Grammar in Books

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Apr 27 2009

This was such a great question and so different from what I usually get that, obviously, I was excited . . .

About the post on typos and errors after publication: you say the author is responsible for handing in a MS that is polished and ready to publish, and the editors are responsible for cleaning up typos, grammar, and a few other things.

What if you’re Canadian and you’ve used all the spellings you’re used to in your book, like colour, centre, and cheque. If the publisher you end up with is US-ian, will the editors change all those spellings thinking they’re incorrect? I like my Canadian spellings, especially when my stories take place in Canada.

Also, I’ve read many recently published books that use myself/yourself/ourselves incorrectly in the place of I/me/you/our etc. All the grammar books I’ve checked agree on this rule, so I’m always wondering why book editors aren’t catching the mistake. If they’re checking grammar, shouldn’t they be really awesome at grammar? I know you’re not an editor at a publishing house, but I’m wondering if you have an idea about this?

Does the author get to see what corrections the editors have made before the book goes to print?

Before I answer the real question let me clarify a few things. The editorial process is complicated and involves a number of people with a number of levels of expertise. I go into more detail on exactly what you can expect and what your role is in the process in this post. I also want to clarify that I did spend more than five years as an editor in major publishing houses so my answer to this question does come from experience.

If you’re Canadian, or any non-American English speaker/writer, feel free to use the spellings you’re most comfortable with when submitting your book to agents. I suspect most of us will know where you’re coming from and not assume that you can’t spell (although I do suspect that an agent or two will disagree with me on this and suggest you use American spellings). However, what a publisher does with the grammar and spellings in a book is almost entirely up to the publisher. In fact, there is typically a clause in the contract that states that the publisher will edit the book to conform to that publisher’s style and I believe most use Chicago Manual of Style. That being said, you certainly get a say in how the final product looks. If, for example, you would rather have your book maintain the Canadian spellings that’s something you should talk over with your editor early on in the process. She may have her own reasons for saying no (often based on marketing and sales), but the conversation is worth having.

As for the errors you often see in books, you’ll definitely have the ability to “stet” these if they are made by the copyeditor. In some cases (the ones you site, for example) it might be the author’s choice to write that way, even if the copyeditor changes them. Either way, you do see the editing at every stage in the process so you will know how the final product looks before anyone else sees it.

One suggestion for those who have specific grammar/style opinions, for example those who write a series or paranormal, don’t be afraid to send along a style sheet of your own. For example, do you have a new species with a specific spelling? A style sheet will help editors know what you intend so they can help keep it consistent throughout, and it will probably save you a lot of stetting later on.


24 responses to “Grammar in Books”

  1. Avatar Kimber An says:

    Hmm, I always figured the spellings and grammar used would be the ones most understood and appealing to the largest target readership. If it’s Canadian, then keep it. If it’s American, then change it. The point is not to please ourselves but to please the readers who have the money to buy our books and enjoy them. The way I see it, when it comes to my book, the plot, the theme, and the characterization stay, but everything else is negotiable.

  2. Avatar Mary Hoffman says:

    Well done on the deliberate mistake (“site” for “cite”)to exercise your readers’ inner copy-editor.

    The problem, in the UK at least, is that a lot of books make it through to publication with absolute howlers in – “The doctor invited my brother and I to dinner” – and not just of grammar but vocabulary: the confusion of “flaunt” and “flout” is a common example.

    The copy-editor has to be spot-on about grammar and often they just aren’t. Or the publishing house outsources the task to a company that just isn’t up to it.

  3. Avatar PurpleClover says:

    That was a good question. I am married to a Canadian so I’m used to seeing the variance in spellings. But this came up in a writer’s critique board and I was at an impasse. The writer was Canadian but writing the book as if he was American in New York. So I told him it may be better to change the spellings to what Americans are used to in order for it to seem more believable. He also wrote things such as “Department for Transportation” and I suggested correcting to “of” rather than “for”. However, I do prefer Canadian spellings but it just isn’t what we’re taught in school.

    I think American readers generally don’t have an issue with reading the various spellings unless it is written from the viewpoint of an American. I actually have a medical book written by different doctors and the spellings vary from chapter to chapter…it is very interesting. I like it.

    But thanks for the advice! Now I know what I can at least tell fellow writers since I was unsure in the past.

  4. Avatar PurpleClover says:

    One thing to add: I’ve been known to use the “British” spelling of a word without realizing it. I blame it on a combination of things including, but not limited to, a Canadian husband, taking Brit-literature,and having British professors in school.

    I’m sure I confuse people all the time. 🙂

  5. Avatar Annette Lyon says:

    STET brings me joy. I had a really bad copyeditor once who *inserted* four misspellings and a grammar error. Oh, and tried changing my voice. I wielded my power of STET rather ferociously on that ms.

  6. As an avid reader who lives in the U.S, it doesn’t bother me at all to read books with spelling and grammar different than ours, especially if the characters are say, living in Canada. I actually think it would be wrong for the writing to be changed in that case.

    As far as grammatical errors go, though, it’s always been my understanding that when you’re writing fiction, you write the way people talk. It’s hard for me to really get into a book if the writing sounds stiff and formal. Especially when it comes to dialog.

  7. Avatar Rick Daley says:

    This was very informative, thank you. I’m looking forward to the days when I can recount my own first person experiences with the editing process.

  8. Avatar terri says:

    My preference is that you use the spelling and grammar conventions of where the story is taking place and reflect the nationality of the characters.

    I recently read a book set in American written by an Australian. The copyeditors had done a good job of catching the variations in spelling, but let a few slip through. They caught my eye (I did a stint as a copyeditor on a small town rag of a newspaper) and spoiled the mood of the tale.

    However, I wouldn’t want to read Harry Potter books with all of the spelling, jargon and grammar Americanized, it would have been wrong!

    So, I guess, in a nutshell, my rule is, when in Rome . . .

  9. Avatar Matthew says:

    When dealing with a lot of writing, it’s easy for a few mistakes to get by the proofreader (happens in newspapers everyday).

    Supposedly it happens more often when a book is reprinted in paperback–something to do with the process and layout.

    Seeing the mistakes in book bothers me a little, but I always try to get past that when reading.

  10. Avatar Rosemary says:

    Chicago, huh?

    Does this mean I have to chuck my trusty MLA Handbook?

  11. Avatar Fawn Neun says:

    As a reader, I sort of resent it when books from English authors are modified to fit an American style. Not only do I resent the fact that they don’t think I can figure them out, but I think they lose some charm.

    So, as an editor, I don’t change them.

    I am concerned, should I ever make it into print, that I’ll get to have a look at things before they print thousands of them.

    As for grammar, I love English for its adaptability and fluidity. Grammar can be subjective in fiction. I’ve found myself changings things to be “grammatically correct” and it just killed it.

  12. Avatar Janny says:

    I agree with the posters who say that it depends on the specific setting of your story; if it’s set in Britain or Canada or Australia, then those conventions should prevail. After having waded through a lot of “British-ese” in reading Harlequin novels, I can say that in context, even the most unfamiliar or “inside” reference will at least be comprehensible, if you give it a little thought. The ones that aren’t, and for which you have no American equivalent…you just let go. They’re usually details that are good for scene setting or the like, but usually a key story element doesn’t depend on how a certain word is spelled or a certain term is used.

    That being said, I have NO patience with stories written for an American audience in which British usage is allowed to stand–as in a novel years ago that was supposedly set in Kansas City (don’t remember which one, but I think it was Kansas) in which the heroine cashed her cheque to go put “petrol” in her car. That, to me, was absolutely indefensible. No one in Kansas City’s going to talk or think that way, and if you’re writing an American scene and you’re not American…try to trust us that certain words just are different. 🙂

    Also, I am amazed at how the Word grammar and spell-checker, nine times out of ten, tells a writer to put in something grammatically INCORRECT…usually something that doesn’t even make sense in the context of the sentence. Does anyone know how in the world THAT happened?


  13. Avatar CNU says:

    This is a great question, because it’s true in Spanish as well. Puerto Ricans for example cut words. If the speaker was from PR they’d say for example:
    ” ‘ta bueno? ” instead of ” Esta Bueno ” when asking if something is good. ( Either food or work or whatever.) The technical name for this phenomenon is “Nation Language” and it is a hotly contested subject in academia. English departments tend to loathe it, while typically Comparative Literature departments adore it. (*Which makes sense considering they’re looking at a global view of literature.*) One of those “Coke V. Pepsi” debates, no joke.


  14. Avatar Emily Cross says:

    I agree with the ‘when in rome’ perspective. although i do admit that when i read words like ‘realized’ or ‘color’ it trips me up a bit and pulls me out of the story, because i think ‘oh its American spelling’ and then proceed to read the page trying to spot the other words lol.

  15. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Use of a distinctive narrative voice aside (which, of course, can include grammatical errors)I have to admit I’m appalled at the number of typos and grammatical mistakes I see in books. This should be caught by both the publisher and the author.

  16. Avatar Jinni says:

    DH’s hubby worked for Scholastic for years (and other publishers over a long 30+ year career), and as he explained it most publishers choose to Americanize books – which can sometimes go beyond spelling (check, cheque), and word choice (lorry, truck), but will sometimes change cultural references. When we discussed this at some family dinner years ago, I was aghast that some publishers don’t think books about something other than Texas (or something equally US focused) will/can sell in the US. I was taught at an early age that you can learn a lot from books, and this smacks in the face of that. That said, it can happen, so an author for whom this is important would be wise to discuss this up front.

  17. Avatar Ruth says:

    Oh, I’m glad to hear that sometimes spelling won’t be Americanised. I’m from NZ, and as I’ve never been to the States I’ve never written a book that happens in the States, or from an American’s point of view – but my books could potentially be sold to an American market, so it’s good to hear that my British/NZ spelling and ways wouldn’t necessarily be changed!

    It does bug me when I read a non-American book (not set in the US, not written by an American author) which is full of American spelling. I guess I always thought that if republishing a book in a different country, an editor should look over that and give us the correct spelling for that country (rather than teaching a lot of NZers American rather than NZ spelling).

    The USA already controls our media, our entertainment, our technology – I don’t want it controlling our language as well!

  18. Avatar Ruth says:

    Also, that “site” bugged the heck outta me 😛 I was trying to figure if there was a different usage of “site” that I wasn’t aware of – I don’t think there is!

  19. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I recently read an article by an editor that encouraged fiction writers to use language the way it is spoken, i.e. not everything is in complete sentences or grammatically correct. He said that it works in dialogue because that’s the way people really do talk.

    Any comments?

  20. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Well, recently I looked up “peak your interest” (a saying I have used in speaking but hadn’t used in writing before) and found it considered correct–in that spelling for that use– only to later discover (after I had used peak) that the “accepted” spelling is “pique.”

    You just can’t trust the internet.

    (This has happened to me on several words and sayings recently.I feel so embarrassed when I mess up especially when I thought I did my research.)

  21. Avatar Nicola says:

    Terri, if you read versions of the Harry Potter books that were published in the US then they were in fact heavily ‘Americanised’. I once saw a list of all the variations to words made solely for the American readership (as opposed to other English-speaking countries) and it was several pages long. This of course even went as far as changing the title of the first book just for American audiences.

  22. Avatar Nicola says:

    Also, as someone who edits the spoken word for a living (yes, it’s an obscure field), I can promise you that there is a great deal of difference between the spoken word and the written word. Good dialogue in a book does not resemble real life conversations. Good dialogue in a book does not include the false starts, grammatical mistakes, verbal tics and hand gestures that real conversation is full of.

  23. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I write in US and Australian/UK for blog sites. I use two spellcheckers and even use both European metric, US metric and US imperial measures and conversions.

    It’s a new world out there, and I could write or convert an MS in any (english) lanugage that the publisher preferred. Some of the more obscure US idiom might trick me up a little, otherwise, no problem.

  24. Avatar Carradee says:

    I think spellings could be based on the setting or audience, whereas word choices should reflect the setting but keep the audience in mind. It’s like a sci-fi or fantasy work with coined words; a good one will use the lingo but in such a way that you can figure out what each one is even if it doesn’t have a point-blank explanation.

    I actually just read this post while taking a breather from the novel I’m working on. I’ve known I have a few little ways I use grammar that I would be downright furious if a copyeditor insisted on changing them. (Yes, I’m that nitpicky over nuances in meaning even though I’m writing urban fantasy.)

    I’ve also worked as a proofreader/copyeditor, so I liked the suggestion of making your own style guide. I started with the novel I’m currently working on, and I keep finding things to add to it. Grammar preferences, coined words, preferred spellings for mythical beings, character names, foreign words and phrases I’m using (with languages of origin and meanings)…

    The more I add to it, the more I’m realizing how much I need it. Thank you for that suggestion!