Pet Peeves of Prose: What Drives You Nuts?
Every reader has pet peeves. The more you read, the more certain phrases, plot devices, or usage errors get under your skin. So it should come as no surprise that authors, agents, and editors develop hair-trigger gag reflexes when it comes to all sorts of little land mines you innocently set down on the paper.
I've heard agent extraordinaire Donald Maass say he can't stand it when characters are "fighting their demons" (which I've seen written on the jackets of countless books). The blogger/agent known as Miss Snark detests prologues (while many readers enjoy them). I've read interviews from agents or editors who can't stand to see characters with certain names or who have biases against certain fonts (for heaven sake!) because they've come to associate them with genre writers.
Many romance readers hate first-person stories with a passion, as I once learned the hard way when an editor put first-person copy on my third-person book. (Mystery readers tend to enjoy first person, so this is not a universal.) Romance readers also detest stories involving the protagonists' adultery, and many readers can't stomach violence against defenseless furry animals or children.
Though most writers do their best to keep readers happy, you can't possibly know about or avoid every reader's individual pet peeves... except, perhaps, those related to usage errors, since they're shared by many. And not only recovering English teachers such as myself. Although I can take them in dialogue or certain "folksy" narratives, for the most part, please, no.
Here are a few particular usage issues that rip me out of a story (often on local newscasts, where I frequently hear the language butchered):
1. The use of any form of bust/busted when you should be saying broke/broken. I want to scream every time I hear/read about "thieves busting into" the local Stop n' Rob. I realize that "bust" has been gaining ground, but it sounds hickish to me.
2. Qualifiers used with the word "unique." Since unique means "one of a kind," please don't say something is "very" or "exceptionally" unique. There are already a lot of synonyms for "special" or "different," but "unique" is unique, so let's keep it that way.
3. Misuse of "like" as a comparative. I was late to the game learning this rule, but you're only supposed to use "like" to compare nouns. When you're comparing verb phrases, "as" is your word.
4. The use of an adjective to modify a verb. Although adverbs should be used sparingly, I have to be physically restrained when I hear even smart folks say "Drive careful!"
5. Confusion between "lie" and "lay." "To lay" means to put down. A person or animals "lies" itself down. The tricky part is that the past tense of "to lie" is "lay." By the way, when you tell your dog to "go lay down," you are teaching it bad grammar. ;)
So what about you? Which errors or author choices make you want to tear your hair out?