Ensuring your writing is grammatically correct can be a huge irritation and a time-eating monster, or it can be costly to pay someone to do it for you. Do you really need to make sure each and every sentence complies with grammar rules?
YES, YOU DO! At least, you do if you want to be taken seriously as a screenwriter. The reason for grammar (and punctuation) rules is for clarity. Without them, what we think we’ve written could be read as something entirely different. Here’s an example of why the good old Oxford comma is important (contentious, I know);
“We had a party with the dogs, Taylor Swift and Justin Beiber.”
Or, “We had a party with the dogs, Taylor Swift, and Justin Beiber.” Note the additional comma.
The first sentence can be read that Taylor Swift and Justin Beiber are dogs, while the second one clearly states that the two pop stars were at the party with the dogs. Of course, if what you meant was to express your opinion of the two pop stars, then the first sentence is entirely correct.
Having the odd typo or grammar error in your script won’t count against you, but if there are too many, then it could well be the thing that sends your script to the slush pile. Let’s face it, nobody can write without making some mistakes (myself included), but there are some that are easy to eliminate. Here are a few of the most common grammar mistakes that I see scriptwriters make.
1. Confusing countable things with stuff.
There are two different mistakes that are often made with this rule. For individual things that you can count, you should use “fewer” and “number.” For things that you can’t count, then you should use “less” and “amount.” Here are some examples;
Billy-Bob has less apples than Sarah – Wrong!
Billy-Bob has fewer apples than Sarah – we can count the apples.
There is a huge amount of gold coins in the ogre’s study – Wrong!
There is a huge number of gold coins in the ogre’s study – again, we can count the number of coins.
The golden rule is if the thing has a number, then use “fewer” or “number.” This still applies even if the number is astronomically high, such as, “there was a huge number of grains of salt.” Of course, without the grains, it would be, “there was a huge amount of salt.”
2. Using a possessive for “its.”
Apostrophes can often cause confusion because they serve two distinct purposes; they signify possession, and they also signify one or more missing letters. Most writers don’t have a problem with the latter rule (e.g., don’t, can’t, won’t, etc.) except when it comes to “it.” The only time “it’s” is used is when it is a contraction of “it is,” e.g., “it’s raining.”
3. The very confusing “me, myself, or I.”
When to use “me” and when to use “I” seems to be a very common cause of confusion. When referring to two (or more) people – and one of them is the first person (I) – doing something together, you have a choice of using “me” or “I.” I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read, “John and me went to the pub.” The easiest way to remember this rule is to split the sentence. For example;
“John and me went to the pub.” Take the other person out of this sentence and see if it still makes sense, “Me went to the pub.” That doesn’t sound right, does it? The correct way to write this is, of course, is, “John and I went to the pub.” The same rule applies to using “myself” in a sentence.
4. “Nor” and “or” are interchangeable, aren’t they?
No, they most certainly are not. This is one I’m starting to see more and more. There is a simple rule for this one; if you use “neither,” then it’s “nor.”
5. The confusing “than” instead of “then.”
To be honest, I’ve no idea where this mistake started, but it’s one I see a lot of in American writers. I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt and call it a typo, but it appears an awful lot for that. I suspect one of the reasons is that a spellchecker won’t pick it up.
6. Using “i.e.” when you mean “e.g.”
I do have to admit to having to think about this one myself when I’m writing. I don’t know why because their use has a fairly simple distinction. “E.g.” is from the Latin, “exempli gratia,” and it means “for example.” The abbreviation “i.e.” comes from “id est” and means “in other words” or “that is.” So a couple of examples would be;
“He has one of the biggest brains in the world (i.e., he’s a genius).” Or, “He writes stuff similar to H. G. Wells (e.g. War of the Worlds).”
7. “Since” instead of “because.”
This one is a personal bugbear of mine. I seem to be seeing it creeping up in usage. In simple terms, “because” is used for a reason something has happened. “Since” refers to time or timing. While “since” can be used as a conjunction, it should not be used as a straight swap for “because.” Swapping these alters the meaning of the sentence. An example might be:
John got more work since he graduated.
John got more work because he graduated.
Both of the above are similar, but they mean different things.
Another example I might see would be, “John went to the pub since his sister didn’t turn up.” Sometimes writers try to make it look better by putting a comma before the “since.” This is still wrong. The reason John went to the pub was “because” his sister didn’t turn up. For this sentence to read correctly, the clauses would need to be swapped around; “Since his sister didn’t turn up, John went to the pub.” However, this would only be right if the context were because of the timing of his sister turning up; if her not turning up at all was the reason, then “because” should be used.
So there we have it, my top eight mistakes that I see most often when proofing a script. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but if you can stop making these mistakes, then your writing will have a lot more clarity. If this seems like far too much hard work, then feel free to get in touch to see if I can help.
One final thing I should add here is that for dialogue, the rules can be bent, and sometimes, even broken altogether. Punctuation is still important, but misspelled words, and even sentences that are entirely wrong (in a grammatical sense) can help to portray your character’s background.
About the Author: Phil Owens has been helping writers since 2008 when he first published a book as an Indie Author. In 2015, he emigrated from the UK to Italy and set up Cyber Write offering proofreading and light editing services. As well as providing a comprehensive proofreading service for Shore Scripts, he also publishes many Advice and Guidance articles to help screenwriters and authors improve their craft.
You can follow Phil on Facebook @CyberWrite