4 Tips to Modernize Your Novel's Grammar

Many people prefer more conventional styles of grammar and language, and that's just fine. However, some authors (and audiences) prefer more modern styles. Whether you are looking for the latest in grammar usage or just seeking new ideas to improve your writing, consider these tips.

Minimalistic Dialogue

You have likely heard the platitude that "Less is More." While not always true (I certainly prefer $1,000 over $10), the principle has valuable application to dialogue. Newer authors love to tell the reader what is happening, how things are said, what characters are feeling, etc. However, when dialogue is simplified to remove this excess information, skilled authors can amplify the effect of the dialogue and speed up the pacing of a scene.

Consider the following example:

Traditional Dialogue

"Pass me that turkey or I will do terrible things to you," Bob said sharply.

"It's all mine!" June replied tersely. "You forgot the cranberry sauce, so I don't have to give it to you."

"Give me a break," he said, anger rising in his voice. "You're always trying to control our family parties. Just let us enjoy Thanksgiving."

"Over my dead body," she replied with fire in her eyes. "Come and get it!"

With that call to arms, Bob leapt on the table and launched himself towards June.

Although the above is grammatically sound, the constant interruptions of the dialogue with dialogue cues ("June replied tersely," "anger rising in his voice") slows down the scene. Although it is relevant that Bob was angry and that June's eyes were ablaze, good authors will communicate such information with the dialogue itself. Show, don't tell.

Here is the same scene without the dialogue commentary:

Modern Dialogue

"Pass me that turkey or I will do terrible things to you," Bob said.

"It's all mine!" June replied. "You forgot the cranberry sauce, so I don't have to give it to you."

"Give me a break. You're always trying to control our family parties. Just let us enjoy Thanksgiving."

"Over my dead body. Come and get it!"

With that call to arms, Bob leapt on the table and launched himself towards June.

Did you notice the improved pacing? Not only that, but you can still feel the conflict without being told that Bob or June are getting increasingly angry. This is not to say that all dialogue cues are bad. The modern example may benefit from a little more description as to how the first two lines were spoken. However, be sure to avoid telling too much. Dialogue between only two people does not require identifying the speaker every line. Give it a try and see if it improves your writing.

Ditch the Oxford Comma

Grammar nerds are familiar with the long-time debate over the necessity of the Oxford Comma. For the uninitiated (or those with interesting hobbies), the Oxford Comma is the comma in a list that precedes the and/or:

Karen ate some cherries, got a perm, and went absolutely crazy!

It is very likely that you were taught in school to always use this Oxford Comma as part of a list. However, under most styles (and certainly in fiction), it is fully acceptable to create a list without the Oxford Comma:

The sun was shining, we were frolicking in the flowers and everything was peachy.

If you are going for a more modern look for your piece or targeting a younger age group, you should seriously consider ditching the Oxford Comma. However, there are still a few times where the Oxford Comma is still required for clarity. I saw the following example on social media defending the Oxford Comma:

I really love my parents, Batman and Catwoman.

Where the last two items in a three-part list could technically be part of the first group, it is better to keep the Oxford Comma so people don't get the wrong idea about who your parents are. In all other cases, feel free to modernize your grammar and leave the Oxford Comma in the past.

Occasionally Use Sentence Fragments

Pacing in a scene can be influenced dramatically by sentence lengths. Skilled authors use this to their advantage by using longer sentences to slow down scenes (such as a walk through a meadow) and then shortening sentences during action scenes (such as when a werewolf ambushes a picnic). The scene with the shorter sentences naturally moves faster, and the effect is compounded when contrasted with the intentionally slower scene.

In addition to naturally short sentences, authors also have the ability to use sentence fragments to make unnaturally short sentences. Insanely effective! These sentence fragments affect pacing and can also be used for emphasis and to convey tone. In short, they can be a very valuable tool, if used wisely and sparingly.

Caution: Do not overuse sentence fragments! Overuse of sentence fragments is a huge red flag. It is rarely appropriate to use them in slower-paced scenes and overuse of them dulls their impact (and makes a piece look lazy instead of artful).

Consider how this action scene is improved by the use of short sentences and sentence fragments:

Longer sentences

He approached the castle with a sense of dread and foreboding. Could this really be where his friend stored all of the bodies? As he opened the door, it released a long squeaking sound. His footsteps echoed loudly across the floor and were matched by footsteps across the room.

"W-who's there?" he cried out with a distinctive tremble in his voice.

He was met with silence, followed by a whispered, "Death."

Shorter sentences and sentence fragments

He approached the castle. Dread and foreboding flooded him. Was this where his friend kept his victims? He pushed on the door. Squeak. His footsteps echoed loudly. Footsteps across the room echoed back.

"W-who's there?" he cried out.

Silence. Then a whisper. "Death."

You should immediately notice the improvement from using just "Silence" instead of "He was met with silence..." The elimination of run-on sentences from the first example also speeds up the pacing greatly. Give the occasional sentence fragment a try and see how it both modernizes and improves your writing.

Use One Space Between Sentences

Before modern word processors and computers took over the writing world, typewriters were the standard instruments of publication. The character spacing on typewriters was such that a single space after a period did not provide enough separation for easy readability. Thus, English typists used two spaces after periods to more clearly separate sentences.

The double space separation between sentences continued long after word processors were created. As a college student and at my first post-college job, I was expressly told to always use two spaces between sentences. However, outside of academia or specialized stylesheets, nothing requires authors to continue to adhere to this old grammar standard. The modern usage is to use only one space instead of two and it is increasingly becoming more standard.

Although this may seem like a small change, it is very noticeable to a trained eye. A single space between sentences signals to readers a willingness to keep up with current trends. With modern word processors, the change does not diminish readability at all and may even enhance readability. Changing to a single space after sentences may also reduce printing costs for self-publishing authors as it can potentially shave off a few pages from the total book.

Best of all, changing from two spaces to one space in a finished manuscript is as simple as doing a find and replace, replacing all double spaces with a single space. As I work to transition fully from two sentence spaces to one, I frequently do final find and replaces to standardize my spacing format and give my work a more modern appearance.