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Grammar Revisited

Since there has been the second outing of the tri-annual scrap about grammar on Shooting People this week and since the lovely Lianne requested it, now seems an opportune time to revisit an article on grammar from the old blog. Enjoy.

The two things I correct most in people’s drafts are grammar and spelling. That’s the nature of script reading as far as I’m concerned and I’m happy to do it (maybe I’m an anal retentive). However, in the past on various writing initiatives in particular (my private clients usually do not do this, thank goodness) I have had to deal with some people who argue with me on a) whether I’m right to do this and/or b) what I’m actually talking about.

I’ll explain. First, a). There is a school of thought (especially used in teaching at secondary and primary schools here in the UK) that as long as someone is coherent enough to get their point across, correct spelling and grammar are superfluous. On surface level, this idea has some merit (albeit tenuous in my book): if you, the reader, know the GIST of what the writer is talking about, does it matter if apostrophes are misused? Does it matter if tenses are mixed? Does it matter if spelling is incorrect?

YES! Screenwriters are communicators, first and foremost. A writer would not go to the trouble of trying to TELL A STORY if they were not; they’d go to the cinema or watch the movies on DVD instead with the rest of the audience. They would not feel a burning need to stay up late at night tapping at keyboards even after putting in a twelve hour stint at work. They would not annoy their family when trying to watch said DVDs by saying things like, “That narrative arc makes no sense! That characterisation sucks! That would never happen…!”

If writers are communicators then, HOW they communicate is crucial. This involves semantic choice (the way words are used) and ultimately, grammar and spelling. It may seem “old fashioned” to think a writer is “bad” if their grammar or spelling is bad, but think of it like this instead: those words are the tools of your trade. You have nothing else. The way you use those words can make all the difference between being optioned or not. As one literary agent told me once: “A writer who does not know how to spell or use the rules of grammar is like a carpenter who does not know how to make a chair.” He then told me to take all those scripts with bad spelling and incorrect grammar in the first ten pages out of my in tray and return them. For real. When I complained that we could be overlooking the “next big thing”, he shrugged and said, “Maybe we will. So will the other agents. Who’s going to read the rest of those scripts? No one.”

Now, he was particularly harsh – I have seen scripts sneak through with terrible grammar and awful spelling, just as I have seen scripts with godawful stories, unbelievably poor format and non-existent arenas creep across the radar at various initiatives, agencies and production companies I’ve come into contact with. There will always be screenplays where a reader thinks, “How the hell did this get here?” But that’s just it. It’s unusual. Even a small literary agent can expect thirty submissions a week. They will look for ways to reduce the pile. Bad grammar and spelling will give an overworked reader the excuse they need to send your work back. When you’ve worked so hard to produce this piece, why walk into this trap willingly?

Secondly, b). Some clients get confused because I might reccommend they break the rules of grammar in their screenplays. When I say, “break the rules”, I mean “use sentence fragments”, like this:

Lucy freezes. Her eyes roll back. She slumps forward across the desk, unconscious.

Using sentence fragments will mean your Final Draft software or MS Word etc will get covered in little green lines, but don’t be fooled – this is not a bad thing. It gives the prose a sense of immediacy and means you do not end up using multiple sentences when just a few words will do. So many new writers believe every last detail of a scene must be included when just the points that give the “sense” of the scene need to be. I’ve had clients write about the length of a skirt on a woman, the colour of gloves when washing up, every item on a desk, dressing table, fireplace, floor… even the formation of spots on a dog. Unless it fits directly into the story and pays off somewhere, it needs cutting.

In contrast then, the single most thing I correct is apostrophe use, principally “your” and “you’re”, “its” and “it’s”, etc. A recent furore on Shooting People (UPDATE: how unusual…)over Christmas revealed extreme reactions from script readers, copy editors, journalists etc on exactly HOW the apostrophe came about: some believe that it is derived from the Anglo Saxon, others from the androcentric (male-orientated) nature of the English Language, especially when it comes to the possessive form. Whatever the case (and I’ve found arguments for both in my own grammar books, both native speaking and TEFL) I find it helps to remember this simple idea:

A for Apostrophe. A for Abbreviate.

In other words, if you’re not sure whether something is a contraction (an apostrophe word) or a plural (two or more) or a possessive (something belongs to it), then think about whether you are involving two words or one. For example:

You are = you’re

It is = it’s

Let us = let’s

Two words, ergo an apostrophe is needed. Context is everything here. For example:

Its fur was spotted

It is fur was spotted X

The second sentence clearly makes no sense. This is because the “its” refers to an animal, the fur belongs to it. The word “its” becomes a pronoun (in place of a noun, a “naming” word like “animal”, “dog”, “cat”, “alien” etc – again, context plays a role here), not a contraction (an apostrophe word).

The second thing I correct most is something I have seen provoke unbelievable reactions in other script readers, from howls of fury to chucking entire screenplays across the room and that is the mixing of tenses. For example:

I was sat there all day thinking about him.
sat = past simple; thinking = present continuous

Charlie is stood in front of the mirror.
is = present; stood = past simple

To say mixed tenses can be a pet hate of a lot of readers is an understatement. Unlike the misuse of apostrophes which can be forgiven (I’ve heard “typographical errors” and even “writer word blindness” cited as possible reasons for it) any screenplay with this trangression in the first ten pages is usually doomed I’ve found. I think the reason for this, certainly in a screenwriting sense, is that neither past simple or present continuous should be used in scene directions anyway; to use both in the same sentence is a death sentence double whammy! Present simple is the tense of choice, at least in the UK. For example:

Lucy sits at her desk, writes her blog.

Again, we’re back on that notion of “immediacy”. This is not possible with past simple at all and the word “is” and the “ing” participle (part of present continuous) conversely takes us away from that, even though it may seem at face value more “now”:

Lucy is sitting at her desk, writing her blog.

I can see why new writers do it, I even did it myself. For a while, I would write my first drafts like this and then change it, before realising I could cut out some of the workload by just doing it in the first place (d’oh). Somehow the present continuous takes us away from the action, isolates the reader from the page, in essence reminds us this is a work of fiction, not right now.

Of course, grammar and spelling mistakes will happen. When you write something, you do see what you expect to see, especially if you have been staring at a screen for hours and hours. Readers will not crucify you for one missed apostrophe or one or two words misspelled, especially when some of these spell checkers are mental (my name has been changed to “Lucky” and even “Ulcer” in the past – I mean, HOW on that last one?!). Having said that, speaking as someone who was having a fag once and got hit in the head by one manuscript three storeys down from the offices of one agent, I would never even let ONE instance of mixed tenses go! : )

Read your work through when you’re fresh and not tired. Get your Mum, your spouse, your kids to read it. Every pair of eyes help. Get coverage if you can before sending it to producers and agents – never send out first drafts. Last, but by no means least, remember spelling and grammar are important. Words are your tools. It’s the basics or bust. You want to seem the best carpenter you can be.

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12 thoughts on “Grammar Revisited”

  1. There’s another thing. I’m a poor speller, and prone to typos. But by the time I’ve got a script ready, I’ve been over it so many times that the script is clean. If you still have spelling errors and typos, it’s probably a sign that the writing’s not that great either. You haven’t given it enough attention.

    By the way,

    ‘Lucy freezes. Her eyes roll back. She slumps forward across the desk, unconscious.’

    is grammatically correct, as far as I can see.

  2. That’s certainly something a lot of Readers assume Jackson – sometimes fairly, sometimes unfairly: the odd typo, grammar or spelling mistake is not a big deal in my view, it’s consistency that’s key. Also there are a lot of writers out there with special needs, either because they have something like dyslexia, are not native English speakers or in the case of several of my long-term Bang2write clients, they have to use voice recog software, so it’s not as clear cut in my book.

    And the sentences you mention are breaking the rules because they’re sentence fragments: in other words, incomplete sentences that don’t follow the subject-verb-object formation. The point I’m making though is sentence fragments are actually good. I know. Weird.

  3. Lucy, the verbs in those sentences, in the context you’ve used them, are all intransitive. They don’t require objects.

    Fragments would be like:


    Sound of gunfire.

    Boots on sand.

    That sort of thing can work fine, because the reader understands that ‘smoke’ means, ‘There is smoke.’ But if you said, ‘Smoke curls in the mist’, you’d have a complete sentence. It’s all about hte mood you’re trying to convey.

  4. As I understand it, a sentence fragment is a sentence that is incomplete in the sense not neccessarily always because of SVO (which granted I seemed to imply earlier, hence your point about the intranisitive verbs) but also because of the lack of predicate, which the subject modifies. Basically, what I’m saying in this article is that you needn’t be novelistic in your scene directions with big complex sentences, etc: I think short, not neccessarily completely grammatically correct sentences – even just one word on its own can be effective if it fits! – can work really well in scriptwriting; however mixed tenses etc are not great. PHEW!

  5. interesting that the software finds error with what’ll… my former local screenwriters group encourages members to bring in works in progress/first drafts for discussion. One of the reasons I quit is because all they were doing was acting like editors and red marking my spelling/grammar errors. It’s a work in progress people, you think I won’t at least run a spellchecker through it when I am nearing a final draft?

  6. Yargh. I hate that too MQ. First drafts are for working through ideas, plot holes, character motivations and whatnot, not correcting spelling etc. This is precisely why I’m not a member of a writers’ group either (unless you count you lot in the lovely Scribosphere of course).

  7. "I was sat there all day thinking about him."

    Actually, the problem isn't "thinking" but "sat", unless we can accept "sat" as an acceptable replacement for "sitting". "I was sat" implies continuous past action, "was" being the verb and "sat" and "thinking" acting as adverbs for the verb.

    From here:

    Use 3, Parallel actions:

    "They were eating dinner, discussing their plans, and having a good time."

    Anyway, the more I look at it the worse it gets. Ideally, it should be "was seated", but even then the tenses are not mixed when followed by "thinking", as they are both continuous actions in the past ocuring concurrently.

    I'm no grammar nazi, but what does make me grammar hulk out is errors in corrections…

  8. Oh man, I just *love* assertions about grammar… And by that, I mean I really don't.

    Illustrating the example the way I did by using past simple tense and present continuous tense is simplifying the notion of the mixed tense, sure – but it's for those people I speak to (when I read their scripts) who have no idea even where to start re: grammar having never been taught it, so they need to run before they can walk before considering tense in detail like the past continuous.

    Of course you can use the "ing" in the past – but saying that is irrelevant , a bit like saying the gerund uses the "ing" as well but *is different* –
    instead, this is a post about how it's wise to leave BOTH those tenses out of the equation altogether and try and concentrate on the PRESENT SIMPLE ONLY when screenwriting. With this being a screenwriting blog, and all.

  9. Oh yeah, that. Present tense all the way in screenwriting. Thought that was obvious.

    To me, the golden rule is: the script describes what we would be seeing on the screen if it were a film.

    So, present tense. Any other tenses in action / description is crazy talk.

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