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?


Christie Craig said…
I'm not an English teacher so mishaps of grammar and such don't drive me wild. And while I'm not a point of view purist, I hate it when I have to stop in a book and question who is thinking a certain inner thought.

I'm with you on POV, Christie. It doesn't have to be "pure" if it's handled well. But when it confuses, it's really annoying.
Suzan Harden said…
Goes to show you can't please everyone. Unfortunately, agents don't list their exes' names on their blogs so you know not to name your MC Ralph or Tiffany.

And I still have to grab my Strunk & White when my characters go to bed. (G)
Jo Anne said…
I find I'm lenient if I'm in the story. POV changes don't bother me unless they're poorly done and intrusive. I can handle most anything in dialogue, and quite a bit in deep POV narrative. Sex without emotion turns me off in a story.

I'm a true Southern girl, so I irritate lots of folks with "I'm fixin' to', but I'd never use it in anything but pure hickish dialogue. :-) Yikes, does that make me a pure hick?

But I did get a couple of "she laid down on the bed" in a contest recently that turned me off.
Tracy Madison said…
Too many POV switches in the same scene can be confusing. The worst thing for me is if I have to back up to reread a passage to understand it. But really, other than that, I'm pretty easy. As long as the story is engrossing, I forgive just about anything. Great post, Colleen!
Joni Rodgers said…
It kills me when the author delivers a big fat "you gotta be kidding me" plot bomb at the end of a book, just to pull the rug out from under the reader's feet. I'm okay with red herrings and three-card monty switcheroos, but don't make me invest 365 pgs in your main character and then kill her purely because blowing my tiny mind is more fun than resolving the story.
boxing said…
Thanks for stopping by, everyone.

Yikes, Joni. Your pet peeve reminded me of a book I read over twenty years ago by a favorite author who killed off every single character mid-book and basically restarted the plot several hundred years later. First time I can remember literally hurling a book... and the last time I read that author.

I'm still traumatized.
Joni Rodgers said…
I hate to say it, but the most grinding example of that is "The Lovely Bones", which was the darling du jour of every book club in America for a while. I loved the book, and she's a brilliant writer, but (without delivering a mean little spoiler) the ending made me roll my eyes. I think the author fell in love with her main character (as did readers!) and couldn't bear to see the story through to its inevitable outcome.

Still I will make an effort to read anything else Seybold writes. I am truly in awe of her talent.
I agree about the ending of The Lovely Bones, which elicited a big "Say What?" from me. A flawed ending to an amazing book, but I happily forgave her. Also enjoyed her moving memoir "Lucky."
Ironically, I just screeched over the ending of the fifth book in the series, wherein (in the last two pages) the author felt the need to violently kill the long-suffering main character and have him die in his wife's arm. Since this couple was the only reason I reason the series in the first place, I was seriously torqued.

Surprises and freshness notwithstanding, you don't break faith with your readership like that.

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