Bad Grammar in Books

Elizabeth Bluemle - September 12, 2014

This is a tough era for readers who care about grammar. I try to tread a fair line between absolute purist (“bad grammar is something up with which I will not put”) and 21st-century slacker (“me and her went to the mall instead of diagramming sentences yesterday”). And I’ll confess that age has softened me somewhat; there’s only so much flailing against the tide of widely accepted modern usage a person can do before starting to feel like a Victorian schoolmarm.
I don’t think it is too much to ask for copyeditors to be the last bastion of correct usage. When I come across “shrunk” and “drunk” being used as simple past tense, I don’t expect copyeditors to necessarily know that they are past participles, but I expect them to know how they should be used.

As the good people at explain so simply:

Sank vs. sunk

Sank is the past tense (e.g., the ship sank to the bottom of the sea). Sunk is the past participle, so it’s used in the perfect tenses (e.g., the ship has sunk to the bottom of the sea) and as an adjective (the sunk ship is at the bottom of the sea).
“Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” is ear-gratingly wrong, as is “He sunk to the bottom of the sea.” The latter is actual text (altered to disguise its origin) drawn from a September 2014 nonfiction picture book that has received at least two starred reviews, and will be used in countless classrooms fulfilling Common Core requirements. How can this clear and obvious a mistake make it through to the final book?

Editors, I am mostly okay with vernacular speech in novels. I understand that authors are trying to sound like real people, and lots of real people are casual about grammar. I will say, though, that I personally know lots of children who do use grammar correctly and wouldn’t, say, start a sentence with “me and her.” Bad grammar begets worse grammar. No wonder people are losing any sense of what the actual rules are.
But you lose me altogether when bad grammar slips past the gatekeepers of nonfiction, books we hold to a higher standard, books that are used by teachers (who themselves are confused about the rules of grammar these days). Lately, I’ve come across many fundamental grammatical mistakes in books. I can’t bring myself to order a book for the store when there are glaring grammatical errors in it, especially when it’s a nonfiction title. If the author and editors were lazy about basic grammar, what else in the book might they have gotten wrong?
Am I just being a curmudgeon? Or are there others out there who feel that grammar matters, that correct usage is graceful, and that there’s a difference between knowing correct usage and therefore making a deliberate vernacular choice, and simply not knowing what’s incorrect.
I know I sometimes ignore or have forgotten more grammar and usage rules than I ever knew,* and purists likely can point to all kinds of infelicities in my writing, perhaps in this very post. But books have editors and copyeditors, and as long as we haven’t thrown out the very hope for correct grammar in our children, let’s make a game effort on their behalf.
*I often like to deliberately split infinitives. (See what I did?)

15 thoughts on “Bad Grammar in Books

  1. Josh Funk

    You are *not* a curmudgeon. But I sometimes wonder about the fluidity of the grammar rules and who the authority really is. I’ve heard recently that we may be doing away with the word ‘whom’ altogether and we may just use ‘who’ in all cases? Is this true?
    As a rhymer, I sometimes complain that Copy Editors are my nemeses (I double checked and I *think* that’s right, although nemesises sounds funner). They can ruin rhythm by adding or removing syllables. Perhaps you’ve had similar experiences in your dealings with CE’s.
    I also wonder how much programs like MS Word (or google docs) come into play. If the little red jagged line doesn’t appear underneath a word, do we assume it’s fine? If it does appear, does that mean it’s DEFINITELY wrong? The word that always gets me (again, as a rhymer) is snuck. Or is it sneaked? Even this comment box is jagged-redding ‘snuck’ – is it simply not a word? Snuck has many rhymes – sneaked has fewer.
    Who makes these rules? Who is the grammar authority? I used to think it was Mrs. Wise my 10th grade English teacher. I’m no longer sure. Must we start our own grammar government? I’m beginning to feel a deep sense of despair. I will now sneak back to my cave…

  2. Alison

    I have the same reaction to picture books written in rhyme, with uneven meters or bad rhymes (fun/gum, etc.) I find that “shine” is particularly difficult. Past tense is “shone” – the moon shone brightly – except when it’s shoes!

  3. Karin Kallmaker

    You’re not a curmudgeon – it’s refreshing to hear that it matters enough to someone to change their buying habits! It’s hard to be an author who cares, because readers will heap praise and high sales ranks on books overflowing with grammar mistakes. If there’s no apparent downside for bad grammar, why should anyone pay for a copyeditor these days? Except posterity, reputation, longevity, grace, elegance…
    *adjusting my bustle*

  4. Lee

    No, you’re right, Elizabeth! Grammar is fluid, but there still should be some standards. Sometimes I think I’m the only person in the United States who knows how to conjugate the verbs ‘to lie’ and ‘to lay’–almost every novel I read gets one of those wrong somewhere in its first 50 pages. And when did a phrase like “better than her” become OK? I see it over and over again in fiction, and cringe every time. Sadly, my respect for those writers drops dramatically, and my despair rises! Thanks for a good article!

  5. Ellie Miller

    Ooooooooh wow! You’re rattling my cage, Elizabeth, so excuse me if this gets a bit lengthy! First and foremost…IMHO you are NOT being a “curmudgeon” or overly pickly or any other disparagingly related terms in this connection. This was such a bang on! post…huzzahs! for speaking out loud and clear about something which I’m quite sure a lot of us who are of ‘a certain age’ find both annoying and distressing AND for being willing to put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is anent purchasing books for the store which are remiss in this area. Item: I largely blame spellcheck for many of the errors of ALL sorts which have crept into print these days. It’s just not going to catch some kinds of errors (homonyms especially), so the Editor who runs a manuscript through for an initial cursory check won’t either. Item: we have at least one…more probably two…whole generations of teachers in classrooms currently who were so innundated with their Ed-U-Kay-Shun courses in order to get their teaching degrees, that they never really learned/had time to learn their own subject matter, consequently another generation emerges from their classrooms without what were formerly basic skills in English grammar and syntax. ‘Fessing up: I never learned them myself…or not the WHYS at least…until I spent my first year teaching English buried in Warringers trying to keep one jump ahead of my classes. I had educated parents. I couldn’t for the life of me tell you WHY “Helen and me went to the store” was wrong, I just knew it was. Lee, you haven’t LIVED until you’ve tried to teach the difference between “lie” and “lay” to a snickering bunch of 10th graders. The only tougher assignment? Teaching Dickinson’s “…There is no frigate like a book…” to their counterparts in 11th grade Am. Lit. Anyway…this is waaaay too long. So I’ll jump down off my soapbox and thank you all for listening.

    1. Linda Young

      I agree that depending on spellchecker has led to more mistakes than I can count. I am more attuned to bad spelling than to grammar. When bad spelling jolts me out of my reading spell, then I find myself reluctant to give more time to that particular book.

  6. Carin Siegfried

    You are not a curmudgeon! BUT I’ll tell you what bugs me is people who over correct. Such as your joke about the split infinitive. It’s just fine to split an infinitive. According to Bill Bryson in his Dictionary of Troublesome Words, there is not grammatical authority that ascribes to this. None. And yet English teachers all across the country continue to teach it. Therefore I, as an editor, must adhere to it in communication to my clients, lest they believe me ignorant of grammar, and yet, because I DO know my grammar I know it’s just fine! Same is true of ending a sentence with a preposition. It was recommended as a style in just one guide, Robert Lowth’s Short Introduction to English Grammar in the 18th century, but certainly not as a rule. So while verb declension is not a style choice and I agree it’s “had shrunk,” some people do take things too far in the other direction.


    Interesting points. Though language often changes through what are initially considered errors. Today’s mistakes will be tomorrow’s correct usage.

  8. Stacy DeKeyser

    Hi Elizabeth,
    I think you are right that grammatical errors in nonfiction books for kids are inexcusable. And I also think the editors of those books should be made aware, especially if it’s going to hurt sales. Go ahead and let them know!
    I hope it’s an exception, though. The copyeditors I’ve worked with for my novels have been very knowledgeable, and have set me straight a number of times. So there is hope yet! I’d wager that most copyeditors would agree with your stance, and are upholding correctness in the books they work on.

  9. Carol Rhodes

    I may have an answer for you regarding why “sunk” is often used as the simple past. I recently proofread a novel modeled after Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and the author of this modern variant wished to keep much of the language of Austen in her modern work. While I was proofreading it, I ran across “sunk” where I should have seen “sank” and naturally I corrected it, forgetting to cross check with Austen. It just seemed like an obvious error to me and not something that could have originated with a writer such as Austen.
    One thing I did do is use Google Books ngram viewer to compare sunk and sank between the periods of 1790-1820 to see what was more frequently used. “Sunk” came up as more frequent, so I then looked at examples of writing from novels as well as magazines and it appeared from my initial search that the simple past should be “sank”. I corrected it on manuscript not bothering to cross-check with Austen, which I should have done.
    The author, not one to be deterred in her mission to be authentic to the period, came back with many examples of “sunk” in the literature of Austen used as the simple past. In spite of the twisted construction, she was right–this was simple past, though in some cases one could stretch it that in modern times an author would have written some of the sentences using the past participle.
    I agreed that if she wished to comply with the style of Austen, then she should go with “sunk” but made the point that the modern reader and especially the modern reader might look askance. Ultimately I decided to share the view of my client. This is a literary work and she wants to give the work the Austen feel. If this were an academic work or a work of non-fiction I would hold my ground.
    Yet, it bothered me that I was seeing “sank” as the past tense in the literature of the period. I wanted to find out if Austen purposely used “sunk” for some reason, even though it was wrong.
    So I used ngram viewer once again, but this time to look at grammar books of the period. What I found were numerous books from between 1790-1792 that firmly state that “sank” is the past tense of sink. But then I found a grammar book from 1810 that clearly states that “sunk” is the past tense. All these were books printed in England.
    Clearly something happened between 1792-1810. Austen’s novels were published in 1813 and onward (I believe) so she probably came under the influence of these later grammar books. (Her father tutored boys and Austen would most likely have had access to up-to-date grammar texts.)
    I don’t know when it happened, but a survey of grammar books from 1810 onward may provide a rough picture of about when the shift in conjugation went back to “sank”.
    As for my own experience, I was rarely confused about spelling and grammar as a child–except when I was in grade school. My mother was Canadian (now naturalized) and we had an ancient English dictionary that came from Canada with her, which I often used as a child. There was a year where I was hounded by a teacher about my wrong spelling of words, until my mother straightened the situation with a new American English dictionary. As a consequence I was familiar with many variations in spelling. I am convinced that my mother had much more of an influence on my English until I got to high school.
    However, there were some words that often hung me up when I wrote: burnt vs burned, dreamt vs dreamed, sank vs sunk, dived vs dove among them.
    I remember strongly having “sank” drilled into my mind over and over again by my English teacher even though for some reason I wanted to say, “I sunk down into the chair”. I now wonder if Austen led me astray. (To be fair, it could have been a male writer writing during this period. Let’s not blame the lady writers exclusively!)
    It certainly merits further investigation for any writer who wishes to write in the style of a certain period.

  10. Suki Pryce

    Dear Elizabeth, I’m an avid reader, and have been collecting examples of bad English in fiction for some 15 years. However, I’ve decided to stop distressing myself in this way, and I’d like my ‘collection’ to go to a good home:. Would you like it or do you know a good home for it? With best wishes, Suki Pryce (UK)

  11. Sam

    We need more language curmudgeons. Don’t sweat it. I’ve been called the Nazi Police. I was born in Ohio (nothing Ivy League about it), then grew up in New York City, where I attended public schools. They were uncelebrated public schools around Manhattan, not in wealthy areas, not in poor ones. I wasn’t a brown nose, a studious nerd or a bookish bore. My parents weren’t scholars or professors. I did my homework and went to class without fanfare. I realised language was one of the most amazing accomplishments of man, through the ages and around the planet. English is one of the most incredible of all of them. Why have we lost respect for its splendour? If I can manage it, why can’t those who dedicate their craft and livelihood to manipulating it, stylising, and proffering it get it right? The grammatical mistakes in current fiction are rampant and cringe-worthy. Editors are paid but not up to the task. The dumbing-down and acceptance of substandard mediocrity is tragic. There seems no remedy. What to do?

  12. Carole

    Elizabeth, your post provided me comfort and the validation that I am not alone in feeling like a curmudgeon and Victorian schoolmarm. I read several books a month for pleasure. That pleasure has, over the years, often been supplanted by emotions ranging from annoyance to outrage at the sloppiness in writing. Last night, upon reading “he felt badly for her” for the fourth time in the same novel, I was driven to search for what, exactly, the responsibilities of editors are. I was on a mission to understand why our language is being treated with such lazy disregard. I looked up the name of the editor of the book, and found that she holds an MA in English and the title of Editorial Director, which furthered my angst. Then I found your post. Thank you. I wish that I had read it years ago. Now me and my cat can lay down and get some sleep.

  13. Roxanne Coffey

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! While I find errors in fiction annoying, I can continue to read the book. In non-fiction, especially in books that offer advice, if there is a misquote or an incorrectly used word, I can’t read the rest. I can accept some informality in self-help books, but when a word is used and given the wrong definition, or a well-known quote is misquoted without indicating that they are doing this intentionally. I don’t trust the author. I thought I was alone in this! I am angry with both the author and the proofreader.

  14. D Martin

    I wince whenever I see or hear “between John and I”, close the book, and make a note never to read anything by that author again. My list of contemporary authors is diminishing rapidly. If the authors, never mind the editors don’t know the difference between a subject and an object, literature is doomed. At the very least, they are losing readers like me. Not like I.


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