The Revolution Will Not Be Proofread

Lizard on the barbecue grillIf you’ve ever read Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Shakespeare’s plays, or Jane Austen’s novels, you’ve probably figured out that the rules of the English language are not set in stone. Grammar rules are changeable. This isn’t to say, of course, that you can declare today to be a “comma splices are correct” kind of day; in fact, most grammar rules should be carefully followed because they help your audience understand your writing. However, there are some changes to the English language that are happening right now as we write. You get to choose whether you want to stick with tradition or hop on board with the linguistic revolution.

New words are one of the most prominent changes you’ll notice in this language. We’re acquiring them all the time – from other languages, from technical fields, and even from popular slang. Frequently, new words are formally welcomed into the English language by being included in one of our famous dictionaries. This typically means that they’re used frequently enough and consistently enough to be worth defining for the masses.

While some words make their debut in the English language, other words are taking on new roles. Nouns are being used as verbs, verbs are being used as nouns, “literally” can be used to mean “pretty extremely and seriously, but not really literally-literally,” and “their” is fast gaining acceptance as the singular gender-neutral pronoun we’ve needed for centuries.

Of course, there remain those who will bristle and whine that you’re using it wrong when you use a word in a way that’s only recently become popularly accepted, or that that’s not a real word when you use something that’s only just been invented. It is true that on occasion, you need to stick to an older set of conventions – particularly in technical or legal writing. However, if it’s a less formal piece and if the perfect word choice is only technically incorrect, there’s no reason that you shouldn’t contribute to the English language’s continuous evolution.

5 Tiny Details that Impact the Meaning of a Sentence

Cricket on flax 2A large part of producing good writing is polishing your writing. Keeping a close eye on details will not only help ensure that your writing is elegant, but also help ensure that it means what you want it to mean. These three “little big things” will pop up in almost every piece you write – so keep an eye out for them, and make sure you’re using them in the best way possible.

  • Articles like “a” and “the” are likely the shortest words in your sentences, but they convey a lot of information about the nouns they govern. “An apple,” for example, is one of many ordinary fruit, but if you talk about “the apple,” your reader will assume that it stands out from the rest in some regard.
  • Parenthetical phrases can be one or two words long, but they can make make a big splash. “I had tea with my friend Deborah at the beach” refers to one of many friends, while “I had tea with my friend, Deborah, at the beach” identifies Deborah as being one of a kind. The difference is that the second “Deborah” is contained in a parenthetical phrase, which functions to describe a solitary object rather than to point out one object out of many.
  • Modifier placement is another huge tiny detail that you need to watch out for. If I write “I want this dinner to end badly,” for example, I’m expressing ill-will. However, if I move the modifier around so that it reads, “I badly want this dinner to end,” then we see that I’m probably just tired or suffering from a headache.

As you develop your writing style, you’ll find that you have a fairly large set of details that you tend to fuss over time and time again. This is not a bad thing – the more you find yourself correcting little details, the more attention you’re paying to your writing, and the happier your readers will be.

How to Avoid Misplaced Modifiers

Clive's bread puddingI really do like modifiers, I swear. If we want to make our writing clear and our images vivid, we need adjectives, adverbs, and the phrases that do their jobs. It’s just that we have to use modifiers correctly, or they do the opposite of their intended job.

The misplaced modifier is a classic example of this maxim. It occurs when a modifier occupies an entire phrase, which is typically separated from the ‘governing clause’ by a comma. How do we identify the governing clause? It’s simple: the governing clause contains whatever information is being modified by your adjective or adverb.

Because English is a subject-verb-object language, many clauses will contain a noun for both the subject and the object. For example, the clause “Becky set the pie on the windowsill” contains the subject “Becky” and the object “the pie.” Because the sentence is structured around the subject, readers will assume that it is the subject, not the object, being described by any modifiers added onto the sentence.

This gets to be a problem when you decide that you need to add on a modifying clause to describe the pie. Let’s say you want to tell the reader that the pie is steaming from the oven. Now, the sentence reads, “Still steaming from the oven, Becky set the pie on the windowsill.”

This is a classic example of a misplaced modifier. The reader assumes that “Still steaming from the oven” is describing Becky, and that paints a rather grisly picture. To fix this mistake, we need to make it very clear to the reader that the pie, not the cook, is the one which has been baked. This is most easily done by scooting that modifier as close as you can get it to the governing clause: “Becky set the pie, still steaming from the oven, on the windowsill.” If you want, you can experiment with the wording “which was still steaming” and see if you like how it makes the sentence work.

We all write them on occasion, but misplaced modifiers can really make a piece of writing stand out in a bad way. Whenever you’re writing a complex sentence, be wary of this error, and be sure to correct it whenever it occurs. This will keep you from confusing your reader or accidentally phrasing things in a very unfortunate way.


Active vs. Passive Voice: A Matter of Agency

View from the back doorTime and time again, speakers and writers of English find themselves thinking of sentences in terms of actions and actors. Typically, we prefer to organize our sentences so that the sentence’s main actor is identified in the subject. This organization, known as the active voice, is widely preferred by writers for its clarity and its compact structure.

Fiction writers have an additional reason to prefer the active voice. In a work of fiction, your characters will almost always be the actors in your sentences. Your characters are also your main device for getting your readers connected with your story. By using the active voice, with its emphasis on the actor, you keep your writing focused on your characters and give yourself the most opportunity to connect with your audience.

However, there is a time and a place for the passive voice in fiction. When we use the passive voice, the object of the sentence’s action is used as the subject of the sentence. The actor is sometimes mentioned afterward, and it is frequently not mentioned at all. This construction can yield weak and awkward sentences, but it is very useful when we want to call the reader’s attention to the object of an action. When we describe a vase that has been shattered, a door that has been kicked in, or a body that has been dragged into the woods, we want the reader to be struck by the dramatic image. Some ambiguity about the actor of the sentence is acceptable in these instances, and it can even be necessary to build the suspense in a scene.

Usually, we want to help our readers closely follow along with our actors as they go through our story. Because the active voice is a far superior tool for this job, it’s generally thought of as a superior sentence construction. However, don’t discount the possibility that the passive voice may be more appropriate for some of your sentences.

Nonsense, up with Which I Will Not Put

Galileo jumping in the snowIf you write, you will eventually, inevitably be told you must comply with Stupid Grammar Rules. These aren’t so much rules that are hard to understand or rules you’re not accustomed to following – indeed, many rules in these two categories are Good and Sensible Grammar Rules. Stupid Grammar Rules are archaic relics of outdated English dialects, extending their tentacles via the misguided advice of well-meaning mentors.

One of the most famous of these rules is the notion that you should never end a sentence with a preposition. It is indeed true that you can easily write a godawful sentence with a preposition at the end. It is indeed true that strong sentences tend to end on nouns or adjectives, rather than prepositions and verbs. However, making a hardline rule against it will hamper the flow and cadence of your writing. Indeed, it can even lead you to monstrously awkward work-arounds like the one in the title of this post.

The point of grammar is not to give some shiny crown to the biggest stickler in an online forum, or to shame people who were trained to write in an environment that did not focus on the liberal arts. The point of grammar is to organize (and pretend to somewhat standardize) the English language so that it may be taught and analyzed. Grammar evolves over time. Rules that may have made a lot of sense at one point in time – like the prohibition against prepositions at the end of a sentence – may become completely irrelevant in a matter of decades. Nonetheless, some people will continue to insist that they be enforced, and it is at this point that they become Stupid Grammar Rules.

The only way to identify Stupid Grammar Rules is to study English grammar – and not by looking it up on Wikipedia. Use Google Scholar or another scholarly source to access texts on the current state of English grammar. You’ll find that it’s more interesting than some of your instructors may have made it seem, and you’ll gain some of the knowledge you need to decide which word choices are really the right ones.

Avoiding the Dreaded Comma Splice

Swallowtail butterfly caterpillar close up, croppedThe comma represents no sound, but we pronounce it anyway when we read a sentence in English. A comma is a signal that we need to regard a word as a sort of ending point. Used properly, commas enhance the flow of your writing and let you develop a lovely, unique cadence. Used improperly, commas can muddle your writing and make your sentences awkward.

One frequent comma error is the comma splice, this sentence is a perfect example of one of them. It contained two clauses, one on each side of the comma. Both of the clauses were independent, and yet they were joined only by the weak mooring of an unadorned comma.

This comma splice can be corrected in one of three ways: the comma can be replaced by a break between sentences; the comma can be replaced by a semicolon; or the comma can be supplemented with a conjunction. These techniques keep your sentence’s clauses from running together, and they help your reader process the information your sentence is trying to get across.

Writers frequently have issues with comma splices in dialogue. It may be well and good to use conjunctions and semicolons in descriptive passages, but speech patterns tend to vary ever so slightly from the cadence of descriptive prose. Let’s face it: people speak in comma splices, and it’s tempting to write them into lines spoken between characters. However, you should opt for the emdash instead. It conveys a pause between two independent clauses – not quite a period, but more grammatically correct than a comma.

Comma splices are one of those little habitual errors that many writers have a hard time shaking off. However, it’s worth it to keep an eye out for this common mistake, because it can make your writing seem unpolished and make it hard for your readers to follow you. Be sure to always use something stronger than a comma to link two independent clauses.

Perfect Parallelisms

DC_0003In many ways, a sentence serves as a storage structure for information. A well-written sentence keeps information neatly organized so the reader can find it and use it with ease. Parallel structures are one of the most important tools for organizing information within a sentence. By learning how to manage these structures and how to spot a faulty one, you can make your writing tighter and organize your sentences better.

We most frequently use parallel structures to convey different pieces of information which share a common theme. For example, I might say that my morning chores include feeding the animals, gathering the eggs, watering the garden, and getting the mail. Each of the phrases in bold conveys a piece of information that falls under the umbrella of “morning tasks.” Accordingly, each phrase is structured almost identically.

It’s easy to slip up and write a faulty or a clumsy parallelism. If I were to say that my morning chores include feeding the animals, gathering the eggs, watering the garden, and a trip to the mailbox, then I would be using a faulty parallelism in the italicized phrase. Here, “a trip to the mailbox” is a nominal phrase which springs up like a weed in an orderly patch of verb phrases. This faulty parallelism makes the sentence awkward, jars the reader, and detracts from the flow of the prose.

Whenever you see a group of phrases or clauses which all fall under the ‘umbrella’ of another clause, you should make sure that each member is structured similarly. Well-crafted parallelisms are a key feature of clear, tight writing which leads the reader through all of your important information. They make your writing “user-friendly,” and they add elegance as well as clarity to your prose.

Helping Your Sentences Stand Up for Themselves

Walnuts as pickedThere are two types of clauses that we use to build sentences in English. There are independent clauses, which contain a complete statement of subject, verb, and object; and there are dependent clauses, which contain an incomplete statement. The basic test for an independent vs. dependent clause is to ask yourself if the clause would make sense as a sentence. If it would, it’s independent.

A good writer knows which information should go in an independent clause and which information should go in a dependent clause. Because independent clauses are the core of your sentence, you generally want to use them to convey the most important information in that sentence. This will draw the readers’ focus and help them understand your writing.

Dependent clauses, which ‘borrow’ parts of their logic from the independent clause that governs them, should generally contain secondary information. For instance, look at the sentence, “The carriage rattled over the bridge, spraying melting snow behind it.” The independent clause carries the main image that the reader gets from the sentence, while the dependent clause gives us some information about the scenery.

Writers should be careful with their dependent clauses, because too many of them in one sentence can overburden your writing and leave your reader lost in a sea of commas and modifiers. Everyone can benefit from taking a sample of their writing and highlighting the dependent and independent clauses in different colors. Ideally, you should see that independent clauses dominate your writing. If the reverse is true, go through your sentences and find places where you can convert a dependent clause to an independent clause.

Good, strong writing is easy to understand. It tells the readers what they need to know, and it conveys information in relatively short segments of language. Minding your dependent and independent clauses is an important part of strengthening your prose.

Understanding Predicative Phrases

Snail close upSome writers and linguists like to think of English sentences in terms of subject and predicate. The subject is the thing, character, or concept that the sentence describes to the reader, and the predicate is some property or attribute of the subject.

When we think of predicates, we typically think of verbs and verb phrases. The boy might throw the ball, or the woman touches her lover’s cheek. Predicative verb phrases are the heart and soul storytelling. They describe action, which is the most valuable attribute of all in fiction. Even if the action takes places on a somewhat abstract level, you should structure most of your sentences so that a subject does something to an object using a predicative verbal phrase.

I’m using the somewhat pedantic term ‘predicative verbal phrase’ in this discussion because I want to call attention to a different kind of predicative phrase – an insidious one that leads many writers to believe that they are using powerful verbs when they are not. The predicative adverbial phrase (and its sister, the predicative adjectival phrase) technically contain a  verb, but they do not convey an action. Rather, they function as a modifier, using a copula like “is”  to communicate static information about the sentence’s subject.

Now, the predicative adverbial phrase is not necessarily a bad sentence structure. Indeed, you will need it to describe many important details regarding your setting and your characters. Phrases like “Barbara was at home” or “the necklace was made of fine gold” are occasionally necessary to help the reader understand the setting and the story. However, they do not have the same sentence-driving affect as a true predicative verbal phrase, and using them excessively will make your writing weaker rather than stronger.

Although it’s almost impossible to find a predicate that technically lacks a verb, it is important to distinguish the predicative phrases that communicate action from the predicative phrases that simply describe the subject. Good, clear writing relies upon active verbs and verb phrases. Being careful with your predicative phrases will help you make sure your story’s language focuses on doing rather than being.

Everybody Hates Editing

Argh!!! Get someone to do it for you, it's money well spent.

Editing – Argh!!! Get someone to do it for you, it’s money well spent.

Ever heard of the Oxford comma?

“The ‘Oxford comma’ is an optional comma before the word ‘and’ at the end of a list: We sell books, videos, and magazines.”

Weird isn’t it? Well you’re not alone if you think grammatical rules are sometimes a bit draconian. I mean, who are you to tell me I can’t put a comma here, or here, or right towards the end of this sentence, huh?

As long as it flows, right? While some writers are more pedantic about writing styles, syntax and grammar, others prefer to freestyle their ideas and sacrifice any adherence to traditional language rules. However, although rules are indeed made to be broken, some writers take it too far. The result is a sloppy, patchy, and unintelligible eyesore of a text.

The wild vagaries of writers aren’t always to blame though. While some writers do try their best to keep Spell-Check and AutoCorrect quiet, anyone capable of constructing slightly complex sentences is aware that a simple there/their/they’re error can cruise past syntax security. You might also know that reading your own book twenty times over doesn’t really stop those subtle typos from hijacking your trip to JK Rowling or EL James status—you just can’t spot them!

So what do you do? You phone up The Editors. These guys are vicious error assassins. They usually charge ad valorem fees, depending on how long your book is and how you want the job done. Be it straightforward and mechanical, or sophisticated and creative, the Editor gets the job done. You won’t have to worry about your worst enemies sneaking past built-in grammar checks and getting onboard your paperback or Kindle flights to stardom—nothing escapes the eyes of The Editor.

Scary isn’t it? Yeah, maybe you should be scared. Not only do Editors knock out errors stone cold, some of them knock a big chunk off your publishing budget as well.

BUT, maybe you shouldn’t avoid them altogether. The reality is that the stingy writer who insists on a zero-cost publishing tour and takes on the gruesome job of editing themselves often faces instant death as their hijacked flight crashes and their error-plagued books fall prey to the vultures patrolling the skies of Amazon — the harsh reviewers.

Can’t I just edit my book and republish it? You can, but don’t be too optimistic about a book’s resurrection once it has been published and has started incurring heavily critical reviews concerning poor editing. Once this has started happening, even Aragorn would be hard put to help you. But then again:

There is always hope.