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.




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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.




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Sunday, 11 June 2017

Dialogue and Paragraph Breaks: Whose Line Is It?

I’ve talked about how to punctuate dialogue, but how do you know where in your dialogue to start a new paragraph? The general rule is that you should start a new paragraph for each new speaker. But of course there’s more to it than that.

Photo of dresses

The goal, as always, is to avoid confusing your readers. They should never be in doubt as to who’s talking.

  Standing side by side, Julie and her mother stared into the mirror. “I liked the pink one better,” said her mother. “It brought out the green in your skin.”

This paragraph opens with two characters. The speech tag (“said her mother”) makes it clear which of them is speaking. You don’t need to start a new paragraph for the mother’s dialogue, but you could if you wanted to—for example, if you felt the scene needed a pause there.

  Standing side by side, Julie and her mother stared into the mirror.
  “I liked the pink one better,” said her mother. “It brought out the green in your skin.”

However, you do need a paragraph break when it’s Julie’s turn, even if she’s reacting to her mother’s dialogue.

Less clear:
  “I liked the pink one better,” said her mother. “It brought out the green in your skin.” Julie rolled her compound eyes.
  “I’m not wearing pink. That’s so cliché.”
Clear:
  “I liked the pink one better,” said her mother. “It brought out the green in your skin.”
  Julie rolled her compound eyes. “I’m not wearing pink. That’s so cliché.”

Whether a character’s action appears before or after their dialogue, both dialogue and action should stay on the same line.

  Her mother sighed. “I just don’t know about this one.”
  “What’s wrong with it?” Julie spread her front arms.

If you follow this rule, the speaker will be obvious even when there’s no speech tag. Dialogue without speech tags or actions reads quickly, making it effective for rapid-fire exchanges.

  “What’s wrong with it?” Julie spread her front arms.
  “Well, it’s a little tight through the thorax, honey.”
  “It’s supposed to be that way!” 

Of course, there is always room for exceptions. A second character’s reaction might not need its own paragraph if it’s short and, most importantly, doesn’t obscure who’s speaking.

  “How about this one?” Her mother held up something ankle length with ruffles. Julie chittered in dismay. “Fine!” said her mother. “I’ll stop trying to help!”

If you’re writing a very close point of view, for example first person, you might decide to follow another character’s dialogue with your point-of-view character’s reaction. (You can read more about point of view in How to Write Characters’ Thoughts.) But again, be careful not to confuse your reader, and use speech tags where necessary.

  “I thought you liked pink!” she said. I swear she still thinks I’m twelve.
  “Pastels are for sorority girls named Miffy,” I said.

Moon and Praying Mantis by Shotei

If you want to show more than one person speaking simultaneously, you can put their dialogue on the same line.

  The sales assistant scampered towards them on sticklike legs. “Can I help you find something? What style were you thinking of?”
  “Sexy.” “Tasteful.”
  “I’m sure we can find just the thing.” 

But if you're trying to show characters interrupting each other, then use em dashes to show where the dialogue is broken. (Read more about em dashes in How to Use Dashes.)

  “Okay, okay, whatever you want,” said her mother, clicking her mandibles placatingly. “It’s your big night. Listen, honey, if you and Jeremy decide to have sex—”
  “Mom!” Julie quickly rotated her head, checking to make sure nobody had heard.
  “—promise me you’ll be safe. It’s very easy to get carried away in the moment, but you must under no circumstances bite his head off.”
  “I know! God, Mom. They covered that in Sex Ed, okay?”

Like all punctuation, the paragraph break is a tool—for clarity, of course, but also for pacing. A new paragraph can create a pause in the conversation. Either of the following is correct; it all depends on the writer’s intention.

  “All right, I trust you. You’re a good girl.” She looked away, her antennae quivering. “You’re just growing up so fast!”

  “All right, I trust you. You’re a good girl.”
  She looked away, her antennae quivering. “You’re just growing up so fast!”

Occasionally, the action will move from one character to another within the same sentence. Start the second character’s dialogue on a new line to avoid confusion, even if their action closed out the previous paragraph.

  “Moooom,” said Julie, as her mother pulled her into a many-limbed hug.
  “I’m so proud of you, sweetie!”
  “I know.”

Midsummer Frolics illustration 1894

Do you have to start a new paragraph for each character’s dialogue? No. There are plenty of stylistic reasons an author might choose to ignore all of the above. But if you decide to go off the beaten path, make sure your readers will follow. The more often they have to stop to figure out your story, the more likely they are to stop reading it altogether.





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Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Sentence Fragments: Shattering Your Syntax

Is it ever grammatically acceptable to leave a sentence incomplete? Sometimes.

Arachne, c. 1330

To be complete, a sentence needs a subject and a predicate. You can think of them as the protagonist and the drama1 or as the topic and its state of being. The subject is (or includes) a noun and the predicate is (or includes) a verb. Even very short sentences always have both.

  • Gregor awoke.
  • The sky is green.
  • I do.
  • It was.

These sentences may be uninformative, but they are complete. In fact, even one word can be a complete sentence.

  • Proceed.
  • Duck!

In commands like these (called the imperative mood in grammar circles), the subject you goes without saying.

Of course, an exclamation (or interjection) is considered a complete sentence even when it doesn’t follow the subject-predicate format.

  • Yikes!
  • Hey!

But interjections are a part of speech unto themselves.

Illustration of witches from The British Library
In the rec room, the chanting to summon the demon was coming to a close.

Sentence Fragments


A fragment is a sentence that’s missing either a subject or a predicate. Just as a very short sentence can still be complete, a long sentence can still be a fragment.

  • The blind, white grubs inside the silk-lined bassinet, tucked under a yellow woollen blanket. X

This tells us all about the subject, grubs, but doesn’t tell us what they’re doing.

  • The blind, white grubs lay inside the silk-lined bassinet, tucked under a yellow woollen blanket.
  • The blind, white grubs inside the silk-lined bassinet were tucked under a yellow woollen blanket.

  • Heaving and pulsing in their sleep, their tiny legs whispering restlessly. X

Here we have a wealth of verbs, but we don’t know who or what is undertaking the action.

  • They heaved and pulsed in their sleep, their tiny legs whispering restlessly.

  • In the rec room, the chanting to summon the demon coming to a close. X

Don’t be confused by the verb coming; it’s not a predicate. As part of the participial phrase “coming to a close,” it’s acting as an adjective, describing the subject, not driving the sentence.

  • In the rec room, the chanting to summon the demon was coming to a close.
  • In the rec room, the chanting to summon the demon came to a close.

Dependent Clauses


The presence of both a subject and a predicate doesn’t guarantee your sentence is complete. A clause can have its own subject and predicate, even though it’s part of a larger sentence.

  • We finished that bottle of chianti when the cats came over for dinner.

The clause “when the cats came over for dinner” has both a subject and a predicate, but by itself it’s still a fragment.

  • When the cats came over for dinner. X
  • The cats came over for dinner.

The word when sets up expectations the sentence doesn’t fulfill, leaving the reader hanging. When is a subordinating conjunction, which makes this a dependent clause; a dependent clause, as its name suggests, can’t stand on its own. To put it another way, clauses that begin with words like although, because, if, since, that, until, unless, and while will always be fragments by themselves.

  • When the cats came over for dinner, we opened a bottle of wine.

Dining with cats
When the cats came over for dinner, we opened a bottle of wine.

When Is It Okay to Use Sentence Fragments?


Although sentence fragments are a big no-no in English class, you probably see them all the time—in fiction, in advertising, in blogs. (Possibly even in this blog.) You wouldn’t want incomplete sentences in your cover letter or college essay, but in the right context they can add punch to your prose. For example, an author might use them to heighten tension during a dramatic scene, or you might use them for humour or as part of a casual, friendly style. And they can make dialogue sound more realistic, as few of us talk in complete sentences all the time.

  • Suki scanned the inky waves. There! Rising from the depths. A tentacle.
  • Would I babysit the larvae? Not for a million bucks.
  • Worst. Blog. Ever. 
  • “I feel weird,” said Gregor. “Kind of buggy.

As is often the case, you can get away with breaking the rules provided you understand them. A sentence fragment can be either a sign of sloppiness or an effective writing tool. How will you know which it is? Context.




1. Constance Hale, Sin and Syntax


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Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Transitive and Intransitive Birds

More than once while editing I’ve come across a construction like this:

  • An eldritch green light emitted from under the door to the teachers’ lounge. X

The problem here is the treatment of the verb emitted. Either the sentence needs a different verb or it needs to have its syntax rearranged.

  • An eldritch green light emanated from under the door to the teachers’ lounge. 
  • The teachers’ lounge emitted an eldritch green light from under the door. 

Emit is a transitive verb, and therefore needs an object, while emanate can be intransitive, and needs none.

Southern Cassowary by snailkites on Tumblr
A transitive bird (in this case, a cassowary) prepares to transmit a message to its object.

Transitive Birds


Transitive has the same root as transit, meaning “movement” or “the conveying of something from one place to another” (as in mass transit). It may help to think of transitive verbs as carrying an impetus they have to deliver to another word.

When a verb is transitive, it must have an object; it always does its verb-ing in relation to something else. Because emit is transitive, you can’t say “the light emits.” Emits what? You have to say “[something] emits light.”

These transitive verbs make no sense without the objects that follow them:

  • I tricked the giant.
  • I donned a natty green suit.
  • I questioned the witness closely.
  • I brushed the sasquatch’s coat.

Intransitive Birds


Intransitive verbs don’t require an object. With nothing to pass on, they are complete by themselves.

  • I stumbled.
  • I ruminated.
  • I cheated.

Identification in the Wild


The same verb can be transitive or intransitive, depending on how it’s used.

  • Natalya often walked by the Volga. (Intransitive)
  • Natalya often walked her snow leopard by the Volga. (Transitive)

  • Dark Dashwood the Desperate was willing to beg, borrow, and steal. (Intransitive)
  • Dark Dashwood the Desperate begged a smoke, borrowed a horse, and stole a herd of cattle. (Transitive)

  • The Dowager did not suffer fools gladly. (Transitive)
  • No one knew how he suffered! thought Niccolò. (Intransitive)

Cover of Dark Dashwood the Desperate from British Library
Dark Dashwood the Desperate was willing to beg, borrow, and steal.

A verb’s transitive and intransitive forms may even have different meanings.

  • Submit your poems to Annabel Lee on black-edged paper sprinkled with tears.
  • Submit!” cried the dominatrix, cracking her whip. 

So pay attention to that little note in dictionary definitions, the one after verb, that says transitive or intransitive. It may keep you from using entirely the wrong word someday.



Thursday, 27 April 2017

How to Use Dashes

There are two kinds of dashes you’re likely to need in your writing—em dashes and en dashes. Neither is the same as a hyphen, so don’t think you can substitute without anyone noticing. An en dash is traditionally the length of a letter n, while em dashes are—you guessed it—the length of an M.

- hyphen
en dash
em dash

Old ad featuring cigarette-smoking kitten
Cats make great roommates—if you don’t mind the smoking—and terrible landlords.

The Em Dash—An Interruption


The em dash is what most of us think of when we think of dashes—a break in the flow of the sentence. It’s often used as a colon, to introduce or expand on what came before (see Colon vs. Semicolon for more on colons), as in the last sentence and in this section’s heading.

Em dashes commonly work in pairs to set off a word or phrase from the rest of the sentence. They’re a little more emphatic than a pair of commas but a little less off-topic than parentheses.

  • Cats make great roommates—if you don’t mind the smoking—and terrible landlords.

In dialogue, a pair of em dashes can make room for an action, and a single em dash can show interrupted or faltering speech. (For more examples, see How to Punctuate Dialogue.)

  • “He said he’d be walking the thylacine”—Shareena checked her phone—“right about now.”
  • “Whatever you do, don’t push that—”

Occasionally, an em dash follows a word or words that introduce a sentence’s main clause.

  • Revenge—that was the sisters’ goal.
  • Aliens, spaceships, face-eating fungi—nothing fazed Felipe.

Em dashes are often put before the source of a quotation, though they are not obligatory.

If you can’t say anything nice, come sit by me.
—Dorothy Parker

Courage, Anxiety and Despair
Revenge—that was the sisters’ goal.

The Dash With Other Punctuation


When a comma, semicolon, or period falls next to a dash, the dash shoulders it off the page. But when a pair of dashes encloses a phrase ending in an exclamation point or question mark, that punctuation can stay.

  • Your combat skills are inferior—at least, inferior to mine—but your fashion sense is unrivalled. (No comma before but.)
  • Spade unwrapped a black bird—could it be the Maltese falcon?—and casually set it on his desk.
  • It’s not like I have a crush on him—as if!—but he does have nice hair.

The En Dash


En dashes are used to express ranges, where you might otherwise write from…to… or between…and…. They can also be used instead of to.

  • The average human heart weighs 250–300 grams.
  • Randy’s Roller Disco is open Tuesday–Sunday.
  • Eartha Kitt played Catwoman in the 1967–68 season of Batman.
  • The Rome–Sydney flight was cursed by a jet-lagged strega.
  • Our impromptu game of “flaming quidditch” ended in a score of 7–3 and a visit to the ER.

What you don’t want to do is combine en dashes with from or between. Use words or dashes, not both.

  • The Countess plans to travel incognito from April 6–May 12. X
  • Emile and his imps serve coffee daily from 7:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. 
  • Don’t go near the castle August–October. 

  • Mastering spatula combat can take between 3–4 years. X
  • Improving your diction will require between 10 and 15 marbles. 
  • Each morning I believe 5–7 impossible things before breakfast. 

Eartha Kitt played Catwoman in the 1967–68 season of Batman.

Dashes, Typography, and Spacing


The equivalent of an em dash in typescript--in case you’re stranded on a desert island with only a typewriter--is two hyphens. As for en dashes, you can probably get away with using a hyphen instead—in fact, the Associated Press prefers it. However, there’s no reason to be old-fashioned when you have a computer at your disposal. Programs like Word automatically transform two hyphens--without spaces--into an em dash and a single hyphen - with spaces - into an en dash. (More on this below.) Since computers can’t always read your mind, it’s good to know the keyboard shortcuts:

Mac
En dash: Alt + Hyphen
Em dash: Alt + Shift + Hyphen

Windows (use numeric keypad)
En dash: Alt + 0150
Em dash: Alt + 0151

Should you put spaces around your dashes? Most American style guides, including The Chicago Manual of Style, prefer closed em dashes—that is, em dashes without spaces. But many British publishers use open en dashes – that is, en dashes with spaces – instead, and The Elements of Typographic Style considers the open en dash aesthetically superior to the em dash.

Though the closed em dash is more widely used, both are correct, so the choice is up to you. However, don’t put spaces around your en dashes when they are expressing ranges or to; such en dashes should always be closed.

Sixteenth-century fencing manuscript illustration
Your combat skills are inferior—at least, inferior to mine—but your fashion sense is unrivalled.

A final word on dashes—try not to use too many. It may be tempting—they're so handy—but more than one or two per page—three at most—will look choppy and may distract your reader. I am, myself, occasionally guilty of overusing the dash. I have certainly done so in this post—purely for pedagogical purposes, of course.

Friday, 31 March 2017

Needless Words

Why use one word when you can use five? To keep your readers from wanting to kill you, for a start.

Poster for 1915 film Les Vampires
Irma Vep regularly uses her vampiric wiles to ensnare voyeurs.

Strunk and White said it best: “Omit needless words.” But sadly, excess verbiage proliferates as aggressively as dandelions, especially in the offices of academia, business, and government. Most of us tend to expand our sentences when we want to sound formal or well-educated, inflating them with pointless words like so much hot air. We add length but lose clarity, and sometimes even sense. Our writing becomes the verbal equivalent of puffed rice, bland and insubstantial.

Compare the following sentences:

  • Due to the fact that dragon hatchlings may become irritable when hungry, it is advisable that the handler afford them opportunities to feed in a timely manner.
  • Because hunger makes dragon hatchlings irritable, handlers should let them feed on time.

The second is much more effective—clearer, stronger, and less likely to make readers bang their foreheads against their desks in frustration.

Illumination from Anjou Bible c. 1340
Because hunger makes dragon hatchlings irritable, handlers should let them feed on time.

Fortunately, many style guides list alternatives to the wordy phrases that like to creep into our writing. Below are suggestions for some of the most common offenders.

  • Irma Vep utilizes her vampiric wiles on a regular basis as a means of ensnaring voyeurs.
  • Irma Vep regularly uses her vampiric wiles to ensnare voyeurs.

  • In the event that the alarm beacon on the clock tower begins flashing, citizens are required to put on their gas masks in a calm manner and wear them for a period of no less than six weeks or until such time as radiation levels return to normal.
  • If the alarm beacon on the clock tower starts flashing, citizens must put on their gas masks calmly and wear them for at least six weeks or until radiation levels return to normal.

  • The fact is that we have no openings for ventriloquists at this point in time; however, we hope to expand our opportunities with regard to this area in the near future.
  • We have no openings for ventriloquists right now, but we hope to soon.

  • In the case of limbo competitions, flexibility is very likely to be the deciding factor.
  • Limbo competitors must be flexible to win.

Photo of women working at U.S. Steel, 1940
If the alarm beacon on the clock tower starts flashing, citizens must put on their gas masks calmly and wear them for at least six weeks or until radiation levels return to normal.

More than improving your prose, reducing wordiness forces you to decide what you really want to say rather than regurgitate a series of meaningless phrases. Unless, of course, you’re trying to conceal the fact that you have nothing to say, in which case, puff away! (But don’t expect anyone to be fooled.)