Common grammar mistakes in screenplay writing

Screenwriting, common grammar mistakes in screenwriting, scriptwriting etc.Editing and reviewing scripts, I’ve come across a number of common grammar mistakes that are worth flagging. A good script can be greatly hindered by these errors: even with a solid story, clumsy writing can lessen the integrity of the project and turn off potential investors. Some of these mistakes can change the meaning of what you write. Some are a matter of style. With so many scripts out there, readers are looking for an excuse to reject yours, though, and any one of these points could give them that excuse. However, they are all mistakes that can be avoided with some careful attention and editing.

1. Incorrect use of capital letters

Capital letters seem to pop up all over the place in screenplays. There are debatable uses for them, for instance using ALL CAPS to introduce a character or POV, but that doesn’t mean the basic writing rules for capitals should be ignored. A common mistake I find is haphazard or inconsistent use of capitals in names. Proper nouns (direct names) should be capitalised, otherwise avoid capitals. If a character is known only as The Scientist, the capitals are fine. If you give the same description a capital when it’s not a name, it’s a mistake. For instance John, the Scientist, asks for more water. looks bad.

 

Why does this grammar mistake matter in screenwriting?

When I’m reading a script and I see a capitalised word, I’ll take it for a name. If you write Jane runs into the Road. the immediate impression is that she runs into an object called The Road. That could be an eclectically named bodyguard, a motorway-themed nightclub, or a stack of barrels – anything that’s been given a name. It doesn’t matter that the true meaning may quickly become obvious, the split-second it takes to consider it is enough to trip up a reader, interrupting the flow of the script and raising questions about the writer’s skill.

 

2. Incorrect use of commas

Commas create pauses. They can help break up a list, divide clauses or even work like parentheses. Commas shouldn’t be common in writing action because directions for action should be kept short and simple. And they have to be placed carefully in dialogue or you’ll choke the speaker. Incorrect comma use can greatly affect the flow and even the meaning of your screenwriting. Likewise, leaving out commas where you should have them can be disastrous. Consider the differences:

John drives uncontrollably weeping.

John drives uncontrollably, weeping.

John drives, uncontrollably weeping.

Although for that matter:

 

3. Too many adverbs

Many writers despise the use of adverbs, Steven King included. They make sentences clumsy. In a screenplay, venturing into the realm of adverbs generally borders on providing too much direction. They slow scripts down and are mostly superfluous – if your dialogue and action are clear, the manner in which events occur should be clear too. If you need an action to occur in a specific way, use a specific verb: Jane angrily walks away. works a lot better as Jane storms away. This isn’t so much a grammar mistake as an issue of style, but as a point of identifiable grammar (find all your words ending ‘ly’, for starters) it’s something you should pay attention to.

 

4. Incorrect use of apostrophes

These pop up all over the place when they shouldn’t, and are oddly absent when they’re wanted. Apostrophes are necessary in two key places in screenplays:

1. To show possession – before the possessive S on singular nouns and after it on plurals.

The girl’s dog. (owned by one girl)

The girls’ club. (owned by many girls)

2. To replace missing letters in a conjunction.

It is -> It’s. They are -> They’re.

You might also use apostrophes as inverted commas to provide emphasis or show a name, depending on writing style, but considering the variety of formatting options available in screenwriting this can generally be avoided.

 

Why does this grammar mistake matter?

The meaning is often clear with or without apostrophes, but if you think Janes dog’ is as good as Jane’s dog you run the risk of being judged as uninformed or too lazy to proof your work – I’m not sure which is worse, but either is unprofessional. You also run the risk of making the reader wonder if this dog belongs to Jane or if a Janes dog is a particular type of dog. Again, no matter how quickly the meaning is made obvious, the briefest doubt about what you have written will interrupt the flow of a screenplay and take the reader out of the moment. And possibly turn them against you with a vehement hatred for everything you stand for.

 

5. Not enough contractions

Like adverbs, improper use of contractions in screenplays doesn’t necessarily constitute a grammar mistake (except in the case of incorrect apostrophe use / spelling), but a lack of contractions is a common problem. This is especially true in writing dialogue. Scripts are there to be read as directions, as they are, without imagination – dialogue will be read as written. In everyday speech, most people talk in abridged form. If they don’t, there’s usually a good reason, and it stands out a lot in dialogue. Consider:

I have been to the shop.

I’ve been to the shop.

When you read them out loud, the first option sounds incredibly formal. It can be read as proud, pompous, even defiant, but it’s hard to read it neutrally. The second form can be very casual, or adapted in a variety of tones to fit the context of the scene. Contractions should be used as much as possible in dialogue, and really you need a reason not to use them.

 

Look out for all these points and your screenplay not only look a lot more professional but it’ll read better too. And please watch this space because I’ve been reviewing and editing quite a few screenplays, and the common mistakes I’ve been finding in them have given me all sorts of ideas for extra advice.

15 thoughts on “Common grammar mistakes in screenplay writing

  1. Wonderful. Very informative.

    Especially to someone like me, whose mother tongue is not English.

    Could you please also write something about how and when to use fragments and when to go for complete sentences?

    Obviously, fragments are grammatically incorrect. But I see them all the time in almost all produced screenplays.

    This confuses me a lot. I don’t know when to use them and when to avoid them.

    I would appreciate something on that.

  2. Hi,
    Thanks for the comment. You’re right, sentence fragments are very bad grammatically, but are very common in screenplays (and some dramatic fiction). That would make an interesting blog post, I will prepare one for it soon.

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  4. As a television viewer, I wish script writers would learn what proper grammar is. I hate to see actors that have been on the same show for years, saying things like; “Me and her went to to the store” or, “went to go to the store”, especially when, 30 years ago, on the same show, they were capable of saying, “She and I went to the store”. I see no reason or humor in the loss intelligent speech for the sake of free speech. Can’t we have both? Let us also consider kids these days and the teachable moments. I really think writers should be more responsible.

    • You’re getting into a dangerous area though Kate; not everyone uses proper grammar in spoken English, and some nuances of speech vary hugely depending on location. So bad grammar in dialogue isn’t necessarily a mistake – it could be the way the character speaks.

  5. I have a question about commas:

    When writing dialogue (Oh, we’re not drinkers in this house, John.), do you follow the comma rules for direct address? Or do you leave out the comma just before someone’s name so as not to confuse the actor with an unnecessary pause?

    • Thanks for the question Stacey. Commas are an arguable issue and often a matter of style – which is true in this case. I’d say with or without is possible in direct address. My instinct would be to include it for clarity (though it shouldn’t be an area that causes much confusion when dealing with names) – but be aware that it does effectively create a pause, so if you don’t necessarily want measured speech then you can leave it out.

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  7. Got a question… How do you feel about words in Dialogue such as Fuckin’, Gonna, Gotta, Havin’; you know, anything that uses a ‘ to fill in a missing letter? I hear they annoy the reader, but what if this is the way a character speaks?

    • Very good question and one that probably requires a complex answer – but to try and keep it simple, I think if it’s integral to a character that they speak in a certain manner then it’s acceptable, but you have to be very consistent with it. Personally I don’t tend to try and dictate accent/dropping letters in dialogue in that way because I think there are other ways to get that kind of attitude across, and the accent would naturally follow. All that said, there’s quite a difference between dropping letters as a manner of speech, like losing the final g, and combining words, so I’d treat words like gotta/gonna more like contractions – and use them much more commonly. Whereas having/havin’ is dictating accent/pronunciation, going to / gonna is a different pattern of words, with a very different emphasis.

    • I think that’d be a debatable point, depending on your audience, but to my tastes contractions in action can make a script flow better (I’ve been experimenting using them in narrative text myself recently). If you are writing a more formal or serious script, such as a high drama, it might be more noticeable and frowned upon, but in something like an action script, I wouldn’t see the harm.

      It raises another point, though, that I’d question what contractions you’re using in the actions – because if you’re just talking about negatives then it can make sense (“He doesn’t see her coming”, for example, ordinary and no harm in that) but for other auxiliary verbs you might find it signals a problem in having overly complicated constructions – for example perfect tenses are very rarely needed in a script, as it’s mostly present simple.

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