In the sport of figure skating, judges give scores for both creativity and technical aspects of a skater’s program. If I apply the two separate ways of scoring to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, the creativity scores are much higher than the technical scores.
Reading this series taught me that one can be a very good writer without a proper grasp of grammar. I could fault Rowling alone for this, since she wrote the books, but I can imagine a whole team of editors from a major publishing company read through each one of the novels and they all missed the same mistake, which occurred with incredible frequency throughout all seven.
An example, taken straight from the pages of one of the books:
[The room] was so crammed with objects that it was difficult to see how anybody could navigate their way across it …
The former copy editor in me hopes that the majority of those reading this blog can spot the major flaw in that sentence. For those who can’t, I’ll explain. “Anybody” is a singular noun. “Their” is a plural pronoun. The proper way of writing that sentence is:
[The room] was so crammed with objects that it was difficult to see how anybody could navigate [his or her] way across it …
Had that sentence been dialogue or were the books written in the first person, I could overlook the blindingly amateurish grammatical mistake. Had it only occurred once or twice in more than 4,000 pages of writing, I could overlook it. However, it occurred far too often in the narrative for me to write about the books without mentioning it.
I’m all for writers breaking rules in order to improve their stories. This can be done in fiction in a way that improves the flow. However, this is not a case of rule-breaking. This is a case of a world-renowned author and a team of editors who don’t know that one does not modify a singular noun with a plural pronoun, something we all learned in elementary school.
I aim my annoyance about this more at the editors than the writer. They should have caught it and they should have fixed it. And if an editor of a major publisher — a job coveted by thousands of us out here with English degrees — doesn’t know that rule, that editor should not have that job.
There’s also one major continuity issue I picked up on. There may be others, but the story is so incredibly complex that they would be easily missed.
In the first book, a detention lands Harry and Ron in The Forbidden Forest with Hagrid to find an injured (possibly dead) unicorn. In the third book, Harry and Ron go into the forest on a tip from Hagrid about figuring out who opened The Chamber of Secrets. In that scene, Rowling states that Harry had been in the forest once before — on the quest for the unicorn — but that Ron had never been.
I will admit there were a few other things about the prose I found objectionable — like way too much passive voice. I found myself reworking sentences in my head a lot. But that’s more a matter of personal preference than writing ability, so I won’t criticize.