writer!
Pq – Punctuation for Quotes – For single and double quotes used for emphasis, both the period and the comma go inside the quotation marks, all other punctuation goes outside.
Pr – Progressive Past – Simple past is better. Look for “was” and “were” before words ending in “ing.” Ex: Progressive Past: “Jane was stirring the soup.” Simple Past: “Jane stirred the soup.” Sentences require progressive past if something interrupts an action. Ex: “Jane was stirring the soup when the doorbell rang.”
Q – Qualifier – An unnecessary word that blurs your meaning and weakens your sentence. Something either is, or it isn’t. Ex: “It was a bit cold outside.” Better: “It was cold outside.” Other examples: rather, a little, a lot, seemed, only, slightly, just, almost, nearly, sort of, kind of, etc. Exceptions: a character’s speech pattern or speculation on what another character is thinking.
R –Repetition – Repeating the same words too often. (IMO: More than twice per page, or twice in a paragraph.) (There are exceptions.)
Rd – Redundancy – Telling us something you’ve already told us, even in a different way or with different words.
Rp – Reflexive Pronoun – Only use pronouns ending in “self,” when the pronoun refers to the subject. Ex: “I hit myself.” Don’t use “own” in conjunction with a pronoun when referring back to the subject. Incorrect: “My own sister died.” Correct: “My sister died.”
Sa – Simultaneous Action – Having a character do something that’s physically impossible; doing two things at the same time. Common when a sentence starts with a word ending in “ing.” Incorrect: “Pulling out of the driveway, he drove down the street.” Correct: “He pulled out of the driveway, then drove down the street.”
Sc – Semicolon Use – A semicolon joins a compound sentence. Ex: “Jane tasted the soup; it was delicious.”
Sd – Said – (1) One can’t: bark, growl, snap, chuckle, howl, grimace, roar, smile, pout, or snarl a word. These are sounds or facial expressions. (2) Don’t reverse: “said she.” This style is valid, but is reminiscent of children’s books. Ex: “See Spot run,” said Jane.
Si – Split Infinitive – An infinitive is the form of the verb that comes after “to.” A split infinitive is when another word comes between “to” and the verb. Ex: “Jane seems to always to stir the soup that way.” Better: “Jane always seems to stir the soup that way.” (Not a must rule.)
Sm – Simplify – (1) Use simple, normal, phrases/words. Ex: “Jane ameliorated
her obsolete attire, augmenting it with additional purchases.” Better: “Buying new clothes improved Jane’s old wardrobe.”
T – That – Often a throwaway word. If the sentence makes sense without it, delete.
Tl – Telling – (1) after, as, when, during, until, before, with, and while at the beginning of a sentence is often telling. (2) Watch forms of “to be” and “felt.” Incorrect: “He felt angry.” Better: “He clenched his fists so hard, his knuckles turned white.”
Tmi – Too Much Information – (1) Don’t write long paragraphs with lengthy descriptions of scenes or rooms, etc. Break them up. (2) Don’t go into detail about what your characters’ actual positions are. This makes it harder to picture the scene. Ex: “He held the man’s right arm with his left hand, and then kicked with his right foot to the man’s left side.” Better: “He held the man’s arm, then kicked him in the side.”
Tw – That vs. Which – Use “that” to introduce a restrictive (defining) relative clause. Identifies what/who is referred to. Ex: “I want to buy a book that has large print.” That has large print is the restrictive clause explaining what kind of book I want to buy. “Which” is used with non-restrictive (non-defining) clauses. Ex: “The students complained about the textbook, which was hard to understand.” The clause which was hard to understand is non-restrictive because it doesn’t point out which book the students complained about. (There are exceptions.)
Uw – Unnecessary Words and Phrases – Omit extra words and phrases. Write each sentence with as few words as possible. Phrase Offenders: the fact that, all of a sudden, at the very least, in spite of, if nothing else, etc. Ex: “By the way, I just wondered if you think that this dress looks good on me.” Better: “Does this dress look good on me?” Word Offenders: that, perhaps, however, although, over, under, up, down, back, even, quite, rather, suddenly, etc. Ex: “Suddenly, I thought that perhaps she should go over there and sit down up on top of the fence.” Better: “She should sit on the fence.”
W – Walked/Ran – Boring! Options: advanced, ambled, boogied, darted, dashed, drifted, glided, hastened, hiked, hustled, jogged, loped, lurched, marched, meandered, minced, moseyed, moved, paced, paraded, patrolled, plodded, pranced, raced, rambled, roamed, roved, rushed, sashayed, sauntered, scampered, schlepped, scurried, scuttled, shuffled, sidled, slogged, slinked, sprinted, staggered, stepped, strode, strolled, strutted, swaggered, tip-toed, toddled, traipsed, tramped, traveled, tread, trooped, trudged, waddled, wandered.
Color Options: If a date follows the color, the word wasn’t in use before that date. Words without dates weren’t checked.
Black: onyx, anthracite, inky, black pearl, blue-black, coal, jet, ebony, obsidian, raven, soot/sooty, midnight, shadow, pitch, sable, tar, licorice
Blue: azure (1300), periwinkle, wedgewood, delft, neon, electric, cornflower, turquoise (1350), royal, powder, cobalt (1683), teal, navy, sky, robin’s egg, baby, peacock, lapis, indigo (1555), steel, sapphire (1200), federal, aquamarine, aqua, ultra marine, midnight, blue-green, blue-gray, denim, cadet, cerulean, ocean
Brown/Beige: earth, nutmeg (1400), cinnamon (1300), chocolate (1604), cocoa (1788), tan, chestnut (1300), bay, tawny, roan, mahogany (1660), pecan, rosewood, maple, taupe, coffee, toffee, cafe au lait, mocha, tortoise shell, ginger, walnut (1100), brunette, espresso, ecru, mushroom, fawn, buckskin, nut brown, umber, saddle, raisin, khaki, drab, bronze, copper, tanned, foxy, sandy almond (1300), oatmeal, tumbleweed, sienna, sepia
Gray/Grey: smoky, pearl, charcoal, ash, silvery, dove, gunmetal, steel, sooty, hoary (no wisecracks!), chrome
Green: jade (1585), emerald, malachite, kelly, leaf, moss (1880), celadon (grayish yellow-green-1768), seafoam, hunter, lime (1650), forest (1800), olive, pistachio, grass, pea, mist, chartreuse, verdant, celery, mint, apple, hazel, green-blue, shamrock, avocado, spring, asparagus, pine, seaweed
Orange: apricot, rust(y), peach, tangerine, persimmon, orange-red, shrimp, salmon, terra cotta, auburn, burnt orange, mandarin, copper, nectarine
Pink: petal, neon, blush, carnation, rubescent (blushing-1725), hot, electric
Purple: amethyst, violet, lavender, heliotrope (reddish-lavender), mauve, plum, wood violet (pale purple), lilac, orchid, fuchsia, tyrian (1586), grape, wisteria, royal
Red: ruby, poppy, scarlet, garnet, red-amber, rose, dusky rose, crimson, cinnabar (bright red), wine, claret, cerise (deep red), russet, burgundy, henna, ox-blood, carmine (strong or vivid red), apple, cherry, tomato, red-orange, brick, cardinal, rubicund (ruddy), vermillion, cochineal (vivid), maroon, strawberry, raspberry, blood, candy apple, beet, currant, titian (reddish-brown), lobster, fire engine, coral (reddish-yellow), flame, cranberry
White/Off-White: argent (silvery white), milky, quartz, white jade, moonstone, ivory, cream, snow, pearl, alabaster, opal, magnolia, vanilla, chalky, oyster, marble, bone, cadmium (1822- whitish-blue metallic), eggshell, parchment, lily, porcelain, bleached linen, buff
Yellow: fool’s gold, gold(en), goldenrod, blond, ash blond, platinum, burnished, brassy, amber, palomino, honey, primrose (pale), daffodil (1548), jonquil (1664), butter, buttercup (1777), lemon (1400), dun, tawny, flaxen, sandy, straw, hay, citron (pale), canary (1584), topaz, ochre, sulfur (greenish tint), mustard, butterscotch, yellow-green, dandelion