A Little Goes a Long Way with Noun Phrases

Toad against the wallEvery sentence has at least one noun phrase, which includes a noun and a modifier or two. I say one or two, because by using multiple, repetitive, unnecessary modifiers to a noun phrase, you can wind up with ugly, bloated, miserable sentences (see what I did there?). Strong writing features well-constructed noun phrases which are used well.

The thing about noun phrases is that they don’t do things the way that verb phrases do. Your writing is not carried on your noun phrases; if you try to make your noun phrases carry it, then you need to stop. Unless you have a truly interesting and important interesting noun phrase, it doesn’t need to be made longer than the verb phrases. Pronouns and unadorned nouns are typically all you need to use for the majority of your sentences.

Not only should noun phrases be short, but they should also be distributed sparsely throughout your sentences. Although it’s occasionally acceptable to use a brief list in your sentences now and then, you can confuse your reader by stuffing your sentences full of noun phrases one right after the other. If you have problems with stacking your noun phrases on top of each other, you might also have a problem with sentences that are too long in general. Practice writing shorter sentences, and try to give each noun phrase the attention it deserves.

Noun phrases are an important structural element of every sentence, and a good writer knows how to use them effectively. By using short noun phrases and distributing them sparsely throughout your sentences, you can tighten up your prose and make it much clearer. This helps keep your readers interested, and it helps you tell your story more effectively.

Using the Subjunctive Mood Correctly (and Incorrectly)

DCP_0092One of the nice things about verbs is their flexibility. Different verb forms can convey a wealth of information about both the subject and object governed by the verb. Tenses, for example, give you a sense of when a verb is taking place, while moods give you a sense of whether the action is taking place on a literal or abstract level.

The simplest and most common verbal mood is the indicative mood. We use it to communicate that action is happening literally: the boy was jumping, and the man walks along the riverbank. The subjunctive mood, on the other hand, is used to discuss action that isn’t certain to happen. Sometimes, as in the phrase “if I were you,” we even use it to describe action that is almost certainly not going to happen. Subjunctive verbs can be readily identified by the helping verbs that accompany them; ‘could,’ and ‘were’ are two very common companions. Occasionally, a subjunctive verb will be found in a ‘that’ phrase, as in the sentence, “She thinks that I poisoned her son.”

There are a couple of occasions when writers need to pay special attention to subjunctive verbs. The first is when they themselves are communicating uncertain or impossible information to the reader. Here, the subjunctive mood makes it clear that the verb’s action is occurring on an abstract level.

The second occasion is when a character is speaking about information that may or may not happen. One of the most common tics in human speech is the habitual confusion of “was” and “were” when speaking in the subjunctive mood. Although an educated or genteel character is likely to ponder “what would happen if she were there,” less sophisticated characters will be more prone to talking about “what I would do if I was in your shoes.”

Subjunctive verbs can convey much more information to the reader than a simple action. They can convey whether the action is certain to happen, they can convey the character’s attitude toward the action, and they can convey the character’s level of sophistication. The informational density of the subjunctive tense is just one example of how flexible a verb can be.

Using Adverbs with Aplomb

Yellow team aiming at the cockerelAdverbs are a bit like mayonnaise. Both have their share of people who rail against their use, and both have their share of people who use them with everything. Use them too sparingly, and the result is dry and a bit bland; use them excessively, and the result is so sloppy it’s impossible to get through. Use them correctly, and both your writing and sandwiches will have that unobtrusive bit of extra flavor so many of us have come to expect in a good finished project.

Technically speaking, an adverb is a word or phrase which modifies a verb or verb phrase. They are commonly categorized as being either adverbs of time, adverbs of place, and adverbs of manner. Adverbs of time and place are so ubiquitous – and indeed, so necessary for efficient communication in English – that stylists rarely comment on their use. Adverbs of manner, however, are so frequently abused that some writers (Stephen King notable among them) advocate largely eliminating them from your creative writing.

King’s essay makes some valuable points – in general, more compact language is more powerful. The main problem with stuffing your writing full of adverbs is that it makes your sentences so long and loose that they are difficult to understand. It also deprives you of an opportunity to use more efficient, compelling words; a woman shrieking becomes a woman screaming loudly and suddenly, and a horse charging is downgraded to a horse running at you swiftly. Too many adverbs can result in a written work that is just as bland as one without any descriptors at all.

However, even some of the most confident, powerful writers in the anti-adverb camp will find that there are a few gaps gaps best filled by adverbs and adverbial phrases of manner. For example, they can help you seamlessly incorporate gesture into dialogue (“Of course,” Rhonda said with a wink), and they can help you draw focus to one attribute of a character’s action (Gently, Captain Folson laid Ms. Farrow down on the grass). While it’s a good idea to go through your writing and double-check the necessity of every word, there is no need to worry if such a double-check leaves some adverbs behind. Used correctly, they can contribute to an effective and beautiful style.