Grammar Police BadgeWhen critiquing the work of other writers, one of the most common mistakes I find is the use of a plural pronoun to refer to a singular antecedent. I’m indebted to one of my high school English teachers (thank-you, Mrs. K.) for taking the time to teach how to use pronouns. Here is one of the rules that Mrs. K. taught:

A singular pronoun must refer to a singular antecedent; a plural pronoun must refer to a plural antecedent.

Examples:

Mr. Brown (antecedent) reported that his (pronoun) chicken was stolen.

Mr. and Mrs. Brown (antecedents) reported that their (pronoun) chicken was stolen.

Can you spot the error in the sentence below?

If the chicken thief is caught, they will go to jail.

In the sentence above, chicken thief is a singular antecedent. The pronoun they is plural. So many writers use they to refer to a singular antecedent. The rule states that a plural pronoun must refer to a plural antecedent.

Here is one way to correct the sentence:

If the chicken thief is caught, he will go to jail.

The singular pronoun he refers to the singular antecedent chicken thief. The rule states that a singular pronoun must refer to a singular antecedent. Since chicken thief and he are singular, the corrected sentence follows the rule.

Suppose there were two (or more) chicken thieves. Then the following sentence would be correct:

If the chicken thieves are caught, they will go to jail.

The plural pronoun they refers the to the plural antecedent chicken thieves. The rule states that a plural pronoun must refer to a plural antecedent.  Since chicken thieves and they are plural, the sentence in question follows the rule.

Some readers may recall that the American Dialect Society named the singular pronoun “they” to be the 2015 Word of the Year. Others may agree with the article by Jen Dole that declares that the singular “they” must be stopped. For the record, I’m siding with Jen, who states:

I’m not ranting against use of they as a preferred gender pronoun, but instead, in (the more frequent) cases in which it’s simply the easy way out, and, I think, indicative of sloppy writing.

Of course, fans of Jane Austen may call attention to her  frequent use of the singular “they”/”their”/”them”/”themselves” construction. For readers looking for authoritative guidance, Nicholae Cline, a librarian at Indiana University, wrote an article that outlines the positions of various academic style guides.

Until next time,

Write something you love! — Joanne

WriteSomethingYouLove.com

Grammar Police BadgeFaulty pronoun references plague the manuscripts of many writers. The wise writer makes certain that each pronoun he writes refers clearly to one noun, known as the antecedent. The antecedent of a pronoun cannot be an adjective, a possessive noun, a clause, or a phrase.

If a pronoun references more than one antecedent, the sentence should be reworded to eliminate confusion. Another option is to eliminate the pronoun.

Error: Pronoun References Multiple Antecedents

Example:

When Bobby saw the clown, he screamed.

In the sentence above, it is not clear who screamed. Did Bobby scream? Did the clown scream?  The reader has to guess.

Example corrected:

Bobby screamed when he saw the clown.

In the reworded sentence, Bobby is clearly the antecedent of he. The vague pronoun reference is eliminated.

Example corrected (alternative):

When Bobby saw the clown, Bobby screamed.

In the example above, the pronoun he is eliminated and replaced with Bobby.

Error: No Antecedent for a Pronoun

Another common writing error occurs when there is no antecedent for a pronoun.

Example:

Mary called the hot line, but they did not answer.

In the example above, they has no noun antecedent to which it can refer. The solution to this problem is to change the pronoun without an antecedent into a noun.

Example corrected:

Mary called the hot line, but the operator did not answer.

In the example above, they is replaced by the operator.

Error: Pronoun References a Clause

Sometimes writers erroneously use a pronoun to refer to a group of words instead of one clear noun antecedent.

Example:

She did not lock the door, which was very irresponsible.

The pronoun which in the example above has no clear antecedent.  A pronoun must always refer to a single, unmistakable antecedent. A pronoun should not be used to refer to an entire clause.

Example corrected:

She did not lock the door. Her behavior was very irresponsible.

The rewritten sentence above makes the meaning clear.

Error: Pronoun References an Entire Sentence

In the example below, a pronoun is used to refer to an entire sentence instead of a single noun antecedent.

Example:

Jill phoned David last night to criticize his driving. This made David very angry.

In the example above, “this” is a vague pronoun.

Example corrected:

Jill phoned David last night to criticize his driving. Jill’s criticism made David very angry.

Error: Pronoun References a Possessive Noun

Some writers like to use a possessive noun as the antecedent for a pronoun; however, a possessive noun functions as an adjective.

Example:

In White’s novel Charlotte’s Web, he tells the story of a pig’s friendship with a spider.

The pronoun reference in the sentence above is faulty, because the possessive noun White’s can not function as the antecedent of he.

Example corrected:

In his novel Charlotte’s Web, White tells the story of a pig’s friendship with a spider.

Error: Hidden Antecedent

An antecedent is hidden if it serves as an adjective instead of a noun.

Example:

When she removed the candy’s wrapper, it turned out to be chocolate.

In the example above, it should refer to the candy, not the wrapper; however, in the sentence above, candy’s functions as an adjective.

Example corrected:

When she unwrapped the candy, it turned out to be chocolate.

Occasional vague pronoun references plague even the best writers. Be careful. Remember that wise writers use beta readers and editors.

Until next time,

Write something you love! — Joanne

WriteSomethingYouLove.com

flowery proseOverwriting is such a common problem that I decided to devote today’s blog post to what it is and how to recognize and correct it.

What is overwriting?

According to Richard Nordquist, overwriting is: “a wordy writing style characterized by excessive detail, needless repetition, overwrought figures of speech, and/or convoluted sentence structures.”

Purple prose is a more derogatory term used to describe overwriting in its most extreme form. Such prose is seen most often in the work of newer writers trying too hard to make an impression. Discerning readers find this style irritating. Fortunately, there are questions writers can ask that, when answered in the affirmative, signal overwriting and/or purple prose.

Is it likely that the person reading the passage will have to pull out a dictionary?

A skillful writer introduces less common words in a way that readers can figure out the meaning from the context. Readers like learning new words, but the wise writer doesn’t bombard readers with too many unfamiliar words at once.

Example:

She suffered from hyperperistalsis of the gastric mucosa.

The previous sentence might be suitable for a medical journal, but in fiction, use common words.

Example rewritten:

She had an upset stomach.

Does a phrase draw attention to itself and not what’s happening in the story?

In carelessly written love scenes, the euphemisms chosen to describe body parts often cause laughter. For example, check out “Purple Prose and Bad Sex” by Liz Fredericks, and read the part about the manly acorns and wiry thatch. Enough said.

Could a phrase be shortened without losing any meaning?

Example:

Sue sat on the bed in the bedroom.

Beds are usually in the bedroom. Don’t state the obvious.

Example rewritten:

Sue sat on the bed.

Does the writing sound too old-fashioned or formal?

Example:

She accepted the dinner invitation with much gratification.

Opt for clarity.

Example rewritten:

She smiled and accepted the dinner invitation.

Could the writing be described as flowery?

The classic example of this is the first sentence of Edward George Bulwer-Lytton’s Paul Clifford:

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

A writing contest was inspired by this long sentence. Writers deliberately compose bad sentences that begin imaginary novels. Save wordy sentences for the contest.

Does the writing contain redundant words or phrases?

Example:

For any constituents endowed with even half a brain, this perpetual blather amounts to nothing more than mendacious prevarication.

In addition to other issues with the previous sentence, the phrase “mendacious prevarication” is redundant.

Example rewritten:

Everyone knows that politicians lie.

Does the dialogue contain redundancies?

Example:

“You are so mean!” Jenna shouted. “I’ve never met anyone as nasty as you before. You are nothing but a bully. I don’t know how you can live with yourself.”

Each line after the first in the example above takes something away from the preceding line. Pick the best way to convey the character’s thoughts.

Example rewritten:

“I don’t know how you can live with yourself!” Jenna stomped out of the room.

To have another character repeat what Jenna said in a different scene would be equally wrong. The readers already know what was said, and they don’t want to read the same thing twice.

Example:

“You told Misty that you didn’t know how she could live with herself?” Jill asked.

Example rewritten:

“I heard what happened with Misty.” Jill shook her head.

Are adverbs used inappropriately?

Example:

She pouted sadly when she learned of her grade on the math test.

Readers will assume that most people are unhappy if they’re pouting.

Example rewritten:

She pouted when she learned of her grade on the math test.

As a rule, minimize the use of adverbs.

Are multiple adjectives used when one would do?

Example:

Sue’s long, lovely, flaxen hair cascaded past her shapely, round, heaving breasts.

This is excessive, and the language isn’t tasteful.

Example rewritten:

Sue’s flaxen hair cascaded past her shapely bodice.

Are a character’s actions described in too much detail?

Example:

Lisa fumbled with her keys and unlocked the door. She turned the knob slowly and walked inside. Her fingers slid up the wall until she found the light switch, and then she turned on the light. She remembered a piece of chocolate cake that she’d put in the refrigerator and bolted to the kitchen.

Such detailed descriptions are tedious to read. When writing a thriller, an author might describe a character’s actions in detail before something exciting happens, but the reader will feel let down if nothing significant takes place after such a big build-up.

Example rewritten:

Lisa hurried inside and bolted to the kitchen. She opened the refrigerator door and spotted a lone slice of chocolate cake. Yummy!

The revised example provides only the necessary information.

Are distracting dialogue tags used?

Most of the time, use “said” (or “asked”). On rare occasions, a different dialogue tag might work, but it should never draw attention to itself in a way that removes the focus from the dialogue. Think of using dialogue tags the way a chef uses cayenne pepper.

Example:

“I can’t believe you painted the walls purple,” Kelly expostulated.

In this example, the word “expostulated” draws attention to itself.

Example rewritten:

“I can’t believe you painted the walls purple.” Kelly rolled her eyes and walked out of the room.

In the revision, the emphasis remains on the action in the story, rather than the unusual word.

Does the writing lack clarity?

Example:

She cast her oceanic eyes downward to gaze upon the enchanting denizens of the deep as they flitted about the aqueous realm.

Writers who try too hard, in a misguided attempt to sound literary, often confuse readers. Use plain English.

Example rewritten:

Her eyes widened as she looked down at the irresistible fish swimming in the pond.

The revised version is clear and easy to understand.

Are similes and metaphors used inappropriately?

Clement C. Moore makes extensive use of similes and metaphors in his Christmas poem, “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” but most of the time, similes and metaphors should be used sparingly. Avoid clichés. Click here for some examples of bad similes and metaphors from student essays. For some excellent examples of similes and metaphors, see Pablo Neruda’s “Sonnet XI.”

Is the dialogue so wordy or filled with backstory that it sounds unnatural?

Example:

“As you know, Kelly,” Erin said, “Mrs. Smith found a baby boy on her doorstep many years ago and adopted him as her own. Do you remember when you told me about it? You said that he had a very rare blood type.”

The snippet above is an example of reader feeder dialogue. The characters relay information they both already know for the benefit of the reader. In natural dialogue, when both characters know something, they reveal less.

Example rewritten:

“I hope Mrs. Smith can find a blood donor for her son,” Erin said.

Are descriptions excessive?

Example:

The candy, red and white in color and round in shape, smelled very much like peppermint. Wrapped in a clear wrapper, each piece was about an inch in diameter and had the hardness of a candy cane. About fifty pieces of candy filled the sparkling crystal bowl. A sign above the bowl said “one per person,” but Katy slipped two pieces into the pocket of her ragged wool coat.

Lengthy descriptions are tedious to read. Give the reader only the pertinent details.

Example rewritten:

The ball-shaped red and white candy in the crystal bowl smelled like peppermint. A sign above the bowl said “one per person,” but Katy slipped two pieces into the pocket of her ragged wool coat.

Are there any long lists of items?

Example:

She wore a warm winter coat, boots, hat, earmuffs, scarf, gloves, long underwear, and wool socks.

Readers tend to skim over long lists of items, and in most cases, it’s best to summarize.

Example rewritten:

She wore a European goose down jacket complete with accessories suitable for an Arctic snowstorm.

Does the writing contain unnecessary clutter?

Some writers pad their writing with unneeded words to make their word counts higher.

Example:

Due to the fact that she overslept, she missed the bus.

Example rewritten:

Because she overslept, she missed the bus.

In the revised version, a single word replaces five words. Not everyone wants to adapt Hemingway’s writing style, but writers should refrain from deliberately padding phrases.

Many of the examples above have more than one problem. Even the best writers make some of the errors described above. That’s why good writers use editors.

Until next time,

Write something you love! — Joanne

WriteSomethingYouLove.com

readers-ask

QUESTION: Why are writers told not to use mirrors to provide character descriptions?

ANSWER: Many writers use mirrors as a way to sneak character description into their stories with minimal effort. Seasoned writers avoid this method, because it’s considered lazy writing. In fact, the use of mirrors as a way to provide the description of a character has been done so often that it’s considered a cliché.

How to Describe the Viewpoint Character

The reason writers tend to use mirrors (or reflections) is that the protagonist is often the viewpoint character. Writers don’t want to commit point-of-view errors, and mirrors are a convenient way to allow the viewpoint character to see and describe herself. Fortunately, there are ways to provide character descriptions without resorting to mirrors. One method is to use other characters to give a description through dialogue. Another method is to have the viewpoint character look at another character and compare that character’s physical appearance or clothing to her own. It’s also possible to drop subtle hints. For example, if the character is a petite cheerleader named Joan, one could write something like:

Joan didn’t get along with Molly, the head cheerleader, but Molly needed her for the top of the pyramid.

Then readers will have a reasonable idea about Joan’s size.

Breaking the Rule

Most of the time, it’s best to come up with a way to describe a character without using reflections or mirrors. Of course, there are successful authors who break this rule. The Moonlit Garden, by Corinna Bomann (translated by Alison Layland), begins with a character looking into a mirror. The opening line is simple: “Helen Carter gazed in bewilderment at her reflection in the mirror.” A description of the character’s cheeks, eyes, and makeup ensues. At the time of this writing, this book has 3,279 reviews on Amazon.com that average four stars. The book also begins with a prologue, but that’s a topic for another day.

Until next time,

Write something you love! — Joanne

WriteSomethingYouLove.com

small-protagonist-wantedIn well-written commercial fiction, the hero (protagonist) needs to have both a goal and obstacles. The goal needs to be unambiguous, meaning that all readers will know when he’s achieved that particular goal. For example, suppose the hero is a skater. It wouldn’t be a specific enough goal for him to simply want to become a great skater, because opinions about what constitutes a great skater may differ. On the other hand, if he wants to win an Olympic gold medal at the upcoming Winter Olympics, that’s a tangible goal that readers can envision.

Reader Emotions Spring From Conflict

A story wouldn’t be too interesting if the protagonist achieved his goal without any roadblocks along the way. The emotions a reader experiences spring from conflict. A writer’s job is to create obstacles for the hero that get progressively bigger and closer together as the plot unfolds. The more overwhelming the obstacles seem, the more the reader will become emotionally invested in the story.

Link Obstacles to the Hero’s Desire

One mistake beginning writers make is creating random obstacles for the hero. The obstacles should relate to the hero’s desire. For example, if the protagonist loses his car keys on the way to the grocery store, this wouldn’t interfere with his ability to win an Olympic gold medal. However, if he suffers some sort of injury that prevents him from practicing, this could adversely affect his chances of winning a gold medal. Use obstacles that have something to do with the hero’s specific goal to keep the plot from meandering.

Give the Hero Plenty of Obstacles

Some writers may wonder how many story obstacles are required.  Hint: it’s probably more than most people would expect. Consider The Cutting Edge,  the first screenplay written by Tony Gilroy, who also wrote all the films in the Jason Bourne series. The film is about a skater, Doug Dorsey, who can no longer play ice hockey due to an eye injury at the Olympics in Calgary (1988). He accepts a challenge to train as a pairs  figure skater with Kate Moseley, a prima donna skater with a reputation for being difficult. If Doug can help Kate get a gold medal in the Winter Olympics (1992), her wealthy father agrees to pay him handsomely. There are many obstacles that lead to the climax of the film. In the end, Doug gets the girl and the gold, but he works hard for the victory.

Examples of Obstacles in The Cutting Edge

Watch The Cutting Edge (Ebert’s synopsis here), and try to identify the obstacles. Notice how they get bigger and closer together toward the end. Here’s a list:

  1. When Doug meets Kate, their personalities seem mismatched. She’s a pampered princess with her own skating rink. Doug comes from a modest background. She’s sheltered, and he’s experienced with women. He’s enthusiastic and friendly, and she finds fault with everything he does.
  2. Doug is a great skater, but he knows nothing about figure skating/toe picks and must study ballet to develop the gracefulness needed for the sport.
  3. Doug challenges Kate to play ice hockey with him, and she hits the puck into his face, requiring a trip to the ER.
  4. Doug gives Kate his prized possession (Bobby Hull sweater) for Christmas (a sign of his growing feelings for her), but she doesn’t understand its importance.
  5. Kate has a boyfriend (Hale, with an MBA from Harvard). Doug meets him at a New Year’s Eve party, and they spar.
  6. Kate and Doug have an awkward almost-kiss moment at midnight at the party.
  7. Before the Nationals, Hale proposes to Kate and she accepts, but she tries to get him to delay making an announcement about it, knowing the news will hurt Doug. Hale refuses.
  8. Doug claims her large engagement ring cuts into him, and he asks her not to wear it when they practice.
  9. Doug goes home to visit family, and his practical brother tells him that he’ll never make it as a figure skater. His brother warns that he’ll end up wearing a Snoopy costume at the ice capades.
  10. Doug doesn’t want to wear the frilly costume Kate picks out for the Nationals, and he wants to use modern music she doesn’t like.
  11. Kate breaks up with Hale at the Nationals, but Doug is nervous before the short program and starts throwing up. They end up in third place after the short program, surprising everyone, but only two pairs get to go to the Olympics.
  12. Doug gives Kate flowers after the short program. He compares waiting to skate in the long program to foreplay, and she tells him she needs sleep.
  13. They skate beautifully in the long program but score lower than Kate’s old skating partner, Brian, and his new partner, Lorie. The judges are tough, and it looks like Kate and Doug will end up in third place (the “all is lost” moment). An error by another pair puts them into the top two pairs (which means they go to the Olympics).
  14. Kate and Doug celebrate. She doesn’t normally drink but decides to do shots with him and gets drunk. When he takes her to her room and she tries to seduce him, he angers her when he doesn’t respond to her sexual advances. She throws him out of her room.
  15. Doug is drunk, and Lorie Peckarovski (Brian’s partner), goes to his room and seduces him. Kate knocks on his door in the morning to apologize, and Lorie answers the door in a towel.
  16. Kate seems less interested in preparing for the Olympics. Their coach, Anton Pamchenko, gives them a new move to work on that’s very difficult and dangerous to perform, but he thinks they need to use the move to beat a tough Russian pair expected to be at the Olympics.
  17. Kate feels unloved and laments to her father that she doesn’t know why she is skating and worries that the glass case he bought to display her Olympic medal will remain empty.
  18. When they arrive at the Olympics, the Russian pair creates a huge stir before the competition. Kate has to face Lorie again.
  19. Kate fights with Doug before the short program, because he refuses to button his top shirt button. Their scores suffer.
  20. Kate tells Doug that she refuses to do the difficult move in the long program, because she thinks it’s too dangerous. Coach warns that they can’t win without the move.
  21. Kate’s father blames Doug for the fight about the shirt button, and Doug announces that Kate is the reason that she and Brian lost at the Olympics in Calgary. Kate admits that Doug is right.
  22. Before the long program at the Olympics, Kate tells Doug that she is planning to retire afterward (the “dark night of the soul” moment).
  23. The Russian pair skates beautifully in their long program. Things don’t look good.
  24. Doug confesses to Kate that he loves her before the long program, and she tells him she wants to put the difficult move back in the program.  Then he argues that it’s too dangerous. (Anything missing from this list? Comment below.)

Of course, they end up doing the difficult move. They win, and Kate tells Doug she loves him, leading to a big movie-ending kiss. It’s hard to watch the movie and not feel a pang of emotion when the skating couple finally gets their act together after the constant tug-of-war throughout the film.

Novel writers can use this same method of throwing obstacle after obstacle in the protagonist’s path to create a satisfying reading experience. While there is no rule specifying how many obstacles are needed, the conflict must escalate throughout the story. It’s much more cathartic to the reader if the hero has to work hard and risk everything to get the prize. Readers want to feel something at the end of a book. Writers who can give the reader a worthwhile emotional experience will create a lasting impression.

Until next time,

Write something you love! — Joanne

WriteSomethingYouLove.com