Mar 12 2013 1:15pm

Ruh-roh, Did I Just Read That?: Grammatical Errors in Books

Red pen image by mac.rj via FlickrAs a reader of more than my fair share of self-published novels, I have come across a common trend that for the most part I can let pass: grammatical errors. That's not to say I'm okay if a book is riddled with issues, but the occasional hiccup doesn't faze me. Mistakes happen. And that is also not to say that it's only self-published novels that are full of errors. I've read more than a few from publishing houses that have goofs that range from small to glaring oversights.

I have a very good friend who is a romance junkie like me, but she is also a copyeditor.  We've had many discussions on this issue. How does one go about reacting to the big goofs, though? And what do you consider a small transgression, as opposed to outwardly flinching—or just putting the book down?

Everyone's tolerance level is different. My encounters with various errors cause different reactions, depending on the book. When it comes to glaring errors, I do find myself more forgiving of a new or relatively unknown author who has self-published a novel over an established author with a publisher and a copyeditor. Small mistakes, like an extra “s” in a word, just make me shrug. The random apostrophe is a hiccup found frequently too. I blink and move on.

Take this example: A romance author I enjoy has had a few more errors in her recent books than her earlier novels. I'm not sure why; perhaps it's due to her being more prolific than in the past. It didn't really bother me, despite the spelling or grammar problems. At first. Then came the wall I hit when reading one of her novels. I put the book down for a while and backed away from the author in general. In a scene, she described someone as “deafly ill.” Ouch! I heard a record scratch sound in my head when I came across that error. Mistakes happen, but how did that one get by?

Another common issue I've come across is when names get screwed up. Sometimes it's a little thing, and other times, it's like, who is this character? I've read more than a handful of books where two characters are talking or a character is thinking about another character and the names get mixed up causing a sudden pause of “wait, what?” before going back and realizing what happened. One of my go-to erotica authors once mistakenly created an entirely new character at the end of the book when she took the first name of the male protagonist and the last name of another character, then combined the two. Took me a moment to figure out what happened, but I thought for a second that it was like an old school mystery with the introduction of a last minute character to the story to push a plot point. Ruh-roh! Then again, I actually did quit a novel by this same author where a character disappeared halfway through the novel with no explanation. Yes, it was the heroine's dog, but as there were several pages devoted to what the dog meant to her and the dog saved the heroine's life from an intruder, it bugged me to no end that when the heroine moved in with the hero, the dog was never mentioned again. Did she leave it at her old house to fend for itself? I don't think I'll ever know the answer to that question, but I did get my answer regarding what my breaking point was with that story.

Then there's the comma. Oh, how that does change things when it's not there versus when it is there. One of the errors related to this issue that I always recall is in a favorite book of mine where the author wrote: “He missed her period.” While for some male characters that would be cause for alarm in a story, in this case, it's not what the author meant at all. That missing comma changed his missing her as a person to his missing her menses. Oops! How many men think about missing menstruation when it comes to their woman? I've not read any male characters yet who feel strongly about that subject...and hope not to in the future. That was another error I wondered about getting by since it was a lone, standout sentence not included in a paragraph. Again, mistakes happen.

My question is this: How do others feel about errors in novels? What is your level of tolerance? Also, would you recommend a book that has errors you found yourself having a hard time overlooking if the story were intriguing? I have recommended novels with some errors to friends, but I haven't always pointed them out. I didn't want that to influence their decision to read the story or not since it would be missing something good for inconsequential things. Plus, who is to say that every reader pays as much attention or catches errors frequently or at all? What makes you flinch or put a book down and what simply makes you shrug, then move on to the next sentence?

Red pen image by mac.rj via Flickr


Miss_D has been reading romance books for over 25 years. A native Californian making her way in the Big Apple, she likes to spend her downtime relaxing in front of the TV, chatting with friends, sitting in Central Park and playing beach volleyball. Miss D can be reached via Twitter @bonobochick.

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Sarah M.
1. Sarah M.
I have a HUGE issue with grammatical errors. Like you stated, mistakes happen and don't necessarily detract from the story. HOWEVER, egregious and plentiful errors make me sad. Part of being a writer is writing. When I see so many errors, it makes me feel like the author doesn't care enough about his or her work to put in the time and effort that decent editing requires.

Also, many of the books that I've recently taken issue with are self-published and by relatively new authors. Anyone that begins some sort of business endeavor should do research to understand what they're getting into. Ignorance of the process is not an excuse. I have a greater respect the authors that put so much time into their work to provide a great (not so-so or decent) product. It's a business and quality matters.
Sarah M.
2. Geeky Blogger
I am not a fan of errors BUT I have seen them plenty in print books too lately. Sorry I just realized that the article actually doesn't make a big deal of e vs paper but the tweet was: Grammatical/spelling errors in e-books. It is like the copyediting section has taken a big back seat. At least in eCopies the mistakes can be updated/corrected.

I don't usually see the little errors (missing commas, misspelled words, ect) but I do happen to notice if Sabrina turns into Sandy.

The biggest errors I have seen in eBooks though have been in spaces and that is totally distracting (or no returns at the end of paragraphs). Lazy formatting does drive me bonkers and will cause me to DNF a book.
Sarah M.
3. CatW
Books have always been riddled with errors. If I had a dime for every time some hero lathed some poor heroine's tender parts...ouch!

I can live with a few typos. I can even live with one or two malapropisms. But more than that, and you aren't paying attention to your craft. I'm a firm believer in the adage that writers must also be readers. Mistakes like that tell me that either you're not reading, or you're not learning much from your reading material.
Kim Miller
4. kdhmhmm
I notice errors and they do bug me, but I usually don't stop reading. I hate to not finish a book. The most offensive thing is when paragraphs are not separated properly. Things become very confusing and frustrating.

I did stop reading one well known author because of inconsistencies. Character names being confused, clothing descriptions being completely switched between one paragraph and another and one entire page being duplicated in one particular book (wait - didn't I just read that?) I don't remember her earlier books having those issues, but all of the more recent ones have had them. I'm actually getting angry just thinking about it now. :)
Sarah M.
5. EC Spurlock
As a copy editor myself, mistakes in grammar or punctuation do bring me up short and temporarily knock me out of the story. If there are just one or two, and the story is engrossing enough, I can usually mentally "fix it" and move on. If I'm stumbling over them every other paragraph, that can lead to a DNF and a note to avoid that author in future. To me it denotes carelessness, a disregard for deadlines (if the story had got to the publisher on time there would have been more time to fix it), and a disrespect for the reader mixed with a little arrogance ("Oh, this story is so good nobody will notice a little glitch or two!")

That being said, one of my favorite authors has a persistent tendency toward odd word choices that crop up in unexpected places. It's as if she's checking her thesaurus for synonyms and picking the first one that sounds good in the sentence without regard to the nuances of meaning that word might have. I forgive this partly because she's otherwise a wonderful storyteller, and partly because finding these "Easter eggs" has become part of the fun for me.
S Tieh
6. infinitieh
In general, I read quickly enough that I'd mentally edit whatever grammatical error present. A few pet peeves would stop me though. And if I couldn't figure out who was talking, that's a problem, too. Anything that slows/stops my reading is an issue. I am more forgiving of ebooks than print, probably due to all the reports I had to read and edit.
Sarah M.
7. HJ
Errors do matter to me, especially grammatical and continuity errors. Writing is a craft which is not limited to coming up with a great plot. Quite apart form the irritation at having spent money for a sub-standard product, I feel that the author has not been really working at the book, considering each word to find just the right one. It isn't fair to the authors who take real care over their writing (for example Joanna Bourne) to let others get away with dashing stuff out at full pelt.

It is unforgiveable when the book has been published (as opposed to self-published). What contribution is the publisher making if it allows grammatical and continuity errors to persist? They're saving on the costs of editors, at our expense. We have to continue to notice and protest, or else there will be no incentive for them to revert to doing their jobs properly. I vote with my money; I buy from publishers who still take editing seriously, such as Riptide.
Sarah M.
8. Lilly VanHorn
I'm forgiving, to a point. Small errors happen, even in traditionally published novels. But if there are errors through out and it becomes obvious that the author didn't care enough about their book to use an editor, or at the very least a good beta or critique partners, then I get annoyed. If the errors are bad enough or repetitive enough it can often determine whether or not I'll purchase another book by them.
Sarah M.
9. Kini
I am able to overlook some errors but when you barely go a page with out an error, that is too much. I recently read a book by a new, self pubbed author. The story was good and I enjoyed the story it the errors made it almost a game to challenge myself to find them. I find it hard to believe that someone who aspires to be an author doesn't have a firm grasp of basic spelling. I'm not familiar with the publishing world, but it wouldn't seem like too much to ask for a self pubbing author to ask a friend to read through their story and check for glaring errors. Just my thoughts.
Lana Baker
10. lanalucy
Since my mother was an English teacher, I notice mistakes of many kinds when I'm reading. If they are few and far between, I can forgive and move on, but there are more and more books lately, both print and digital, where simple, glaring errors are making it through the publishing process to the finished product.

Few stories are compelling enough for me to ignore multiple errors, particularly homonyms. If I'm reviewing the book, I generally feel obligated to finish it whether I want to do so or not - I just mention the level of grammatical or other problems and how it impacted my ability to finish the book. If I'm reading for pleasure, though, my DNF line in the sand is somewhere between 15 and 30 in the first three chapters.
Sarah M.
11. JBeck
I've never purchased a self-published title, but 80% of the 190+ books I read last year contained at least one or more errors (whether it was a typo, lack of punctuation, misspelling, etc.). It does pull me from the story, but if I'm into the characters and the plot, I can get past it. If I'm only feeling so-so about the book, then I get more irritated by the errors. Since these aren't self-published titles, I tend to hold the grudge against the publisher more than the author.
Becky Hantsbarger
12. BeckyIA
I will overlook more errors in an ARC (obviously) than in a "finished" book. But when I come across a particularly obvious error, it's like running into a wall and I'm thrown out of the story. I do NOT like that. I know copyeditors and proofreaders don't command high dollar salaries, but they should. It infruiates me when a "finished" book is riddled with errors, be it grammatical, spelling or punctuation. The proofer or the copyeditor should have caught the major ones. I recently read a self-published novella and was almost horrified at the number of mistakes. Afterall, what was spell check invented for if not to make us look better?
Sarah M.
13. Zita R
I have a huge issue with errors. Most books have at least a typo or two so that is not what I am talking about. It's the books riddled with errors that are a problem. It tells me that the author doesn't take pride in their work if they would actually publish something so poorly written. Editors, proofers, beta readers serve a purpose and they need to be used. As a reader when I find errors I stop reading to make the correction in my head of what should have been written. This is time consuming and detracts me from the storyline. I don't find this problem in books that run through the publishers just the indies. Some of the indies are fantastically written; those authors value themselves and their readers enough to take the time to review and fix things and then do it again. I LOVE those authors. The ones who don't I never read again and if it was really bad I will take the time to post a negative review so that perhaps they might learn from it.
Sarah M.
14. pellington
I hate mistakes. They take me out of the story immediately. I pretty much average one mistake per book. EVERY book.

One of the worst offenders was when Sherrilyn Kenyon screwed up Acheron's timeline in his book. We've waited years for his story. It was meant to be told chronologically, and yet there was a chunk that was accidentally listed as having happened BEFORE all the other stuff happened, instead of AFTER. That really screwed with my head until I realized it was a typo.

I get that an author gets too close to their work to see it. But what about the, say, at least 3 people, who have to read the book before it hits the printers? How can none of them see these glaring mistakes?
Sarah M.
15. RoseInRoseBear
Some small errors --- a missing comma, a ellipsis with the wrong number of periods --- don't bother me too much. Small typos --- a misplaced space, transposed letters --- make me crazy. Wrong words --- "woman" instead of "women" seems to be the most common, followed by "they're" instead of "their" --- make me scream. Grammatical errors make me want to get a red pen and fix the damn mistake!

As a child, I would edit the local newspapers with a red pen. After I worked for a while as an editorial assistant at a local paper, I got even worse. One of the very best things about my Kindle is the ability to find these errors and mark them!

(Yes, I have issues ...)
Sarah M.
16. Rose In RoseBear
And there's nothing worse than buying a durn-near-$30 hardcover and finding these problems in every chapter! A wildly popular series penned by one of the giants (giantesses?) of the industry is especially awful in this regard, especially about the "woman" s/b "women" thing. I'm addicted to her long-running series, and have to steel myself when I read it because I know what's coming ... and I'm always, regrettably, right.

She has enough money to hire a last-mile proofreader --- heck, she's made her published enough money that they should hire the last-mile proofreader!
Sarah M.
17. LakeMeme
There's no doubt about it, all books these days are riddled with spelling and grammatical errors. I believe they may appear even more often in 'genre' books, perhaps because of the sheer volume of publications. While they definitely jerk me out of a good read, rarely have they made me toss a book out entirely.

Of late, I've noticed some seemingly contagious errors in romance novels, where Easter egg words (love that description, ECSpurlock) appear in novels by different authors. It's as if they have read the work of an author who misused a word, loved it, and (mis) used it in their own work. Two years ago, "coruscating" seemed to crop up in every romance novel I read that year, like a bizarre virus. Mostly it was used where excoriating might have been more appropriate. For a while I was keeping track of these viral misuses, and might take it up again as a hobby since the trend continues.
Claire Louise Thompson
18. Nefersitra
I can live with mistakes provided they don't make me struggle to understand what is happening. The odd typo, missing or misused word, or incorrectly attributed dialogue I can live with as long as I can quickly figure what the "correct" thing should be. If I start having to really think about it, I give up. Continuity errors bug me too.
Tara Tortoriello
19. blondie0315
I also have an issue with errors in books, however, I never did stop to consider who published the book. I have noticed more errors in ebooks than those printed though. Any thoughts? It won't make me put down the book because I can understand what is trying to be said. No, if I believe the book is poorly written than I may stop reading.
Sarah M.
20. Paleorat
I started to read a mystery novel where the heroine had green eyes on the lefthand page and on the righthand page she had brown eyes. I couldn't finish the book. If an author, editor and copy editor couldn't catch this mistake then I couldn't trust that anything else in the book would be right. There were perhaps twenty to thirty lines of text between the two eye colours.
Jena Briars
21. CutMyTeethOnKleypas
I agree with @BeckyIA re: if it's an ARC I'm usually okay with some errors.

@EC Sprulock - LOL Easter eggs!

If it's a continuity error or a typo that actually *changes* the meaning/context then I'll be irritated - but if it's a missing comma, I might not mind as much. I'm loving the red pen image too!
Jonetta Allen
22. Jonetta/Ejaygirl
I'm actually saddened by what I see as the erosion of the editing process. In the past, it was something we took for granted and to find an error was a coup. Most recently, I'm now surprised when I make it through a book and don't find errors. They run the gamut from simple typos to awful grammar to character confusion. I read a book recently where the heroine was described as a blond and two pages later she was a brunette.

My assumption was the belt-tightening economy forced cost-cutting in publishing ranks and the taken-for-granted edit function didn't survive intact. If readers continue to tolerate and accept sloppy work, this will become the norm. I'm seeing this phenomena not only with self-published work but from writers connected with well-established firms.

I am now acknowledging well-written stories in my reviews, not just the quality of the story but the quality of the complete product. Good grammar and well-edited finished products should no longer be the exception. This is one standard I'd like to see restored.
Sarah M.
23. jk
Yes, errors can and do take me out of the story. I will overlook them in an ARC, but when comments are solicited by the publisher, I will include the dearth of proofing/editing as an issue, as well as any format issues I encountered. I tend to forgive when the book is offered as "free" on Amazon or Smashwords, etc. I always hope to see that a free offering is from a first-time author. I do not think compensated authors should be rewarded for putting out an inferior product! I find it unethical for self-published authors to use the paying reader as a beta-reader! I delete purchased books from my ereader when I receive an "update" notice from the author indicating that as a result of comments or reviews, he/she has changed the content of their book; perhaps a new ending, a stronger hero/heroine, etc. They should not be compensated for work that is rushed onto the shelves (be they actual or virtual). Being an author carries a responsibility to the reader - I would think they would want someone to read for content, continuity and grammar! I actually wrote to an author regarding her first 3 book set and the enormous number of typos and grammatical errors. I complimented her on the story as well as the character development, but I also let her know that I was frequently taken out of the story. All three were published by a major name; I wonder to whom the ultimate responsibility belongs? The author responded by saying she originally self-published, the large house bought her work and put it out as is. She wondered which "edition" I might have read, because she thought they had "fixed" most of them, but maybe not the ereader. Unbelieveable. She is billed on the front page of the Publishing House's website as a NY Times/USA Today Bestselling author. Shame!
Sarah M.
24. LoveReading
There is almost nothing that will make me put down a book, including spelling and or grammatical errors. Most of the times, I mentally correct it and carry on. Sometimes, I have even laughed out loud at the mental image that has come to mind when a physically impossible action has been described because 'in' has replaced 'on'. This would be the kind of error spell check wouldn't catch. If I were an author who had utilized an editing service, I would be livid if mistakes were missed though.
Janie McGaugh
25. jmcgaugh
It's a problem for me if a mistake pulls me out of the story. I can often read over a missing comma; however, on occasion, I've had to stop and go back and read the sentence, again, to figure out what the author was saying. Misspellings don't bother me too much, either, unless they cause me to misread what's written. I have the most problems with obvious continuity errors, improper word usage/choice, grammatical errors, and errors of tense.
Jennifer Meriwether
26. JenM
I used to be much more unforgiving on this issue, but I guess I'm going soft as I've gotten used to the truly horrible standards of editing in the ebook age. Even books from major publishers have at least 10 errors per book, so nowadays, I try to just ignore them. When there is an error on just about every page though, that's when book meets wall (figuratively of course, since I'm usually reading ebooks). I especially hate mixed metaphors and homophones, since it's obvious that the author just used a spell checker and didn't get the book copyedited. "Your" vs. "you're" and "there" vs. "their" vs. "they're" are special pet peeves and take me out of the story every time.

For some of these books, I get an almost uncontrollable urge to offer to copyedit their book for free, just as a service to humanity. Unfortunately, unless they suffer lower sales due to errors, nothing will change and the race to the bottom will continue. All I can do is post reviews on Amazon warning people that the editing is really bad, and if I see such a review, I don't buy the book (although I will admit that I'm hooked on Kristen Ashley and RL Mathewson even with their horrible editing).
Sarah M.
27. rdavisprof
I am so glad you've opened up this topic! For years I thought I must be the only person noticing these sorts of mistakes, until I purchased an e-reader. Wow--have they ever multiplied! In general, I would say that I tend to be a bit more forgiving of an ebook's errors, providing they're not too distracting. Punctuation, capitalization, simple spelling errors--fine. I correct it in my mind easily enough with a passing thought that they should pay an editor to go over things.
However, the print book errors are absolutely infuriating! It would be even worse if I actually bought the book instead of borrowing it from the public library. I think it's a disgrace that publishing companies continue to get away with some pretty glaring mistakes--the kind that are like running into a brick wall. These kinds of oversights are definitely enough to make me rethink reading an author or book. A very popular author, whom I have followed for years, has this problem in spades! It's gotten so bad that I hesitate to continue the series. Even though I know I'll like the story, I just have a hard time getting past the translation of a poorly edited end result.
2 of the absolute worst examples of this are as follows: A few years ago I read a story where the main heroine's name suddenly changed in the last 3 chapters. At first I thought it was someone new but after flipping back & forth for a few minutes, I finally figured out what happened. I finished the book but only because it was almost over. The other example are when books miss large sections--a page, a chapter, etc.--sometimes completely, or sometimes they show up pages later. That's an absolute deal breaker for me.
Sarah M.
28. FloL
As a francophone reading in English, I generally give the anglophone author the benefit of doubt, which takes me out of the book to check whether it's really a mistake. It kind of breaks the rythm, and sometimes the mood, but rarely stops me short. Although I guess I'm learning some expressions wrong because of the mistakes I don't see.

On the upside, mistakes like the (immortal?) "souls of her feet", which I've seen several times, make me laugh.

I have a couple of pet peeves:
- Bad translations: I've seen man-made translations that were imperfect, but the worse ever was a nearly unedited computer-assisted translation. I can't even believe they printed it. I was just awful, sometimes even difficult to understand.

- French-speaking characters who can't speak French. If an anglophone character makes mistakes in French, it's OK. Now take a British spy who's half French and is pretending to be French behind ennemy lines during the Napoleonic wars. When he starts with “Qui est-ce vous êtes?” (Who is you are?) and adds “Où sont-nous?” (Where is we?), who can believe he survived for over 5 minutes as a spy? I had to quit reading the author I'm quoting because of her fondness for French characters: there are some in all her books and they insist on speaking French regularly. The suspension of disbelief just can't resist it.
Sarah M.
29. 2shay
Gosh. I want to comment, but I am quite nervous. I have never seen so many perfectly constructed comments in one place. I do want to say, though, that I am a story reader. I can forgive many errors if the story is captivating.

I read a lot of Indy authors. I have, on occasion, been asked to read their manuscripts or works in progress. When a friend asks me to read, I am asked, primarily, to concentrate on the story. Which I do. Occasionally, even I find a grammatical or punctuation error which I will point out to the author. Most of those are corrected. I have, in a few cases, seen those same errors in the "finished" product, indicating to me that the author ignored the problem or was overwhelmed by other issues in trying to get their work on the market.

I am always impressed with any author who can string words together in a coherent enough manner that a story emerges. That is what I read. The story.
Cathy M. Runke
30. ccr0816
I need to begin with the fact that English was my worst subject in school and yet I have a hard time with punctuation errors in a book I spent my hard-earned cash to purchase. Recently I finished an ebook by a new-to-me author and I swear she did not use a comma in the entire book and neglected to use periods and semicolons a great deal of the time. Because it was an intriguing story, I did finish it. I just started book number two in her series and what a difference. Thought it was a different author. In her dedication, she thanked her new editor.
Sarah M.
31. gb-slacker
I'm fairly forgiving of grammatical errors. Although, strange rewordings of common phrases and idioms do tweak me from time to time.

In general, my pet peeve is with the continuity errors, specifically screwing up the name of a character or confusing one character with another. Even when I'm reading the book for a second or third time, I still stop and ask myself "Wait, what? Who? Where the heck did he come from? Doesn't anyone edit these damn things?"
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