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!)

Ask Giff: You’d better!

Our question this week is from a reader and writer who’s concerned about the difference between “You’d better” and “You better”.

Question:  I’ve read suspense novels by two different best-selling authors in the couple of weeks. While writing my own suspense novel, I’ve used the phrase “You’d better (do such and so)”.  But one of these authors uses the phrase “You better” instead.  Which one is correct?

Answer:  There’s no clear-cut right and wrong here.  It usually depends on when a person was educated, and there are also regional differences.

Anyone who attended school prior to the 1970s, would probably have learned to say “You’d better” (short for “You had better”).  Today, with education’s emphasis on science, computers and math, young people usually use “You better”.  The second phrase is gaining quite a wide acceptance.

In my personal experience, I’ve noticed that those of any age who are from the South and the Mid-West usually say “you better”.  It’s pretty popular in New York City as well. I can’t speak for other areas of the country as I haven’t had the pleasure of visiting them.

So the question isn’t which one is right. It’s how deliberate you want your characters to be with their language. And for different characters, the answer might be different. If your character is the CEO of a major corporation, she’ll probably say “you’d better”. But a teenage character would probably not.

And when you come down to it,  “You’d better” doesn’t actually make more sense than “You better”. Truth is, the traditional meaning of “better” as a verb is to improve or exceed, and that’s not how we’re using it in either case.  Yet everyone knows what we mean when we say it.

Conclusion: While “You’d better” may add some tone to a character, there really isn’t a right or wrong these days. I don’t think readers are going to be upset or put off by either usage.

ASK GIFF (or: a real live Grammar Nerd wants to answer your questions

Got a grammar question? Got a sentence that needs something, but you’re not exactly sure what? Tenses don’t jive? Can’t tell if you need a colon or a semicolon?

Well, I’m that kid in school who was always “first hand up” when it was time to diagram sentences. Yeah, a real grammar nerd. Grammar makes me happy, and misuse of it drives me nuts!

So I’m offering you the chance to pose your grammar questions here. Now, I don’t mean your technical questions – there are plenty of on-line resources for that, and my favorites are listed on the “Writers’ Resources” page here.

But sometimes the technical resources (aka “the rules”) don’t help a lot in real life. I remember trying one of the “grammar checkers” and, after it had eliminated the words it didn’t like (including “complex” words, which it defined as any word over 3 syllables — simplicity, anyone?), my 14-word sentence was reduced to “Brian have home.” Not quite the idea I was trying to put across.

So I’m looking for a specific question about your sentence or paragraph that needs help. Something you know isn’t quite right, but you just can’t seem to find the answer that unravels your confusion and makes it work.

To give you an idea of how I might answer, here are a couple of real examples from real people I’ve worked with (used with their consent, of course):

Question #1:  I have two versions of this sentence, and I need to know which one is better:

  1. She watched him amble through the gate and disappearing into the darkness as he walked down the beach.
  2. She watched him amble through the gate and as he walked down the beach, he disappeared into darkness.

My Response:  In the first sentence, the tenses don’t agree. It should either be:

  1. She watched him amble through the gate and disappear into … OR

  2. She watched him ambling through the gate and disappearing into …

But I don’t think the first sentence, even with the correct tenses, reads all that well. It seems to say he ambled through the gate as he walked down the beach. I’m pretty sure that’s not what you have in mind.

On the other hand, your second sentence already has agreement between the tenses and it’s easy to see just what you mean. However, I’d suggest eliminating “and” and using a semicolon instead. Why, you ask? Because, though the two clauses are related, each one has its own subject. In the first clause, it’s “she”, while in the second one it’s “he”.

So for me, the optimum sentence would be: She watched him amble through the gate; as he walked down the beach, he disappeared into darkness.

Question #2:  I’m having trouble with this sentence, and can’t figure out how to make it better:

He had a square face with a wide nose and a strong jaw-line, his dark-brown hair pronouncing his warm blue eyes.

Response:  I understand exactly what you mean to say. The problem is that “pronounce” as a verb means “to say”. You could go with “his dark-brown hair made his warm blue eyes more pronounced” or “his dark-brown hair played up his warm blue eyes” (or even “the warmth in his blue eyes”, if the other sounds too sing-song to you.)

So what do you say?   Want some help with a sentence, a comma, a verb? Send your question through the ABOUT ME/CONTACT page; I’ll post at least one every week (anonymously if you like), and give it my best shot!

Oh, goody! GRAMMAR!!!!

Tuesday Trivia #10: The Origins of “OK”

As I was editing my manuscripts, I noticed that I occasionally used the word Okay, or its abbreviation OK. There’s nothing that peeves me more than an anachronism in historical fiction, so I decided to see if I could trace the origins of the word.

Easier said than done! I did find out that OK has been in common usage in the US since the 1830s (meaning I was safe to use it in the context of the 1880s). However, the actual formation of “OK” is credited to the French, the Scots, the Greeks, and a railway freight agent, among others. My personal favorite origin story is from the Chocktaw Indian language, where “okeh” means “it is so”.

However it came about, OK’s popularity certainly rose when Martin van Buren ran for re-election in 1840; his nickname was “Old Kinderhook”, and his supporters formed the “OK Club” during his Presidential campaign.

While it was not enough to win van Buren the election, OK’s popularity has not waned at all since that time.

Grammar: Pet Peeves

Every writer and reader I know has a short (or long) list of pet peeves when it comes to language. My list, I’ll admit, is pretty long, but I’m feeling pretty focused today, so I’ll just talk about two.

I see a lot of query letters and synopses on the sites I follow, and I’ve noticed that many aspiring authors (younger people especially) have fallen into the trap of writing “should of”, “would of”, and “could of”.

I tell you frankly that it makes me grit my teeth.

Now I know that the sound of “should of” is about as close to “should’ve” as you can get, but our educational system is failing the new generation if they haven’t been taught to recognize these sounds as contractions of “should have”, “would have”, and “could have”.

Think about it: what would “should of” mean anyway? (Should = must) + (of = related to). So “should of” means “must related to”. Doesn’t make much sense, does it?

This simple mnemonic may help you to remember the right spelling: Should have used should’ve.

Now much worse, as far as I’m concerned, is “irregardless”. Lately it seems that everywhere I go, I’m hearing or reading “irregardless”. And it makes me want to bang my head against the wall.

There’s a question in some circles about whether “irregardless” is even a word, but we won’t get into that here. It’s commonly used, and that’s enough to make it seem legitimate.

Let’s take it apart. We’ll start with the base word, “regard”. The prefix “ir” means “not”. The suffix “less” means “without”. The result is “not without regard”, and the combination of two negatives brings you right back to “regard”. What you wind up saying is that you will consider the argument or statement that came before. Yet no one I’ve heard use it in the past ten, fifteen, or maybe twenty years has meant to agree with a point.

The word that negates the previous statement or argument, is “regardless”.

Regardless says: “All the stuff and fluff you said/heard before is meaningless, and I’m about to tell you why.” (Although it does say it a little more nicely than that, or at least more professionally.)

I believe the confusion arises because “irrespective” is a synonym for “regardless”, and people have created a mash-up of the two words. But if “irregardless” has crept into your vocabulary, my best advice is to squash that bug the next time you say or write it!

(Unless, of course, you’re writing a poem and need a word to rhyme with “irrigationless”. Which again brings me to a mnemonic: Don’t irrigate regardless.)

Now, what bugs you about grammar?


Let me first say that I believe in rules. I’m one of those people who loves to diagram sentences (yeah, I know). When too many of the rules get broken, the diagram looks just like chicken-scratch. On the other hand, sometimes it seems that rules are created just so we can have rules.

These days, two of the most common rules about writing are:

1.)  A good writer uses only “said”, “whispered”, and “asked” when creating dialogue; and

2.)  A good writer never, ever changes points of view within a chapter/scene.

Recently these rules were repeated to me by two separate and unequal sources. Now I know my style, and even if it weren’t for others pointing it out to me, I know that I do not follow these particular constraints.

So I decided to see how well the rules were observed in “real life” (or “real writing” if you prefer). I chose four books from my shelves: one was a classic; two were from NY Times best-selling authors, one current and one by an author who died a few years ago; and the last one was by an author I’m very fond of, but whose once-popular works now get very little attention. I opened the books at random and read ten pages of each.

This is what I discovered:

1.)  “Said”, “whispered”, and “asked” were used exclusively in dialogue by none of the authors. The average usage was just over 50%, with the classic being highest in adherence, and one of the NYT best-sellers being lowest. The dialogue scenes were sprinkled with a variety of terms, including: began, continued, replied, queried, challenged, demanded, shouted, barked, stuttered, told, murmured, gasped, objected, and even “squeaked”.

2.) Each author also changed their point of view within those ten pages. This time, the classic led the pack, doing it three times (and by that I mean back and forth, so if you’re feeling generous, you may want to consider it as six times). Each of the other authors did it twice, and one of them was writing in the first person, where you would not expect it to happen at all.

So what’s the moral of the story?

1.)  Rules are made up by those who don’t write well to annoy those who do;

2.)  It’s more important to write with clarity and sincerity than it is to always follow all of the rules; or

3.)  Blame Hemingway.

Feel free to state your opinion — I‘d really like to hear it. I, for one, am going to continue to ignore these rules, as well as the rule on split infinitives (but you’ve probably guessed that by now).

Emigrant or Immigrant, that is the question …

“How do you know which word to use?” I’m asked occasionally. I have to admit that I looked it up every time until I had it figured out: you’re an emigrant in relationship to the country you (or your relatives or characters) come from, and you’re an immigrant in the country you choose to settle in.

Sounds easy, right? But there were still those times I’d get confused again. Eventually I created a simple mnemonic using the word “IN”.  In your New country, you’re an Immigrant.

My father’s family immigrated to the US from Ireland, and rumor has it that his uncle escaped the Black and Tans by the skin of his teeth.

Now, if you want to know why emigrant has one “m” and immigrant has two, I’m afraid I just can’t help you there …