#amwriting #grammar #style #rules

In the past few weeks, I’ve seen too many articles that propound “THE RULES of Writing”. An overabundance, if you will, most of which don’t make any distinction between THE RULES and STYLE CHOICES.

THE RULES are universal. For instance:

– a sentence must have a subject and a verb;
– the subject and verb must agree;
– participles should not dangle;
– a sentence may have only one viewpoint: it cannot start out in first person and end in third;
– Etc., etc., etc.

It’s possible for a good writer to break THE RULES occasionally, but s/he must realize what s/he is doing in order for it to be effective. The universal RULES of writing can be found in any reputable GRAMMAR guide; one I like is Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab (OWL).

Anything above and beyond the universal RULES is a STYLE CHOICE:

– No adverbs? Style choice;
– No compound sentences? Style choice;
– No words over three syllables? Style choice;
– No dialogue tags but “said” and “asked”? Style choice;
– Etc., etc., etc.

STYLE CHOICES are found in “Style Guides” and are not universal rules. I, for one, would be much more apt to appreciate their advice if the guides followed these so-called “rules” in their own publications. But, almost universally, they don’t. More scholarly types than I have proven that even the ubiquitous Elements of Style by Strunk & White has broken most of the “rules” it espouses. Go ahead, try to count the adverbs in any guide that propounds “no adverbs”. Count the passive verbs in a guide that propounds “no passive verbs”. It’s almost impossible to write fiction (or to write about fiction) and follow these strictures at all times.

(Of course, there are many who get around the “no adverbs” stricture by substituting an adverbial phrase — eliminating an adverb like “tremulously” in favor of a phrase like “in a tremulous voice”. To me, that’s worse, as it adds empty words to the story.)

Adding to the confusion is that, in the history of literature, STYLE CHOICES are transitory. No one writes like Chaucer any more; few write like Faulkner or Austen. The current trend toward starkness and simplicity will no doubt be as short-lived.

Now, I’m not saying that STYLE CHOICES are wrong. On the contrary, each writer should make these choices for him- or her-self. If you want to use smaller words and shorter paragraphs, you are perfectly free to do so. But that doesn’t put writers who use longer words or longer paragraphs in the wrong. Or longer words and shorter paragraphs. Or longer paragraphs… or whatever.

Touting your own STYLE CHOICES to the world at large as “rules” is akin to attempting to convert someone to your religion, and my best advice there is “Don’t do it!”

You and your writer friends will both be happier with the outcome.


P.S. Can you find which of the RULES stated above is broken rule in this article? How many times has it been broken?

Those danged Irregular Verbs!

#amwriting #amreading #grammar #verbs

Like “be” and “see”, there are a number of verbs in English grammar that don’t follow the standard tense-changing rules. Most of the time we’ll take a present-tense verb like “move”, add a “d” to create the past tense (moved) as well as the the part perfect tense (have moved). These, the vast majority of our verbs, are regular verbs.

But lately I’ve come across the use of this standard rule being applied to irregular verbs. I noticed it first in a best-selling mystery novel by a writer of high repute – she used “shined” as the past tense for shine. The first time I saw it, I was sure it was wrong. It’s “shone”, I said to myself. The sun shone down from the heavens.

The next time I saw it, in a different work by a different author, I had a slightly less definitive internal conversation. Isn’t it supposed to be “shone”?

And this morning, having seen it three times in about a month by different authors in different works, I finally threw up my hands and looked it up.

Shine, shone, have shone. There is the heart of the irregular verb.

We are so much in the habit of throwing a “d” or “ed” on the end of a verb to create past tense, it’s easy to make a mistake. But within that last few weeks, I’ve also come across “bursted”, “shaked” and “drinked”. I finally threw up my hands in disgust at “ladened”.

Irregular verbs are a very real part of English grammar, and the proper usage of them can keep an author from looking like an amateur. And while “burst” and “laden” remain the same all tense categories, they are both exceptions to the irregular verb rule as well.

So what do you do? The only way to get hold of the proper constructions is, I’m sorry to say, to memorize them. My recommendation is to start with a simple list of common irregular verbs, like the one provided on the Purdue Owl website and then move on from there.

But be aware that, even when they start out sounding the same, irregular verbs won’t all follow through in the same way:

Sink, sank, have sunk.

Drink, drank, have drunk.

Think, thank, have…

OK, so you get the idea!

4 Reasons Automated Checks will Never Replace an Editor

#amwriting #amediting

There is a great benefit to automated checkers, because they’ll alert you to the possibility that you’re spelling a word incorrectly, using an inordinate number of adverbs, repeating pet phrases. But there’s more to good writing than that, and here are four of the reasons that you need a great editor.

1.) SPELL CHECKERS: No spell checker has every English word built into it, and that goes double for common foreign words and phrases (“joie de vivre” is one my checker always flags, while it lets “da nada” go when it should be “de nada”). What’s more, spell check won’t tell you if you’ve used the wrong word.

Having worked in financial services for twenty-odd years, I constantly type “form” when I mean “from”. Since “form” is an English/American word and it’s spelled correctly, it will never be flagged, and it’s up to me to catch every one. I also make a mistake when I type “to the”; as my thumbs seem to work more slowly than they should, what comes up quite a bit is “tot he”. As both “tot” and “he” are words in English, it doesn’t get flagged, regardless of the fact that it makes no sense at all!

Examples that I’ve seen others make just within the past few weeks are:

He “lied” on the floor (and probably also lied to his boss at the office!)
He held a “taught” rope (yes, a really smart rope!)
He was easy “pray” (a very religious guy.)
He “expanded” on the subject (as he expanded his belly with a big meal.)

All of these are words in English, correctly spelled, and they will not be flagged. Though that last definition might be stretched (ahem!) to include conversation, the better word is “expounded”. But spell check won’t tell you that.

2.) GRAMMAR CHECKERS: Most of these, in my experience, have severe limitations. For one thing, they’ve usually been set up to identify adverbs as all words that end in “-ly”. So whether you’re writing about a wind that comes up “suddenly” or a “cuddly” teddy bear, you’ll get a flag. But say you write about a wind that comes up “all of a sudden”: the checker won’t flag your adverbial phrase, which can be a more egregious transgression. For now, not only have you used one unnecessary word, you’ve actually used four of them.

For the record, and as I’ve stated in previous posts, I am in favor of adverbs when they’re used judiciously. “Suddenly” happens to be one that, IMHO, is seldom needed. And if you use certain checkers, they won’t flag words like “seldom” as adverbs… It doesn’t end in “ly”, so well, you’re on your own there.

3.) DICTIONARY/THESAURUS: I have a friend who writes in English, her second language. It floors me that she would even attempt to do this, as after eight semesters of French, I can barely spell “joie de vivre”. But she does a magnificent job. We had quite a discussion a few weeks ago about the phrase “common practice”. The sentence was a question: Is it a common practice? Word™ kept telling her it should be “practices”. Why? because it was seeing “practice” as a verb, and the correct declention would be “it practices”. But here, it’s being used as a noun, and Word has no way of understanding the difference.

The biggest problem with on-line dictionaries and thesauruses (thesauri? My Latin’s no better than my French!) is lack of context. Take “expand” from Item 1, above. I checked four different sources and as a primary definition got: 1. stretched, 2. swollen, 3. broadened, 4. elaborate. Without the context of American English, where “expand” is usually understood to mean “grows” or “stretches”, the writer may feel he chose the best word for the job. He was going for the more obscure meaning of “elaborate”, and the dictionary/thesaurus would never tell him any different.

Context is everything. And no on-line checker is going to give you context.

4.) STYLE: Regardless of the perceived perfection of any automated checker, it will not take your individual style into consideration. If you write a horror novel, your style is going to be much different than if you write a cozy mystery. A dystopian novel will not utilize the same language as a historical romance. Any checker that professes to be “the best for everyone” can’t live up to its hype, because it will never recognize your style as distinct from everyone else’s.

Moral of the story: Take all automated recommendations with a grain of salt, and then have your story or manuscript reviewed by an editor. It doesn’t have to be a paid professional: if you’re lucky enough to have a critique partner or someone in your writing circle that can do the job, by all means make use of their knowledge. If not, seek someone out. Someone who has an AWESOME command of both language and grammar, and who understands the complexities of style.


And more #RulesOfWriting

If you’ve been following me for any length of time, you’ll know that I believe most “rules of writing” need a good hard reality check.

Many times, when asked for rules, a writer will recommend their writing practices, and that’s not at all the same thing as universal rules.

I recently read an article by an author who was asked to list ten rules for other writers to follow. Here are two examples (in blue) and my personal reactions:

Rule #1.) Avoid using too many adjectives and adverbs: strong writing demands strong nouns and verbs.

You all know how I feel about the adverb rule; with this new rule, adjectives are also thrown onto the list of “don’t use” words, effectively cutting our recommended usage down to about half the words available in the English vocabulary.

Ironically, though, this sentence contains three adjectives and an adverb – 4 out of the 14 words (almost 30%) should not be used, according to the rule itself. Yet if you take them out, the meaning, especially for the second phrase, is completely skewed:

Avoid using adjectives and adverbs: writing demands nouns and verbs.

(Looking for the adverb? It’s “too”. Contrary to popular myth, not all adverbs end in “ly”. Adverbs not only modify verbs, they also modify adjectives and other adverbs.)

Rule #2.) A noun is put to best use when it paints a definite picture of what you’re trying to say.

This one actually made me squint. Try as I might, the closest I can come to interpreting this rule is something along the lines of: never say “aardvark” when you mean “elephant”.

In all seriousness, should I never say “animal” when referring to an elephant? Or “creature” when referring to an aardvark? “Cabin” is a more precise word than “house”, which is in turn more precise than “home”, but can’t I use all of them? Using one word over and over to describe a specific dwelling (or anything else) would seem to put the writer on a path of unmitigated reader boredom (not to mention further limiting our usage of vocabulary).

(If you have another interpretation of this rule, please let me know in the comments below. I’m sure the writer had a message – I just didn’t get a definite picture of what they were trying to say!)

To summarize: whenever you see anything called a “Rule of Writing”, don’t take it at face value. Give it some real analytical thought and decide for yourself if the application of it makes sense for you.

Have you ever read a rule that had you squinting? Feel free to share it below. And stay tuned next week for the rule of “passive verbs”.

Thanks for tuning in. Slainte!

Ask Giff: He had or He’d had?

#amwriting #grammar

Question: I was wondering about one thing. In my sentence, would it be “he’d had enough” or “he had enough”?

He’d had enough. He could handle his sister’s complaining, but…

Answer: He’d had enough” will work better for you.

“He had enough” is usually quantifiable, eg: “He had enough breakfast cereal to last for a year”, means he’s got enough cereal stocked up in the pantry to last that long.

Whereas “He’d had enough breakfast cereal to last for a year” means he’s so sick of breakfast cereal he doesn’t want to have any more for a year.

So in this case, by using “He’d had enough”, you’re saying he’s sick of his sister’s complaining, and inferring that he doesn’t want to hear it any more.

Thanks for your question. Slainte!

Got a question for a grammar nerd? Submit it via the About Me/Contact page and I’ll be happy to answer it!

Later, Look Back: Another Shortcut for Fixing Misplaced Modifiers

#grammar #amwriting #amediting

Modifiers, as we’ve discussed, are the words we use to provide additional information about another word. Modifiers include adverbs, adjectives, and clauses. Today the focus is on modifying clauses and how they relate to our stories. The problem known as “misplaced modifiers” occurs when the clause or phrase is not connected to the word(s) it’s supposed to modify, and so causes confusion. I discussed the first rule of modifying clauses in this article: First, Look Ahead.

Briefly, the first rule is: when a sentence opens with a modifying clause, the clause must refer to the subject of the sentence. But what happens when the modifying clause comes after the subject of the sentence? Then the clause must modify the last noun (whether a person or thing) that appears in that sentence. (Exception: there must be agreement in gender; when dealing with a pronoun or possessive, you’d go back to the last person of that gender who was mentioned.)

For example:

Bill vowed to get her back at any cost when he kidnapped his sister.

The modifying phrase here is “when he kidnapped his sister”. In this case, the last male person referenced is Bill. Therefore, the “he” in the modifying clause must refer to Bill. Substituting Bill for “he” in the sentence, we wind up with this:

Bill vowed to get her back at any cost when (Bill) kidnapped his sister.

It makes no sense at all, but it’s an easy fix. Substitute the kidnapper’s name (or another identifier) for “he”, and we have:

Bill vowed to get her back at any cost when Mike kidnapped his sister.


Bill vowed to get her back at any cost when the intruder kidnapped his sister.

We could even turn it around to:

When the intruder kidnapped his sister, Bill vowed to get her back at any cost.

All three of these sentences are correct and all now properly identify the person who did the kidnapping. But until we identified the other person, all male pronouns belonged to Bill.

Here’s another example:

Never buy a car from a dealer with a broken odometer.

You figured it out, didn’t you? The last person named was the dealer, and he didn’t have a broken odometer. The modifier belongs to the noun “car”, and the proper way to phrase this sentence is:

Never buy a car with a broken odometer from a dealer.

As with the first rule, it can be apparent what a writer means in a sentence like Never buy a car from a dealer with a broken odometer. But it’s not up to the reader to interpret our work. It’s our job as writers to say exactly what we mean to say.

Here’s a third example:

Looking in vain for an answer to the questions, all excitement dwindled.

This one is fairly easy to recognize as wrong. But it may not be so easy to identify the problem and correct it, because the problem doesn’t fall solely within the modifying clause. The problem is that the sentence doesn’t have a proper subject/verb combination. It doesn’t say who was looking for the answers, or whose excitement dwindled. In fact, this sentence (or I should say “statement”) consists of two incomplete clauses.

Every sentence needs to give the reader someone/something to whom they can attribute the actions that are represented. So the correction would be:

As Bill looked in vain for an answer to the questions, his excitement dwindled.


As we looked in vain for an answer to the questions, all of our excitement dwindled.

Most of these were pretty simple fixes. The problem is not usually how to fix misplaced modifiers, it’s how to find them in the first place. So how do you recognize a misplaced modifier when you’re editing your own work? Just as the first rule of thumb is FIRST, LOOK AHEAD, the second rule of thumb is:

LATER, LOOK BACK.  When the modifying clause comes later in the sentence (after the subject), look back to find the last person/noun mentioned. If the clause correctly modifies that person or noun, you’re golden. If it doesn’t, your sentence needs work.

Again, as in our first article, some will say that a previous sentence or paragraph contains the necessary information to show the reader what we mean. But the simple fact is that every sentence needs to stand on its own. Sentences are the building blocks of our work; every sentence needs to say exactly what we want it to say, without interpretation. To protest that the information needed is in the previous paragraph, or in the next sentence, is the equivalent of saying it’s on the previous page, or in the next chapter. Or on page 45 of Oliver Twist.

“But wait,” you say, “aren’t there exceptions to the rules?”

Of course there are. But we can only get away with breaking the rules if we stick to them most of the time. Then, what we’ve done is considered “poetic license” (or “literary license” if you prefer). Otherwise, it’s likely to be seen as just plain laziness.

Got a sentence/paragraph that you don’t know what to do with? Is it keeping you up nights? For specific input on a specific problem, send your sentences (up to 150 words) along with your question, using the About Me/Contact Info page on this blog. Be sure to put “Ask Giff” in the subject line. Grammar is my passion and I’m happy to help!

First, Look Ahead: A Shortcut for Fixing Misplaced Modifiers

#grammar #amwriting #amediting

We’ve got a fairly complex question this time, with more than one example. A friend of mine, also a writer, is having some trouble with modifying clauses, also called modifying phrases. Modifiers, as you may know, are the words we use to provide additional information about another word. Modifiers include adverbs, adjectives, and clauses. Today the focus is on modifying clauses and how they relate to the characters in our stories.

The problem known as “misplaced modifiers” occurs when the clause or phrase is not connected to the word(s) it’s supposed to modify. The first rule of modifying clauses is:

When a sentence opens with a modifying clause, the clause must refer to the subject of the sentence.

I just recently came across a perfect example in my own work; this sentence has been there for at least three years now and no one (including 2 critique partners, 3 beta readers and my mother) had noticed it.

Since childhood, John Patrick taught his children …”

The opening clause must modify the subject (John Patrick), so this sentence makes no sense. It actually says:

Since John Patrick’s childhood, he taught his children…”

You’ll probably say it’s perfectly obvious that what I meant. But it is, nonetheless, completely wrong. I’ve finally corrected it and it now reads:

As this child and his siblings grew, John Patrick taught them…”

I replaced the original modifying clause with a complete clause: one that has its own subject and verb. A pretty simple fix.

Now let’s look at a couple of the examples that were giving my friend agida*:

While he explained his presence, Bill appeared and…”

Since the opening clause modifies the subject (Bill), both “he” and “his” in this sentence refer to Bill. When you substitute Bill’s name for the pronoun and possessive, this sentence says:

While (Bill) explained (Bill’s) presence, Bill appeared and…”

Obviously, Bill could not be in the middle of explaining things just as he appeared. However, the sentence before this was about George. George was the one explaining his presence, so the modifying phrase belongs in George’s sentence. Another simple fix.

Here’s a third example:

While doing interrogations on Bill’s case, George told him about the incident last year.”

Insert the subject, George, into the modifying clause, and the sentence says:

While (George was) doing interrogations on Bill’s case, George told him about the incident last year.”

However, the reader has already been informed that George is a “person of interest” in the investigation. The opening clause actually refers to the cop who is doing the interrogations. To correct it, it needs the cop’s name in it:

While Mike was doing interrogations on Bill’s case, George told him about the incident last year.”

Again, a simple fix. The trouble is not usually how to fix a misplaced modifier, it’s how to recognize it in the first place.

So how do you recognize a misplaced modifier when you’re editing your own work? The rule of thumb is:

FIRST, LOOK AHEAD. When the modifying clause comes first, look ahead to find the subject of your sentence. If the clause correctly modifies the subject, you’re golden. If it doesn’t, your sentence needs work.

If you’ve followed my blog for any length of time, you know that I’m not a big fan of all the Rules. To me, there are two kinds of rules–the ones that improve our craft from the ground up, and the others that are simply a sign of the times. The rules of sentence structure fall into the first category: without them, most of us would be writing gibberish. I call them eternal rules, and they’ve been followed by every accomplished writer from Shakespeare on. The more modern rules (like the “said/ask” rule, the “no adverbs” rule) were dreamed up about two generations ago and are probably transitory; in two more generations, other – even more modern – rules will take their place.

The eternal rules create logic and symmetry. Many times, what seems logical to a writer will be confusing to a reader. As writers, we have the inside scoop – we know exactly what we mean to say. But the reader is depending on us to make it perfectly clear to them as well, and the misplaced modifier rules will help to ensure that we do.

So, do you want to know what happens when the modifying clause comes in the middle of a sentence? Check out this spot next week.

* For those not familiar with the term (or the spelling), agida is Italian slang for heartburn. Pronounced ah-jid-ah.

The Rules of Writing: A Built-In Paradox

#grammar #amwriting #amediting

The Rules of Writing.  So many of them are subject to discussion, if not passionate argument.  The Oxford comma, the em-dash, the sentence fragment: you’re on one side or the other.  Hardly anyone stands on the fence.

Two of the most popular and oft-quoted Rules are:
1.) Use a stronger verb instead of a verb + adverb; and
2.) Never use any words other than “said”, “asked”, and “whispered” as dialogue tags.

Do you see the paradox?  To stay true to Rule #1, you must ignore Rule #2.  To stay true to Rule #2 … well, you can see where it’s going.  But strangely enough, many people are proponents of both of these Rules.  They try to sit on both sides of the fence at once.

I’m personally a great advocate of Rule #1.  Strong verbs make stronger writing.  And when an adverb shows up to modify a verb*, a writer can usually make a better verb choice and have a more effective sentence.

So for me, the firm believer in Rule #1,  Rule #2 makes no sense whatsoever.  Is “said” a stronger verb than “murmured”, “squealed” or “protested”?  Of course it’s not.  I’ve seen people who try to get around Rule #2  by sneaking in a modifying phrase: “he said in a low tone”; “she said, her voice almost a squeal”; “he asked in protest”.  But all they’re really doing is replacing one sort of modifier with another, longer one.  Wouldn’t it make sense to use the more precise verb instead?

And how about in spoken conversation?  Do you always use “he said” this, or “she said” that when telling a story?  Don’t you sometimes say, “he told me”, “she demanded”, or “they requested”?  Why should our conversation in print be subject to rules that don’t apply to live conversation?

From those in favor of Rule #2, the main argument seems to be “the dialogue should be enough to indicate the emotion.”  And I have no quarrel with using “said”, “asked”, or “whispered” when that’s the case.  But suppose, as an example, a chapter opens with a little girl crying, and this is the next line:

“Hush,” her father said.

Is that enough for you to tell whether he’s being loving, or annoyed, or threatening?  Wouldn’t “murmured”, “bit out”, or “warned” give you more precise information?

There are undeniably times when “said/asked/whispered” will do the job, and undeniably times when it won’t.  To tie ourselves to what is essentially a limiting strategy when writing is, in my opinion, self-defeating.  The English language wouldn’t have over 200 different words for “said” if no one ever used them.

So……….which side of this particular fence do you stand on?

*Contrary to popular lore, adverbs have jobs other than modifying verbs, and they don’t all end in “-ly”!

ASK GIFF: Traditional vs Modern Definitions

Our question this week is not actually connected to a “work in progress”, but I decided to go ahead with it, as the answer might be surprising.  A reader asks:

What is the difference between regime and regimen?  I hear people use “regime” to describe a program, like diet or exercise, all the time.  However, my mother says this is wrong and the word should be “regimen”.  Please settle our dispute.

Nicholas II

Nicholas II

Popular usage can overtake the traditional meaning of a word, and this is a case in point.  Historically “regime” has been used to indicate a method of government, and particularly one in which the head of state passes his position to his descendants.  For instance, Czar Nicholas II of Russia was the last of the Romanov regime, while England’s regime of Windsors includes Elizabeth II, and the kingship will be passed to one of her descendants, probably Prince Charles.

“Regimen” is the word that traditionally describes a diet or exercise program, or actually any specific activity done on a set basis.  So whether you practice piano every day before dinner, play in a softball league every Saturday, or have a 10-step process for doing your make-up & hair for a night out – that’s a regimen.

(As an aside, one other thing I’ve heard is the use of “regiment” for “regimen”. Regiment as a noun is a term alluding to a specific unit of military forces. Or as a verb, it means to control, organize, or delegate.  It really makes no sense when substituted for Regimen.)

But to get back to the question: technically speaking, your mother is correct.  (Mom always knows best, doesn’t she?)  However, it’s become so common to use “regime” for “regimen” that some on-line dictionaries will give you both definitions interchangeably when speaking of a plan of activity.  I have not seen “regimen” substituted for the traditional meaning of “regime”, and I kind of doubt that it ever will be.  But one never knows!

Language is a living thing and is always in a state of flux, whether we like it or not.  I personally prefer to stick to the traditional meaning of both words, because (a) grammar nerd, and (b) resistant to change. But I have been known to accept new words (though “impacted” as a verb makes me grind my teeth!)