Posts Tagged ‘grammar’

Common Writing Problems: Dependent Clauses

Good morning, Squiders! I think this will be the last of the bad grammar sections we do before we move onto different storytelling elements.

To start off with, let’s review what a dependent clause is. A clause, according to Google’s dictionary, is “a unit of grammatical organization next below the sentence in rank and in traditional grammar said to consist of a subject and predicate.” Clauses come in independent and dependent types. An independent clause expresses a complete thought. A dependent clause does not.

Examples of dependent clauses:

  • during the summer
  • after class
  • in case of emergency
  • when I said that
  • because she said so
  • when I was young

As you can see, these are not complete thoughts and require more information to make sense.

NOTE: Dependent clauses can further be broken down into adverbial, adjectival, and nominal types, but they all function more or less the same way, so we won’t be going into that level of detail here.

Dependent clauses can go at the beginning of a sentence:

When I said that, I didn’t mean it.

The middle:

My brother, who is younger than me, studies finance.

Or the end:

I didn’t mean it when I said that.

Dependent clauses can be delineated with commas, but whether or not they should be involves the meaning of the sentence. Let’s look at an example.

I ran away after the dog chased me.

I ran away, after the dog chased me.

Do you see how the meaning is slightly different? Adding a comma loses the sense of immediacy, making it seem like the dog chasing wasn’t the cause of you running away. Whether or not commas are included depends on whether the clause is essential to the meaning of the sentence.

But the biggest issue I’ve seen with dependent clauses as an editor is a problem with subject/verb/object agreement between the dependent and independent clauses of a sentence.

Look at this sentence:

Dancing away, my eyes lit up.

Let’s parse this out. Dancing away is the dependent clause. It can’t stand on its own. The independent clause is my eyes lit up. The subject of the sentence/independent clause is “my eyes.”

Which means the subject of the dependent clause is also “my eyes.” My eyes are dancing away?

Here’s another one:

Hanging in the lobby, I noticed the new pictures.

The subject of the independent clause is I. I noticed the new pictures. When you apply that to the dependent clause, I am hanging in the lobby, not the pictures.

This is a tricky thing to notice. We’re taught as writers to make sure we’re varying our sentence beginnings, lengths, etc. to make sure our writing doesn’t sound or feel repetitive. Adding a dependent clause to the beginning of a sentence–and this issue is almost always only found on beginning sentence clauses–is an easy way to do this.

It’s easier to see with shorter clauses like these, but occasionally you’ll have a longer dependent clause at the beginning, practically sentence length, that is so far separated from the main body of the sentence that it’s easy to miss that the subject of the clause is different than the subject of the main part of the sentence.

They’re hard to catch as well. A lot of times they’ll sound okay when read out loud, or they’ll sound slightly wrong but it won’t be immediately obvious what the issue is. If something seems wrong, look at your clauses and check what subjects they’re pointing to.

Well, squiders, thoughts on dependent clauses? Subject agreement? Ways to teach yourself not to do this?

Dress rehearsal tonight, then practice for the other concert. Wish me luck!

Common Writing Mistakes: Pronoun Confusion

Full confession, Squiders–this is something I had problems with for a LONG time. (Doing this today because I make no guarantees about Thursday.)

What is pronoun confusion? Well, take a look at this example:

Doug and Larry decide to go to the coffee shop from some of their seasonal coffees. He decides to get a peppermint mocha while he decides to get a pumpkin spice latte, because miraculously this shop offers both at the same time. Unfortunately, his coffee is burned and the whole thing tastes bitter.

Who’s doing what?

Who knows?

Pronoun confusion is where you have a pronoun that either cannot be directly tied to the proper noun or is tied to the incorrect noun.

As a quick refresher, a pronoun is a word that replaces a noun, such as he, she, they, or it.

The above example shows a situation where the pronoun “he” cannot be tied to either Doug or Larry, so the reader has no idea who is doing what.

Here’s an example of a pronoun tied to the incorrect noun.

Laura and Susie are on a tour of wine country. They have decided to ride bicycles between the wineries just in case. At their first winery, Laura decides to start with a nice, big Cabernet Franc. She decides to have a Riesling.

Who is “she” in that last sentence? If you think about it, you’ll probably decide it’s Susie, since we already know what Laura is having. But you don’t want to have your reader have to stop and think to figure out what’s going on.

Our brains automatically assume that the last appropriately-named noun that fits is the one that goes with the pronoun. So in this case, a reader’s first thought is going to be that we’re still talking about Laura.

These are fairly simplistic examples. The real issue comes when you have two characters (usually of the same gender) doing a complex action together. Fight scenes can be the worst offenders of this, with “he drew his sword to fend off his blow” and other such sentences, but pronoun confusion can sneak in anywhere.

So, how to you guard against pronoun confusion? The first step is just to be aware that it exists. Keeping “Is it clear who is doing what” in your head as you write can help a huge amount. It can also help to re-read complex sentences after you write them to make sure all your pronouns are pointing the right way.

Take special care with “it.” It’s especially easy to stick in without properly referencing an appropriate noun. Here’s an example.

Georgie has three pets: a turtle, a cat, and a dog. It is especially friendly.

Which pet do we mean? Who knows?

To fix a sentence that has an improperly used pronoun, you have two options:

  1. Add the noun in in place of the pronoun. (“Laura sighed and put her arm around Susie’s shoulders,” as opposed to “Laura sighed and put her arm around her shoulders.”)
  2. Rewrite the sentence so the pronoun is either not needed or obvious. (“Bob told Jerry that he didn’t like the way he looked at his wife” versus “Bob said, ‘Jerry, you don’t like the way I look at your wife.'”)

How about it, Squiders? Is this something you’ve had issues with? Any other advice for avoiding it?

On the Proper Punctuation of Emoticons ;)

So, my mother was recently filling out some online forms and called me for the “proper” punctuation of a smiley face: how far did it need to be from the sentence that proceeded it? Did there need to be a space between the colon and the parenthesis, and did she need to include anything else?

Admittedly, my mother is a recently-retired English teacher and, since the colon and parenthesis are both units of punctuation, she assumed that there must be some sort of emoticon rule that she was unaware of. Punctuation is, after all, a major component of grammar.

It got me to thinking – are there “rules” to emoticons? Has some prestigious institution out there written down how a smiley face must be formed to be proper? If they have, I’ve never heard of it.

In fact, emoticons seem to be personal. Whether they require a hyphen nose or not comes down to someone’s preferences, best I can tell. (I’m a no-nose emoticon user myself.) In fact, even more likely than the rules being out there is someone who has sat down and analyzed people’s personalities based on how they put their smileys together. A nose means you’re an extrovert, and not leaving a space between a word/sentence and the emoticon means you live your life in the fast lane, or some nonsense like that.

Will there ever be official emoticon rules? Arguments between nose purists and artsy no-nose types? While it is true that emoticons are pictures and not words, it could be argued that they are as much a part of the communication as the words that they follow or precede. They’re a somewhat desperate attempt to add tone in a world where communication is increasingly digital and meaning may be misconstrued by the reader – a winky face to let someone know you’re joking, a smiley face to soften the blow of harsh words, or an appalled face ( D: ) when no words will come.

What do you think, Squiders? Are there rules to emoticon form? Will there ever be, and will people follow those rules?

Grammar Week Redux: Me vs. I in Lists

We’re not going to go a full grammar week this week, but I’ve had a couple of people ask me questions and I thought I would answer them periodically.

We’ve all seen it (or had it done to us) a million times:

“Me and Stacy are going to the movies.”
“You mean ‘Stacy and I.'”

In fact, so many of us have the “and I” beaten into us so hard that we do it all the time. But, my friends, it turns out that there are times when you are supposed to use me, not I.

You use “I” when the list is the subject of the sentence. “Lisa, Jane, and I have decided to move in together.” You use “me” when the list is the object of the sentence. “Dave was so mean to Robert, Jordan, and me.”

Have I lost you? Don’t be lost. There’s an easy way to remember which to us.

If you would use “I” in a non-list situation, use I in the list. And vice versa for “me.” Like so:

I had chicken paprikash for dinner.
George and I had chicken paprikash for dinner.
George, Paul, John, Ringo, and I had paprikash for dinner.

What did you say to me?
What did you say to Kylie and me?
What did you say to Kylie, Reona, and me?

So, if you’re confused, take the list out and decide whether “me” or “I” is more appropriate in the sentence. And then, perhaps, we shall be able to avoid mistakes like “That’s so relieving for Fred and I.”

Feel free to drop me a line about any other grammatical questions you have, Squiders!

Grammar Week: Speech Tags

Ah, speech tags. The lovely bit of any story that tells you who’s talking at any point in time. Easy peasy, right?

No. Apparently not.

Here’s the thing about speech tags. They’re supposed to blend into the background. If you use them right, a reader hardly notices them, aside from gaining the necessary information as to who’s talking.

Let’s talk punctuation. He said, “There’s always a comma between the speech tag and the actual quotation.” This is true in past or present tense. You see, the speech tag is the action, and the quote is an extension. They are not a single thought and should not be presented as such.

Periods and commas always go in the quotation marks. Quotes within quotes use single quotation marks as opposed to double. She says, “Have you ever heard of the expression, ‘never go up against a landsquid when death is on the line’?”

(Landsquid make liberal use of ceiling turtles in conflicts.)

Now, appropriate speech tags. Many people will tell you not to stray much beyond said, asked, or replied. These blend into the action, allowing you to identify the speaker, but don’t distract the reader from what’s happening.

This can be hard for beginning writers to stomach. You’re a writer, after all! You must be creative.

But look at this example: He swallows, “Are you sure?”

Now try to swallow and talk at the same time. I dare you.

Some people get truly ridiculous with the actions they allow to be speech tags, but you will distract your reader if your speech tag is not physically possible. And you never, ever want your reader distracted by your prose.

With the above, you can swallow and then speak, and that’s okay. Same with laughing, smiling, crying, etc. Here is where punctuation is key. He swallows. “Are you sure?” Two separate actions.

The second thing people like to do is add adverbs onto their speech tags. He said loudly. She asked slowly. These are okay in moderation, but your writing will be stronger if you can move that adverb from a telling into a showing role in either your dialogue or action.

For example: “I’ll always be alone,” she said, staring at her hands. See how the dialogue and action takes away the need for a ‘sadly’?

Any questions on how speech tags work? Anything to note?

Ode to the Oxford Comma

Oh, Oxford comma, how I adore you, even though some styles call you obsolete.  It’s actually one of the hardest things to remember about being a freelance editor – Chicago, for example, strongly recommends using the Oxford comma, but AP says not to unless it’s a complex list.  But I think it adds clarity and completeness, and I always use it given the chance.

What is an Oxford comma?  It is also known as a serial comma.  It’s the comma that goes before “and” in a list.  Coffee, cheese, and cookies.  As opposed to coffee, cheese and cookies.  Boo.  See how much more pretty it is with the comma?  When you speak, you pause after each item, so why leave out the comma?

Anyway, because we haven’t done any bad poetry in a while, here’s an ode to the Oxford comma.

Oh, give praise to the Oxford Comma
It helps us to avoid such drama
It divides a list
So why resist
And it’s more useful than a llama