Friday, 24 November 2017

When to Use “Said”

There’s a myth that you should never use the verb say in your dialogue. Certainly there are more exciting, muscular verbs out there, but too often writers resort to a thesaurus when a simple said would be more effective.

Medieval
Cefusa, a legendary beast which leaves human footprints. France c.1290

Compare the following:

  “Are you sure this is where you saw it?” wondered Shazad.
  “Yes, I told you. It’ll pass by any minute, trust me,” replied Mae.
  “It’s not that I don’t believe you. It’s just that this branch has been poking me in the butt for like twenty minutes now,” complained Shazad.
  “Wait! I hear something!” observed Mae.

  “Are you sure this is where you saw it?” said Shazad.
  “Yes, I told you. It’ll pass by any minute, trust me,” said Mae.
  “It’s not that I don’t believe you. It’s just that this branch has been poking me in the butt for like twenty minutes now,” said Shazad.
  “Wait! I hear something!” said Mae.

While neither example is ideal, the speech tags in the second example are less distracting than those in the first. Said has a way of fading into the background, while verbs like replied and observed can sound odd or stilted. You want your reader’s attention to move smoothly through the scene, not get snagged on awkward or unnecessary word choices.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you should always and only use said. Other verbs can be more effective when they tell us something important about the dialogue.

  “Are you sure this is where you saw it?” whispered Shazad.
  “Wait! I hear something!” hissed Mae.

Here both speech tags expand on the dialogue by telling us how it was spoken. And both are in keeping with the scene, not shoehorned in just to provide word variety.

Medieval illumination of many-headed lion-type thing
Apocalypse beast. France 1220–1270

Of course, you could always dispense with speech tags altogether.

  “Are you sure this is where you saw it?”
  “Yes, I told you. It’ll pass by any minute, trust me.”
  “It’s not that I don’t believe you. It’s just that this branch has been poking me in the butt for like twenty minutes now.”
  “Wait! I hear something!”

This can work well where you want a quick pace. But unless you’ve already introduced the characters, the reader won’t be able to picture them. And if you add a third speaker, things get really confusing.

  “Is that it?”
  “Shh!”
  “Oh my God, you were right! It’s really real!”
  “Excuse me. Do you mind giving me a little privacy?”
  “Oh, uh, sorry.”
  “Yeah, sorry, dude.”

You can still let your readers know who’s speaking without using speech tags. The characters’ actions, appearing on the same lines as their dialogue, cue readers as to who’s saying what. (For more on this, see Dialogue and Paragraph Breaks.)

  Shazad leaned forward. “Is that it?”
  “Shh!” Mae poked his shoulder warningly.
  His jaw dropped. “Oh my God, you were right! It’s really real!”
  The sasquatch glared at them through the tree branches. “Excuse me. Do you mind giving me a little privacy?”
  Shazad cleared his throat. “Oh, uh, sorry.”
  Mae winced. “Yeah, sorry, dude.”

This method keeps some of the punchiness of the dialogue-only approach while giving the reader more information. The scene is a lot more vivid when we know how the characters are moving and reacting in between speaking.

Cute illustration of two sasquatches
Sasquatch and her son by Sarah Goodreau

But any sentence structure repeated too often will bore your reader, so you want to use some or all of these methods in combination. Remember, too, that you can put speech tags or actions in the middle of dialogue to switch things up.

  “Are you sure this is where you saw it?” whispered Shazad.
  “Yes, I told you,” said Mae. “It’ll pass by any minute, trust me.”
  “It’s not that I don’t believe you.” He shifted awkwardly. “It’s just that this branch has been poking me in the butt for like twenty minutes now.”
  Mae froze. “Wait! I hear something!”
  “Is that it?”
  “Shh!” she hissed.
  His jaw dropped. “Oh my God, you were right! It’s really real!”
  The sasquatch glared at them through the tree branches. “Excuse me,” she rumbled. “Do you mind giving me a little privacy?”
  “Oh, uh, sorry,” said Shazad.
  Mae winced. “Yeah, sorry, dude.”

What we can learn from the “never use said” myth is that no writing rule should be applied universally. A screwdriver may be an invaluable tool, but you wouldn’t use it to hang a picture. Writing tips are tools, and choosing the right one for each job is what the craft of writing is all about. Next time you’re enjoying a good book, notice how the author has put together their dialogue. I’m guessing somewhere in there they probably used said.



You can support this blog by becoming a patron. Those who pledge $5 or more a month get access to special bonus posts. Next month’s bonus post will be on faze vs. phase.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Lie vs. Lay

Here’s the difference between lie and lay: Lying is a thing you do. Laying is a thing you do to something.

  • The carpet has to lie flat before it’ll fly you anywhere.
  • You have to lay the carpet flat before it’ll fly you anywhere.

Le tapis volant by Bilibin

To put it another way, lay is transitive and lie is intransitive. Transitive verbs need a direct object. (See Transitive and Intransitive Birds for more on this.) In the example above, the object of lay is carpet.

Present Tense


One way to remember the difference between lie and lay is to think of the idioms “lie like a rug” and “lay an egg.” You can’t say “lay like a rug” because then the pun (lying on the floor/combusting one’s pants) doesn’t work. “Lay an egg,” on the other hand, demonstrates how the verb lay needs a direct object, in this case egg.

In the antiquated structure of “now I lay me down to sleep,” the object of lay is me. The modern version would read “now I lie down to sleep.” If you’re not laying down a thing (or a person), then what you’re doing is lying.

  • My only goal is to lie around in a fluffy robe eating chocolates.
  • Lay Whiskers on his cat bed and step away slowly.
  • Anatoli has to have a lie-down after every séance.
  • There is a special hell for people who lay open books face down.

So far so simple, right? Just wait.

Past Tense


Because the English language laughs at logic, the past tense of lie is lay.

  • The carpet lay still and refused to fly anywhere.
  • After waking, Gregor lay in bed trying to figure out what he’d turned into overnight.
  • All that month we lay low at the ranch while the posse searched for us.

The past tense of lay is laid.

  • When the act was over, the ventriloquist tenderly laid her dummy in its box.
  • The night before the big match, the luchador laid out his favourite mask, cape, and tights.

Vintage lucha libre poster

Past Participle


A past participle is a verb form you use with have or had (e.g., drunk, given, seen). The past participle of lie is lain.

  • For ten years Teodora had lain in her coffin, waiting for a victim.
  • You’ve lain around feeling sorry for yourself long enough.

The past participle of lay is laid (yes, it’s the same as the simple past).

  • Whiskers has generously laid a dead mouse on your pillow.
  • It seemed the prince had not yet laid those salacious rumours to rest.

To recap:

lie/lay/lain, lay/laid/laid

  • The Oompa-Loompas are lying in wait.
  • Yesterday the Oompa-Loompas lay in wait.
  • The Oompa-Loompas have lain in wait since breakfast.

  • Lay your cards on the table.
  • Yesterday you laid your cards on the table.
  • You had already laid your cards on the table when I drew my derringer.

Lie Low or Lay Low?


The correct expression for keeping a low profile is “lie low”—although “lay low” is so commonly used instead, it’s probably only a matter of time before it becomes accepted. However, to lay low actually means to knock out or overcome. For example, you’ll often read of someone being “laid low” by illness. In such cases, the object of lay is the person being laid low.

  • Lupe was laid low after Sunday’s roller derby match.
  • Roller derby injuries can lay Lupe low.
  • Hien and Renée had to lie low after the diamond heist.

Movie still from Les Vampires, 1916

In casual spoken English, lay and lie are frequently interchangeable, but formal writing guides still maintain the distinction, so it’s worth memorizing the different verb forms. That said, it’s rare to see lain in the wild, let alone hear it, and I doubt most readers will notice if you use laid by mistake.



Support this blog at patreon.com/grammarlandia. Patrons who pledge $5 or more a month will get access to exclusive bonus content. This months bonus post is about jibe, gibe, and jive, and includes references to both Hamlet and the Bee Gees.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Comma Splices and How to Avoid Them

Like a botched Apparition spell, a comma splice happens when a comma is unequal to the task of carrying you from one clause to another.

Walter Crane, illustration from Beauty and the Beast
Pierre snorted like a pig every time he laughed. He could hardly help it given his physiognomy.

  • Pierre snorted like a pig every time he laughed, he could hardly help it given his physiognomy. X

A comma is not strong enough to join what would otherwise be two complete sentences.

  • Pierre snorted like a pig every time he laughed. He could hardly help it given his physiognomy. 

A period is often the cleanest fix for a comma splice. There is nothing wrong with short sentences. However, if you want to convey a tighter relationship between your clauses—cause and effect, for example—you can use a coordinating conjunction, dash, colon, or semicolon instead.

  • Pierre snorted like a pig every time he laughed, but he could hardly help it given his physiognomy.
  • Pierre snorted like a pig every time he laughed—he could hardly help it given his physiognomy.
  • Pierre snorted like a pig every time he laughed; he could hardly help it given his physiognomy.
  • Pierre snorted like a pig every time he laughed: he could hardly help it given his physiognomy.

Medieval illumination of hugging demons
Demons have bad days like the rest of us, and sometimes they need a hug.

Coordinating Conjunctions


Coordinating conjunctions are the joining words and, or, but, so, yet, for, and nor. Using them makes the relationship between your clauses explicit, which is no bad thing.

  • Demons have bad days like the rest of us, sometimes they need a hug. X
  • Demons have bad days like the rest of us, and sometimes they need a hug. 

See Commas and Conjunctions for more.

Dashes


Dashes have a lot of uses, but in this case their interruption suggests an aside or a punchline, like an elbow to the ribs.

  • Euphemia was a canny card sharp, even Death couldn’t beat her. X
  • Euphemia was a canny card sharp—even Death couldn’t beat her. 

See How to Use Dashes for more.

Colons and Semicolons


Colons introduce, while semicolons join. Use a colon when the second clause explains or expands on the first. Otherwise, use a semicolon.

  • Giacomo’s true nature was obvious in hindsight, he’d always avoided garlic, churches, and sunlight. X
  • Giacomo’s true nature was obvious in hindsight: he’d always avoided garlic, churches, and sunlight.  
  • It couldn’t have been easy, no wonder there were so few vampires in Italy. X
  • It couldn’t have been easy; no wonder there were so few vampires in Italy. 

See Colon vs. Semicolon for more.

Death and the Lady photo 1906
Euphemia was a canny card sharp—even Death couldn’t beat her.

All that said, if your clauses are very short, and if their structures match, you can get away with only a comma between them.

  • I came, I saw, I conquered.
  • Mum was in the orchestra, Dad in the ballet corps.
  • She played, he danced.

What you don’t want to do is make your sentences flimsy paperclip chains of clauses hooked together by commas. Clarify your thoughts, then use the appropriate punctuation.



You can donate to this blog at patreon.com/grammarlandia.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Subject-Verb Agreement, Part 2

Check out Part 1 for phrasal connectives, mass nouns, and bickering fairies.

Dancing dervishes
Each of the dancers has his own style.

Indefinite Pronouns


Would you write “Each of the dancers have their own style” or “Each of the dancers has his own style”? Keep your eye on the subject—in this case, each.

  • Each of the dancers has his own style.
  • Of course both of the pirates have eye patches.
  • Which of us hasn’t yearned for a shrubbery? 

But

  • Meilin is one of those people who aren’t afraid of spiders.

In this case, Meilin is one of X (X being those people who aren’t afraid of spiders). Meilin is the subject and is is the verb. Compare that sentence with the following:

  • One of those people isn’t afraid of spiders.

None can be singular or plural, despite those who claim a singular verb is the only correct choice (“None of us is drunk”). While a singular verb isn’t wrong, even The Chicago Manual of Style thinks it sounds “possibly stilted” (5.220). Chicago’s recommendation is to make the verb agree with the noun following none

  • None of the German fairy tales were conducive to a good night’s sleep.
  • None of the creamed corn is edible.
  • Are you telling me none of them know how to crack a safe?

Alternatively, you could dodge potential arguments by using not one or not any instead.

  • Are you telling me not one of them knows how to crack a safe?
  • Not any of the creamed corn is edible.

Horrifyingly violent illustration from Der Struwwelpeter
None of the German fairy tales were conducive to a good night’s sleep.

Predicate Nouns


“The bait was chocolate-chip cookies” or “The bait were chocolate-chip cookies”? Here cookies is what’s called a predicate nominative or predicate noun: it renames or identifies the subject. Bait is the subject, so the verb should be singular to agree with it—was

  • The general’s passion was Fred Astaire movies.
  • Jivika’s weakness is kittens.

If the correct version still sounds weird, you can reword it.

  • Fred Astaire movies were the general’s passion.
  • Kittens are Jivika’s weakness.

Nouns That Look Plural but Act Singular


Nouns like mumps and news are plural in form but are treated as singular: “Mumps was prevalent,” “Good news is always welcome.” Others are less clear-cut. Mathematics, for example, is usually treated as singular but may be plural when used in the operational sense.

  • Mathematics is the underlying language of the universe.
  • Her theory’s mathematics were indisputable.

Similarly, politics is usually singular when it refers to political science or the process of governing, but it can be singular or plural in the sense of an activity or a set of principles.

  • Politics is for people who have too much idealism or none.
  • That man’s politics are distasteful.

Compound Subjects Revisited


Although subjects joined by and take a plural verb (as covered in Part 1), they can sometimes be treated as a singular unit. 

  • Skipping and jumping were his favourite hobbies. (Two subjects)
  • Skipping and jumping was her recess activity of choice. (One subject)
  • Battered and fried is how I like my Mars bars.
  • Wine, women, and song was all the poet cared about. 

Of course, smoothing your reader’s path is more important than impressing them with your grasp of grammar, so always consider alternate wordings.

  • Her recess activity of choice was skipping and jumping.
  • I like my Mars bars battered and fried.
  • All the poet cared about was wine, women, and song. 

Lobby card from Top Hat
The general’s passion was Fred Astaire movies.





Whether plural or singular, you can support Grammarlandia at patreon.com/grammarlandia.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Subject-Verb Agreement, Part 1

Neither Lin-Manuel nor Irina has been to Mars before. Or should that be “have been”?

One of the fundamental rules of grammar is that a verb should agree with its subject: “We are going,” not “We am going.” If you’re a native English speaker, this probably comes naturally to you, but sometimes the correct verb isn’t obvious.

Pulp sci-fi magazine cover
Neither Lin-Manuel nor Irina has been to Mars before.

Compound Subjects


Two or more singular subjects connected by and take a plural verb. (There are occasional exceptions, but we’ll discuss those in Part 2.) This feels pretty obvious in practice.

  • The lion and the unicorn need to have a talk.
  • A lama, a priest, and a rabbi walk into a bar.

Singular subjects connected by or and nor, however, take a singular verb.

  • Yun or the dog has demolished the cake.
  • Neither Lin-Manuel nor Irina has been to Mars before.

When you have a singular subject and a plural subject joined by or or nor, the verb agrees with whichever is closest.

  • Neither the sensei nor his students were prepared for the monster.
  • The bicycle acrobats or their manager has broken the contract.

Phrasal Connectives


Phrases like as well as, along with, together with, and in addition to don’t make a singular subject plural. Whether set apart with commas, dashes, or parentheses—or not set apart at all—phrasal connectives don’t affect the rest of the sentence (see also this Q & A).

  • The samurai Noguchi, together with his cat, goes for a walk every day.
  • The snake as well as Pia likes a good story.

If the correct sentence sounds awkward, you can always reword it.

  • The snake and Pia like a good story.

Illustration: Lady chats with snake
The snake as well as Pia likes a good story.

Collective Nouns


Group subjects like family, team, and mob are called collective nouns or mass nouns. In the UK they’re more likely to be accompanied by plural verbs, and in Canada and the US by singular verbs: “My family are coming to visit” versus “My family is coming to visit.” According to The Chicago Manual of Style, collective nouns take a singular verb when they’re acting as a unit and a plural verb when they’re acting as a collection of individuals.

  • The murder of crows passing overhead looks ominous.
  • The fairy host are continually bickering among themselves.

Media, in the sense of “mass communication,” used to always be treated as plural, and this usage is still preferred by the Chicago Manual.

  • The media are having a collective hissy fit.

But outside of formal writing, “the media” is so often treated as singular that lexicographers admit the word is becoming a collective noun, like data. Even the Associated Press Stylebook allowed in 2016 that when being considered as a group, media can take a singular verb.

  • Social media is both a blessing and a curse.

Arthur Rackham: The Meeting of Oberon and Titania
The fairy host are continually bickering among themselves.


Coming up in Part 2: none, predicate nominatives, and chocolate-chip cookies



You can support Grammarlandia at patreon.com/grammarlandia.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Clichés to Avoid: Orbs and Tears

“Tears rolled down her face” is a sentence I’ve come across more than a few times in the work of beginning writers. While it’s more descriptive than “She cried,” there’s a lot more to crying than tears, rolling or otherwise.

Photo by Man Ray: Tears


Of Orbs and Eyeballs


But before we get to tears, let’s talk about orbs. Orbs, which means “spheres,” is sometimes used instead of eyes, often accompanied by a colourful descriptor, as in “emerald orbs.” It’s true, eyeballs are spherical, but you’re not likely to notice unless they’ve been taken out of their sockets. Orbs makes me think of crystal balls and marbles; I’ve never looked into someone’s eyes and thought, “Ah, so spherical!” Unless you’re describing the eyeball manufacturer in Blade Runner, steer clear of orbs. It’s almost invariably a sign of bad writing.

Close-up of eyeball from Blade Runner
From Blade Runner: the only circumstances under which it’s acceptable to refer to eyes as “orbs”

In the same way that eyes is better than orbs, green is always an improvement over emerald or jade. (And for the love of all that is holy, stay away from cerulean—it’s a cliché of clichés.) Have you ever actually seen eyes that look like emeralds? Were they cold and hard? Multi-faceted? Most of the time, we don’t notice people’s eye colour beyond a vague impression of dark or light. Unless you’re gazing into someone’s eyes, you’re far more likely to notice things like expression and movement: smiling, squinting, bulging, darting, glinting, shifty, wide, and so on.

Weeping 101


Before the tears start rolling, people usually go through a few opening stages. If you’re writing from the crying character’s point of view, they might first feel a pressure or prickling behind their eyes. Their throat might tighten or their nose start to run. Water will probably fill their eyes, obscuring their vision, before it spills over their lower eyelids and eyelashes, often following a blink. Another character watching them might notice their red eyes and nose (if their skin is pale enough for it to show) before the wetness on their cheeks.

There are as many ways to cry as there are people to do it. Is your character a stoic type? They may blink rapidly, clench their jaw, look away, or swipe a hand brusquely across their face and pretend they just had something in their eye. In Pride and Prejudice, Lizzy is careful to put her handkerchief over her face before giving way to unrestrained crying. On the other hand, a character might be beyond caring what others think, letting the tears and snot slide down their face and drip off their chin without trying to wipe them away. Or maybe creating a scene is what they’re all about, like a toddler howling during a tantrum, or a bereaved mother wailing at a funeral.

Indeed, the noise of crying is often more noticeable than the tears. Sobs can be loud or muffled by a pillow, hands, or someone’s shoulder. And crying doesn’t just happen in the face: shoulders slump in despair, limbs go limp. A person might collapse—onto the ground or a couch or a bed—or they might vent their feelings by punching or kicking something (or someone). People sniffle and blow their noses, unobtrusively or messily. And it might all wind down with hiccups or deep, shuddering breaths.

Illustration of weeping woman from 1844
A crying person might collapse onto a grave if one is handy.

To say that tears roll down a character’s cheeks isn’t really saying much. This is a chance to tell your readers more about the character and their circumstances. How they cry can show us their personality, culture, location, depth of feeling, and personal history. That’s a lot to pack into a few tears.




Keep the blood, sweat, and writing advice rolling down my face by supporting this blog on Patreon.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Q&A: Parentheticals and Subject-Verb Agreement

What is the grammatical correctness for a sentence such as:

George Smith (and Tom Johanssen, of course) are making a strong contribution to the operations.

OR

George Smith (and Tom Johanssen, of course) is making a strong contribution to the operations.

The question really is: Is the information in brackets included in the grammar of the rest of the sentence or is it ignored?

Illuminated demons carrying books
George Smith (and Tom Johanssen, of course) is making a strong contribution to the operations.

The second version is the correct one: George Smith (and Tom Johanssen, of course) is making a strong contribution to the operations. As The Chicago Manual of Style points out, any matter set off with commas, dashes, or parentheses does not affect the rest of the sentence.

  • Sarah, and of course her clones, has issues with authority.
  • Cyril—and Gussie too—is excited about starting school in the fall.

If the correct version sounds awkward, try rearranging the sentence.

  • Sarah and her clones have issues with authority.
  • Cyril and Gussie are excited about starting school in the fall.

After all, correctness isn’t much good without clarity.

Old photo of two boys wearing fish heads
Cyril and Gussie are excited about starting school in the fall.




Become a Grammarlandia supporter on Patreon to keep this blog alive. You could have your question featured in a post.