[tsat home] [#14] [editorials]

Words, Grammar, Magic
by Jeffrey M. Mahr
©2001 Adirondack WYSIWYG -- all rights reserved

For a movie, it's "lights, camera, action". For us, it's "Words, grammar, magic". Yes, grammar -- and spelling, and formatting, and... well, you get the picture. When you read the stories and articles in TSAT, we'd like you to say "they're great", albeit not in a manner that causes copyright infringement lawsuits from Kellogg's of Battle Creek. At the very least, we hope you enjoy them. So, what's this other stuff got to do with anything?


If words didn't make a difference, all these stories would get remarkably boring with even more remarkable haste. Why read several hundred stories where the only thing that happens is a person changes into something else. Wow! The excitement! The eye riveting suspense! Let's read another right now as another person changes into something else. Want to go for a third? Please say no; I'm already bored and I'm writing these "stories".

If the choice of words makes no difference, then why does "the fog roll in on little cat's feet", and why would I choose "the road less taken"? Clearly, the proper selection and grouping of words makes all the difference. People like Carl Sandburg and Robert Frost agonized over the proper word for each situation, words that expressed the exact meaning in a manner consistent with the character's abilities and mannerisms. Could you imagine William F. Buckley, erudite conservative publisher and political interviewer using words such as "ain't"? Could you imagine Charlie, the mentally retarded man from Flowers for Algernon, using words like "erudite"?

GRAMMAR (and Spelling)

I guess the best way to explain the importance of grammar is with an example:

Force core; end sevin years ego; hour 4faters; brught 4th ontta. thz contenent A nu naeshun...

-- or to try it the way Abraham Lincoln intended it --

Four score and seven years ago our forefathers brought forth onto this continent, a new nation...

True, this is an extreme example, but the point is still there. One clearly reads better than the other. In one, the effort to translate the words takes precedence over meaning so that what might have been beautiful barely holds meaning. In the other, the words flow and paint patriotic images. EXTENSIVE USE OF CAPITALS and exclamation marks!!!!!! are annoying. Improper use of 'quote's, hyphens -- and ellipses... can actually interrupt the reader and interfere with his or her suspension of disbelief.


Please don't think I'm being pedantic here. I'm not – or at least that's not my intent. I am suggesting only that anyone who really wants to write, or anything else, should want to do it the best he or she can and in the best writing word choices are carefully crafted to send exactly the right message. In the best writing, grammar is invisible. It's there, but it doesn't make its presence known, except to enhance the story by adding atmosphere.

Of course, there's one more factor that's necessary to a good story -- magic. Proper word choices and good grammar can make a good story better, but they do not make a bad story good. If they did, there wouldn't be "dark and stormy night" story contests where people carefully choose their words and grammar to write the worst possible story. As far as I'm concerned, the most important part of any story is a great idea. That's the true magic in a story.

Is it possible to take a great idea and ruin it? Certainly. Just mess up the way you present it (inappropriate words and phrasing) and use improper grammar.


Yup. There is one. Please write. You might even consider sending us some of your stories. Just please also take a few moments to use a spelling checker and a grammar checker. If your computer doesn't have one, there's always (shudder) dictionaries and style manuals. I personally use Webster's New International Dictionary, Unabridged, but that's me. A second hand dictionary from a thrift store or used bookstore works too. For a style manual, I use the cheapest thing I can find -- the Merriam Webster Style Manual (less than eight bucks from Barnes and Noble). The great idea is your problem to find.

Jeffrey M. Mahr
January 31, 2001

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