Finding Your Feet

Brick wall 3Rhyme and meter are the building blocks of poetry, and metric feet are the building blocks of meter. It’s important to be able to identify what kind of ‘foot’ a word has – and not just in case you’d like to write a sonnet. Understanding the metric profile of your writing style can help you develop it, understand it, and refine it as you write. Whether you’re a poet or an aspiring prose master, this list of metric types can serve as a handy reference.

  • An iamb carries its emphasis on the second syllable. “To be,” “Rotund,” and “Astride are all examples of this poetic foot, which is frequently formed across two words.
  • trochee carries its emphasis on the first syllable. Unlike the iamb, it’s easy to find a trochee that is only one word: pizza, movie, lady, pirate, hamster, driver, and soda are just the beginning.
  • With the anapest, we move into three-syllable feet; the anapest carries its emphasis on its last syllable. Like an iamb, an anapest is likely to be composed of more than one word: from the lake, condescend, tearing up, and bedding down are some examples.
  • The dactyl, the anapest’s counterpart, carries its emphasis on the first syllable. These are more likely to be one-word feet than anapests, because plenty of words like galloping, contraband, terrorize, and even Instagram fit this pattern.
  • The spondee takes us back to two-syllable feet, but with a twist: the spondee is never used to carry a line. This is largely because it’s night impossible to arrange English words in such a manner that every syllable is accented. The spondee is usually used as a gap filler, or as a label for a word that doesn’t fit in with the rest of a poem’s meter. Examples are typically an odd arrangement of syllables, but sometimes you’ll encounter a single word like humdrum or lampshade that does the job.
  • If you suspect that the trochee might be a two-syllable foot with both words unstressed, then you’re correct! This is a more common gap filler than a spondee, and usually shows up in explanatory phrases like “son of” and “comes from.”

It’s certainly possible to imagine poetic feet with more than three syllables, but it’s most efficient to think of them in terms of the two and three syllable feet. Armed with this knowledge, you can approach formal poetry with a handy tool for understanding and interpreting it.

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.


Writing Exercise: Vocabulary Lists

Praying mantis on a sauce lidWe sometimes think of vocabulary exercises as the worst sort of busywork, something mainly imposed upon schoolchildren to teach them how to sit down and do something uninteresting for hours on end. However, writers can gain a lot from the simple task of defining and briefly using a list of words.

An increased understanding of vocabulary is never a bad thing, and going through a vocabulary list forces you to double-check your understanding of the English language. You’ll be surprised how much you learn about words you think you know – one word may have had more nuance than you realized, while another word might have another use that you didn’t know about. Still other words get learned once and then put in storage in the back of our minds. Going through a vocabulary list is a good way to find these (frequently excellent) words and put them to work in your writing.

In addition to a new perspective on the vocabulary of the English language, writers can gain a new perspective on their craft from this exercise. When you’re used to plotting, composing, and editing a long work, “use _____ in a sentence” can be a bit of a jarring task. Doing this kind of thing over and over again, without the distractions of plot and character development, lets you focus on how you construct sentences. If you’re trying to make your style more elegant, going through a vocabulary list will help you think about the mechanical elements of style.

Even if you’re the one your friends come to when they need to know how to use a word, you can benefit from the simple practice of defining and using all the words on a vocabulary list. This process can help you understand the English language better, it can help you develop your style, and it can even help you come up with an idea when you’re looking for inspiration.

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.

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.

Learning by Doing: How Copying Good Writers Can Make You Better

Snail close upWe always want our creative works to be original, but we must all acknowledge that we draw influence from other writers. Studying the style of writers you love can help you understand and improve your own style. There are many ways of learning from other writers. The simple exercise of copying a passage is among the most effective.

The process of copying a passage is self explanatory: find a part of another writer’s work that inspires you – or perhaps one that makes your skin crawl for reasons you can’t quite figure it out. Copy the piece by hand or by keyboard. Do it again. You’ll be surprised at how quickly you start to get a feel for the other writer’s cadence.

It is much easier to incorporate elements of your favorite writer’s style into your writing once you’ve copied passages that they’ve written. Even if you can’t exactly put words on what charms you about a certain sentence structure, you’ll be better able to aim for that effect once you know how it feels to write it.

Copying can also be a marvelous way to get out of a creative slump. It feels like very little mental effort: all we have to do is flip open a favorite book and pick a passage at random. We don’t need to think about ideas or how we’re arranging them, but there is something about the process of going through the motions of writing that gets us arranging ideas on our own.

Many writers repeat T.S. Eliot’s claim that good writers imitate and great writers steal, but too few writers take it to heart and practice the gentle art of copying. Just like visual artists study the techniques of the great masters by copying their pieces, writers can hone their skills by setting their own hands to the words and phrases of their favorite artists.

Which Way do your Sentences Branch?

Yellow mistletoe in the snowStyle and substance are too often looked at as separate matters in writing. However, the way in which we say something usually impacts its meaning or even changes it. The choice between a right-branching sentence and a left-branching sentence is one of many instances where our stylistic choices have a heavy impact on the meaning of our texts.

English is defined by linguists as a Subject-Verb-Object language. The cat sits on the couch; the woman makes coffee. We can think of this simple structure as the “trunk” of a sentence. When we add modifiers, they will branch out in one direction or another.

The right-branching sentence is a familiar friend to all speakers and writers of English. In a right-branching sentence, the modifiers are placed after the subject: The cat sits on the couch, watching whatever lies in the darkness behind her reflection. In this type of sentence, the natural emphasis is placed on the sentence’s main subject. The reader’s mind picks up the image of the cat in the beginning and carries it through to the end. Although this type of sentence is perhaps the most common type of sentence used in English, it should never be thought of as boring or ordinary. It provides writers with a simple, powerful tool for putting the sentence’s subject at the forefront of the reader’s mind.

The left-branching sentence is not as common, perhaps because it is easy to misuse. In this structure, we present the modifiers to the reader first and the subject of the sentence second: Squinting, stumbling, creaking at the knees, the woman makes coffee. Here, the mood is set by modifiers before the subject of the sentence comes onstage. The left-branching sentence gives us the opportunity to de-emphasize the subject in favor of the circumstances that surround the subject. Although writers should take care to keep these sentences coherent by limiting the number of pre-subject modifiers, this structure can be a useful tool for establishing mood and tone.

Paying attention to sentence structure yields much richer fruits than simple correctness. Proper, educated use of right-branching and left-branching sentences can improve your style and lead to more effective writing.