Friday, November 28, 2014

Modified Meaning: "Afford" vs "Can Afford"

Today we begin the first in a series of small posts, much like the “Punctuation Problems,” “Word Mix-Ups,” and “Phrases to Avoid” series; these will be called the “Modified Meaning” posts. There are certain verbs that are frequently used with modifying words and phrases that change their meaning. Many new authors leave off the modifying phrases, however, and thus end up using the verb incorrectly. Our example today is the verb afford versus the phrase can afford (or the varieties could afford, couldn’t afford, and can’t afford.)

The verb afford is most often used in the second manner above, which means to be able (or unable) to bear a certain cost. For example:

     We wanted to buy a new computer, but we can’t afford it right now.
     I couldn’t afford to move to a larger apartment.
     The company could afford to pay all of us more.

Many beginning writers, however, might write a sentence like this:

     We afforded new clothing for the dance.

Without the modifying can or could, the verb afford means something different, rendering this sentence a bit nonsensical. When used thusly, afford means to make available, to give forth, or to provide naturally and usually requires a direct and indirect object (something affords something to something else). So our above example means “we made clothing for the dance available,” not “we were able to bear the cost of clothing for the dance.” Here are some examples of afford used correctly:

     These machines have automated the process, which affords our workers a lot of time to work on other things.
     Juan’s relationship with the coach afforded us a lot of courtside tickets.

If you're using afford on its own, you generally need both a direct object and an indirect object. Otherwise, your sentence probably won't make sense.

Usually, when using afford, you’ll mean can or can’t afford. Don’t drop the modifiers unless you’re certain you’re doing so correctly.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Punctuation Problems: Misplaced Commas

As we’ve discussed before, commas can be tricky. Even expert writers often forget to place commas where they’re needed or place an extra comma where it wasn’t needed. One of the most common comma mistakes is when one is inserted in a sentence to separate two actions being performed by one subject. For example:

     Incorrect: Boris picked up his knife, and finally began to carve.
     Correct: Boris picked up his knife and finally began to carve.

Good for you, Boris.

I see this all the time. I think these commas often occur because writers mentally narrate to themselves as they write and feel like they need a comma wherever their mental narration pauses or hesitates. After all, when people read out loud, they often pause slightly on commas. Read that last sentence out loud—you instinctively pause on the commas, don’t you? It’s just a slight hesitation, but it’s there.

But not every hesitation requires a comma. In the case of our example sentence, we have one subject—Boris—performing two sequential actions, and the actions are separated by “and.” In this sort of situation, you do not need to use a comma. Not ever. When you’re writing dialog, it may be tempting to include a comma to indicate a hesitation, but I recommend against it. How important is that brief hesitation, anyway? If it’s not pronounced enough to justify using ellipses, then it’s not important enough to require a comma.

Now, some people like to say that you should never use a comma when the word and is used to combine to actions or phrases. That’s not true. But when both actions are performed by the same subject, this will generally be the case.

Monday, November 24, 2014

When Long Sentences Get Out Of Hand

One of the most frequently-given bits of advice in regards to prose is to vary up the length of your sentences. If every sentence in a paragraph is the same length or the same format, your writing will lack the natural rhythm and flow that most readers unconsciously pick up on in good prose. A paragraph of short sentences will feel choppy; a paragraph of long sentences can become fatiguing. A mix of the two is usually preferable.

The problem is that long sentences are more difficult to write well than shorter sentences. It’s like the difference between building a small cottage and building a towering skyscraper: both skyscrapers and longer sentences require more complex and robust construction. The longer the sentence, the greater the chance that some sort of grammatical error will creep in and ruin things.

But even when a long sentence is grammatically correct, it has a greater chance of confusing readers. The primary purpose of sentences and paragraphs is to divide information into logical, bite-size chunks that can be quickly analyzed and assimilated. Readers are trained to absorb information one sentence at a time, and a long sentence forces them to process more information at once. For example:

     The house was little more than a dingy shack crammed between two other huts at the westernmost edge of what passed for a village on this hard, narrow path that wound through the wilted woods off of the main highway.

That’s a lot of information to throw at your readers in one chunk. By the time a reader gets to the end of that sentence, they barely remember where the sentence started. A sentence should usually contain from one to three pieces of information (usually closely-related information). Let’s look at the information given in our example sentence:

     The house was little more than a dingy shack (Description of the house)
     crammed between two other huts (Physical situation of the house)
     at the westernmost edge of (Location of the houses)
     what passed for a village (Editorial commentary on size of village)
     on this hard, narrow path (Relative location of village)
     that wound through the wilted woods (Location of path)
     off of the main highway. (Relative location of woods)

That’s seven pieces of information—too much for one sentence, especially one without a colon or semicolon. We should break the sentence into more than one. How do we decide where to break it up? Look at the bits of information; we have three pertaining to the house, two pertaining to the village, and two more that are really just intended to give us more details about the location of the village. So we’ll delete the unneeded bit about the path, which isn’t actually serving the intended aim of describing the location of the village, and then we’ll divide this sentence into two—one about the house, and one about the village:

     The house was little more than a dingy shack crammed between two other huts. They stood at the westernmost edge of what passed for a village in the wilted woods off the main highway. 

Now, we could also end that first sentence with a semicolon (or maybe even an em-dash) if, for some reason, we were determined to keep all of that information in one sentence. That’s usually the difference between long sentences that work and the ones that don’t—those that work make careful use of breaking punctuation to create the needed pauses and divides in the information they contain, thereby making it easier for readers to assimilate one chunk at a time.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Word Mix-Ups: Adorned vs. Dressed

I have seen many authors use the word adorned as a synonym for dressed, usually in this manner:

     He was adorned in a fine silk doublet of the deepest green, so dark it was nearly black.

This is incorrect. Adorn means to enhance the appearance of something (usually with beautiful, individual objects); it is generally paired with the preposition with, not in. For example:

     The Christmas tree was adorned with lights and tinsel.
     The king demanded that a tapestry depicting his victory be woven to adorn his throne room.
     Her paintings adorned the walls of the manor.

The subtle difference here is that adorned implies that an object has been hung or pinned upon something; it is an individual embellishment or series of embellishments. Clothing (and by extension, dressed) is more encompassing—a complete covering instead of a specific embellishment. Adorned is the equivalent of painting your address on the front of your house in fancy calligraphy; dressed is the equivalent of giving the entire house a new coat of paint.

(It is fair to note that while adorned cannot be used to mean dressed, dressed can sometimes be used to mean something close to adorned. This is probably part of what leads to confusion between the two words.)

Usually, this inappropriate use of adorned appears when a writer wants to say that a character was dressed in something fancy, but wants a more impressive word than dressed. Clothed is your best option, or you could say that the character wore or donned the clothing. But don’t let yourself fall into the trap of abandoning the most effective, useful word for what you want to say simply because it seems common! Common is good—it’s understandable, unpretentious, and undistracting. Save your searches for fancy synonyms for something more important than dressed.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Redundant Phrases: "[Category] Of [Part of Category]"

In regards to writing, Kurt Vonnegut is often quoted as saying, “Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.” It’s good advice, and is one of the reasons that I persistently caution writers to avoid redundancy in their prose. When you repeat yourself unnecessarily, you are wasting the time of your audience and insulting their intelligence. Redundant writing is weak writing.

With that in mind, I’d like to point out a particular word arrangement that often leads to redundancy in writing. It is this: “[blank] of [blank].”

Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with this particular construction—it is a very basic and useful pattern that we all use every day. “A cup of milk.” “The Tree of Life.” “The fifth of November.” Even Vonnegut used it in his advice above: “the time of a total stranger.”

This construction can become redundant, however, when the first blank is filled with some sort of category and the second blank is filled with a specific word from within that category: “[category] of [part of category].” 

Here are some examples:

     As Opal walked past the window, she heard the sound of a clatter outside.
     Quinn was suddenly overwhelmed with a feeling of happiness.
     Edik slumped to the floor, an expression of sorrow etched upon his face.

A clatter is a type of sound, a rattling series of noises. Therefore, to label it as a sound in your writing is unnecessary. It’s like saying “he wrote a sentence of words.”

Here’s those examples with the redundancy removed:

     As Opal walked past the window, she heard a clatter outside.
     Quinn was suddenly overwhelmed with happiness.
     Edik slumped to the floor, sorrow etched upon his face.


Note that this is not a universal rule—sometimes, the construction [category] of [part of category] is useful or necessary. For example:

     “Which shade of blue best matches my eyes?” 

This sentence wouldn’t work well if that phrase were shortened. “Which shade best matches my eyes?” would be grammatically correct but lacks specificity, while “Which blue best matches my eyes?” feels odd because blue is an adjective but is being used as a noun. Shade of blue is the best way to go.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Perspective Errors: Name Placeholders

We’ve previously discussed how to use synonyms to avoid frequent repetition of a single word and the needfor description to remain true to the mindset of the perspective character. Today, we’ll discuss a point at which these two topics intersect.

I mentioned in this post that it is a common and useful practice to refer to a character by a short descriptor in order to avoid repeating their name too often. If you wrote a scene where a detective was interviewing a butcher named Mr. Giacomo, for instance, you might alternately refer to Mr. Giacomo as “the butcher,” “the witness,” or even simply “the man”:

     “What did the assailant look like?” Detective Mullens asked.
     “Well, he was short,” Mr. Giacomo replied. He held out his hand at about the height of his shoulder. “Maybe this tall. He was dressed in black.” The man shrugged. “That was all I could make out.”

However, a problem can arise when referring to characters by these sort of placeholders.

     Piotr did his best not to cry as his mother pulled him into the closet and shut the door behind them. She sat on the floor and pulled him into her lap, stroking his hair.
     “Shhh, you need to be quiet now,” his mother whispered. “We have to stay hidden, all right?”
     Piotr nodded and bit his lip, throwing his arms around his mother’s neck. He was still sniffling, but he held in the tears.
     There was a crash in the room outside. Piotr almost cried out, but his mother hugged him tight against her. He could feel that the woman was holding her breath, and so he did the same, trying to be absolutely silent. They sat in silence, trembling, as the men ransacked the bedroom outside.

The problem in this passage is a small but pervasively common one—it’s the point where Piotr’s mother is referred to as “the woman.”

In this post, we discussed the need for description to match the perspective of the character. In the example above, Piotr is our perspective character. How many children do you know that would ever refer to their mother as “the woman”? While his mother is, of course, a woman, for him to think of her by that term feels very distant and cold. It feels out of character.

"I love my mother, but the woman wouldn't let me have ice cream for dessert."
See how off that feels? This kid is either a brat or not being written well.

It wasn’t a problem for Detective Mullens to think of Mr. Giacomo as “the man” because the two of them barely knew each other—their relationship is not at all close or caring.  But Piotr and his mother are too close for that.

This problem sometimes arises in the works of authors for whom English is a second language. In many other languages, referring to someone as “man” or “woman” is normal and carries no connotation of emotional distance. In English, however, it does; so watch out for this.

If you use a name placeholder, make sure that it is a word that fits the relationship between the character and the perspective character.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Eating During Dialog

Last time, we discussed the need for a character’s actions during dialog to be meaningful—to demonstrate something about their state of mind or to be part of a task that they are trying to carry out, rather than simply being inserted to create the necessary ebb and flow in the conversation.

One task I often see characters performing during dialog is eating. It is usually a good method for achieving the goals we discussed last time: it gives you plenty of distinct actions to fill in the gaps of the conversation; it can be used to reveal a character’s personality or state of mind (for example, a character who eats in the middle of an important conversation could seem flippant or disinterested, while a polite character might be very careful about chewing with their mouth closed and always swallowing before they speak); and it is a realistic task that people often carry out while they eat (especially if the conversation takes place at a meal or if the character is played by Brad Pitt).

The Story Polisher: Writing Tips from an Editor
He is having a conversation in every one of these scenes. (Image from

So if you want to have a character eat during a conversation, go for it! Just be sure to look out for these common pitfalls:

Food that doesn’t affect the conversation

     Brad took another bite of his sandwich. “You should have just killed him when you had the chance.”

So . . . is Brad speaking with his mouth full, or are we supposed to assume that he chewed and swallowed before speaking? If he is speaking with his mouth full, how are the other characters reacting to that? Is it disgusting to see? Are they having trouble understanding his words? Or, if he’s waiting before he speaks, how are the other characters reacting to that awkward pause?

This is a little problem that becomes increasingly incongruous the longer the conversation goes on. We all know that a conversation with someone who is eating doesn’t usually flow quite the same way that speaking with someone normally does; and if you fail to acknowledge that reality in your story, it can make the conversation seem subtly unrealistic to your readers.

Now, fixing this problem can also be a little tricky. You don’t want to have to clarify whether or not the character is speaking with their mouth full or not every time they take a bite—it would clutter up the conversation very quickly.  A better option would be to simply describe the character’s combined eating/speaking habits at the beginning of the conversation and only briefly allude to them once or twice later on. You can also try to rearrange the prose so that it raises fewer questions about how the food is affecting the character’s speech (i.e. having them take bites after they speak instead of before). So, our previous example could be reworked in this manner:

     “You should have just killed him when you had the chance,” Brad said. He took another bite of his sandwich.

Simultaneous biting and speaking

     “You should have just killed him when you had the chance,” Brad said, taking another bite of his sandwich.

Remember what we discussed about “ing” verbs in this post? The above construction implies that Brad is speaking at the same time that he takes a bite of his sandwich. Go try to take a bite of something while you speak. It doesn’t work, does it? Your mouth can’t handle both tasks at once—even Brad Pitt has to eat before or after he speaks a line. People can chew and talk at the same time, but they can’t take a bite and talk at the same time.

Too much attention to the minutiae of eating

     Brad took another bite of his sandwich. “You should have just killed him when you had the chance,” he said around the mouthful.
     I don’t even want to kill him now,” Jose replied.
     Brad swallowed and brushed crumbs from his chin. “Seriously? He sure seems to want to kill us.” He took another bite of his food.
     “That doesn’t mean we can’t find a peaceful resolution to all this.”
     Brad swallowed again and took another bite. “Death is peaceful.”
     “Dying isn’t.” Jose shook his head. “There’s got to be another way.”
      “So we kill him in his sleep.” Brad shrugged, swallowed, and finished off his sandwich. “Peacefully.”

This happens quite a lot in the manuscripts I edit. Your audience doesn’t need a blow-by-blow account of every single bite, chew, swallow, and face-wipe. We understand how eating works. Focus instead on the less usual parts of eating—if you need a beat in the conversation, have the character drop a fork, or get something stuck in their teeth and try to get it out, or bite their tongue. They could spill mustard on their shirt or choke and cough up a disgusting spray of crumbs and spittle. Any of that would be more interesting than bite, chew, swallow, repeat. And if you don’t want the meal to take any of those particular turns, that’s fine—just space out the biting, chewing, and swallowing enough that they don’t grow tiresome and intersperse them other actions and information.

To close, here’s an example of all of this done well from Charlie Holmberg’s The Paper Magician.

     [Mg. Thane] stabbed his fork into two pieces of pasta and raised them to his lips. He tasted them, chewing, and his eyes brightened just a bit more. “I’d say, Ceony,” he said after swallowing, “had I not been present for the lessons, I’d think you’d found a way to enchant pasta.”
     Ceony smiled. “You like it?”
     He nodded, scooping up another bite. “It tastes just as good as it smells. That’s a sign of a well-rounded person. I should congratulate you.”
     “On my person or my pasta?”
     Light danced in his eyes. He didn’t answer.
     Ceony tasted her chicken, relieved it wasn’t too dry. Three bites into her own dinner, Mg. Thane said, “Oldest of four.”
     “Two sisters, one brother,” Ceony replied. “Do you have a large family? You seem like someone who suffered through a great deal of sisters.”
     “I’ve suffered through a great many people, but none of them sisters. I’m an only child.”
     That explains a few things, Ceony thought.
     A few seconds of silence passed between chewing bites. Not wanting the time to grow long, Ceony asked, “When do you get groceries?”
     He glanced at her. “When I run out, I suppose. Groceries are my most dreaded chore.”
     He lowered his fork and leaned his chin onto his hand, elbow on the table edge.
     “They require going to the city,” he stated. “And it’s hot out, besides.”
     Ceony paused as she cut into the next morel of chicken. “Do you freckle?”
     He laughed. “Now there’s a conversation turn—”
    “I mean,” Ceony began, “I could understand not going outside if you freckle.” She glanced to her hands, spotted with freckles of her own. They had a tendency to cover any bit of skin exposed to the sun between March and October.
     “I don’t freckle,” he said. She must have been frowning at her hands, for he added, “And there’s nothing wrong with freckles, Ceony. Heaven forbid you look like everyone else in this place.”
     Ceony smiled and shoved some pasta in her mouth to keep the grin contained.
     “And since you have so much extra time,” Mg. Thane said, “your first quiz will be tomorrow morning.”

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Making Movement Meaningful

Pure dialog can get confusing and even boring; it can also fail to convey the many subtleties that people communicate through means like expression and body language. This is the reason that writers often insert small actions into passages of dialog. The actions could be changes in a character’s expression, small movements or gestures, or specific tasks that the character is performing while they talk. For example:

     “I don’t think we should go after her,” Sofia whispered. She shifted in her seat and closed her eyes with a sigh.
     Matilde glanced at Sofia and then looked away. “Why not?”
    “She decided to leave all on her own. No one made her.” Sofia shook her head and bit her lip. “She obviously doesn’t want to be here.”
     “Maybe . . .” Matilde replied, looking down at her feet while she shuffled them back and forth. “But what happens when she decides she wants to be here after all and it’s too late for her to come back? Chiara tends to be pretty impulsive.”
     Sofia stuck out her tongue. “We still can’t force her to do what she doesn’t want to,” she said, waving her hands.
     Matilde looked up with a frown and then turned away again, wringing her hands. “We could. And maybe we should.”

Now, that passage was packed a little too full of actions—every single line of dialog was accompanied by at least one action. That’s partly because I wanted to fit as many examples as I could into one passage, but many people do write their conversation scenes this way.  But why is that too many actions? Am I saying that you should never have an action to accompany every line of dialog? No. The problem isn’t the number of actions so much as it is the lack of purpose behind so many of the actions.

Let’s list the actions from the passage again:

     shifted in her seat
     closed her eyes
     with a sigh
     glanced at Sofia
     and then looked away
     shook her head
     and bit her lip
     looking down at her feet
     shuffled [her feet] back and forth
     stuck out her tongue
     waving her hands
     looked up with a frown
     and then turned away again
     wringing her hands

What are each of these actions supposed to convey? Why is the character performing that particular action at that point in the conversation?  With some of these actions, the purpose is pretty clear. When someone closes their eyes and sighs, for instance, it’s usually a pretty good indication of weariness or irritation. Hand wringing and lip biting are decent ways to indicate nervousness or internal confliction. And frowns are pretty clear indications of unhappiness or severe confusion.

But even those examples could each have more than one meaning. As for the others, they don’t convey anything meaningful. What is the audience supposed to learn from the fact that Sofia “shifted in her seat”? Is the seat uncomfortable? Is she emotionally uncomfortable and the movement is a physical indication of that fact? Was she trying to relax or get a better view of something? There are so many reasons to shift in one’s seat that simply describing the action carries next to no meaning.

Why is it significant that Matilde looked at Sofia and then looked away? What does that mean? What does it mean that she’s looking down at her feet while shuffling them? Is her turning away after looking up with a frown supposed to tell us something about her thoughts? Because it isn’t. It might be vaguely sort-of hinting at some sort of emotional state, but it sure isn’t informing the audience of anything.

Even Sofia sticking out her tongue is confusing. There are so many ways and reasons that people stick out their tongues:

Making Movement Meaningful

Each of these images conveys a different emotion, and yet they could all be described as someone “sticking out his or her tongue.” From the context, we could probably narrow down Sofia’s gesture to two or three of these, but it still wouldn’t be clear. Is she disgusted? Petulant? Nauseated? We just don’t know.  Remember—most expressions and movements can indicate more than one emotion, thought, or state of mind. Just because you know which meaning you were trying to convey doesn’t mean that your readers will get it.

“Looks” are probably the worst category of offenders on this front. Throughout the conversations I read, characters are “looking” all over the place. They look at one another, they look at their feet, at the wall, at the table, into the distance, into the sky, at their hands, at their clothes. And most of it doesn’t have any meaning whatsoever. Beware the meaningless look!

This usually happens when a writer can tell that the conversation needs a beat or a brief lull to break up the dialog, but they don’t have anything for the characters to do to provide that break. If you need a beat but you can’t think of a meaningful movement or expression for your character, then give them something to do! In our example above, Sofia could have been trying to finish some (plot-related) paperwork while they conversed or Matilde could have already begun packing to go after Chiara. The possibilities are endless.

Give your manuscript to a friend and ask them to highlight any point where the purpose of movements or expressions was unclear or confusing. If you can’t come up with a meaningful movement to replace the vague one, then don’t be afraid to cut it out entirely.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Phrases to Avoid: "For a Moment"

While all of the examples of flawed prose that I give on this blog are taken from manuscripts that I have edited, I generally swap out significant words and make other alterations as necessary to ensure that none of the examples could be identified as coming from a specific work. The form of the sentence (and thus its flaws) are intact and still useful, but I have no desire to single out or cast aspersions on any specific authors.

Today, however, is an exception. The examples will be unaltered from their original form and I will identify the author . . . because the author was me. Yeah. While going over a short story that I wrote a while back, I came across this persistently-repeated problem, one that I have corrected in numerous manuscripts but which still managed to crop up in my own writing.

This problem is the phrase “for a moment” and several similar words and phrases that indicate that an action or event lasted for only a brief duration. Not every instance of this phrase will be bad, but look at these examples:

     For a moment, the wolf was silent and motionless. Then it began to growl softly.
     Vanya froze, staring at the bird. After a moment, it pulled its head from beneath its wing, revealing its shining jet-black eyes and beak.
     Vanya considered the offer briefly. “All right, I’ll get you some fruit.”
     The king studied Vanya for a moment with a bushy eyebrow raised. Then he shook his head.
     The wolf seemed to consider the matter for a moment and then shrugged its shoulders slightly.
     For a moment, he thought that he saw a figure in the shadows of the draw, but it was gone when he tried to look closer.

In each of these examples, the phrase “for a moment” and its variations are redundant. They either describe an action that is normally momentary by nature or they explain that an action is momentary when the fact that the action is followed by another action already implies that. Look at each of those examples again with the “for a moment” removed.

     The wolf was silent and motionless. Then it began to growl softly.
     Vanya froze, staring at the bird. It pulled its head from beneath its wing, revealing its shining jet-black eyes and beak.
     Vanya considered the offer. “All right, I’ll get you some fruit.”
     The king studied Vanya with a bushy eyebrow raised. Then he shook his head.
     The wolf seemed to consider the matter and then shrugged its shoulders slightly.
     He thought that he saw a figure in the shadows of the draw, but it was gone when he tried to look closer.

See how much stronger those become without “for a moment”? Wherever possible, remove this and similar phrases from your writing.

Note that “for a moment” isn’t always bad—sometimes, it’s simply the best way to indicate an action’s duration. Here’s some uses of it from the same story that weren’t so bad:

     Vanya didn’t believe for a moment that the fox had magical powers of any sort.
     The firebird looked surprised and then suspicious, but after a moment it began to devour the fruit with delight.

In the first example, the use of “for a moment” is justified by it being used in a very common phrase—“he didn’t believe for a moment that . . .”

In the second example, the phrase adds a beat to the sentence, a pause between the firebird’s being suspicious and its beginning to eat the fruit, that would not remain if the phrase were removed. The pause is important because it gives a realistic pacing to the firebird’s mood shifts and actions, and so the phrase is justified.

Go ahead and search through your manuscripts for the words “moment” and “briefly.” Try removing each instance of these words; if the sentence still reads smoothly without them, then they were redundant and should probably be removed.

Friday, November 7, 2014

On Commas and Splicing


Do you have trouble figuring out when to place a comma in your sentence and when not to? Good; that means you pass the Turing test—you’re human. There are a lot of ways to use commas and a lot of ways to misuse commas. Many of those uses and misuses can be difficult to explain clearly, which is why I’ve waited so long to broach the subject. But in my recent reading and editing I have been coming across so many misused commas that I figure it’s about time to jump in and address some of these issues. Starting with:

The Comma Splice

A comma splice is when you have two independent clauses (i.e. two complete sentences) joined by a comma. For the purposes of this column, we’re going to consider it a form of run-on sentence. Here’s an example of a comma splice:

     I won’t make it to the meeting tonight, you will need to hand out assignments.

See how this is really two sentences? Each clause has its own subject performing its own action (“I won’t” and “you will,” respectfully) and so could stand perfectly well on its own. If you remember from the post on breaking punctuation, the comma is used to separate closely-related information. As a general rule, if you have two clauses with distinct subjects and verbs, those clauses should not be separated by a comma.

If there's anything that the media has taught us, it's that splicing is bad.
Simply removing the comma won’t fix the problem:

     I won’t make it to the meeting tonight you will need to hand out assignments.

That’s still a run-on sentence. The problem can be fixed, however, by changing out the comma for other punctuation or by adding some clarifying words:

     I won’t make it to the meeting tonight; you will need to hand out assignments.
     I won’t make it to the meeting tonight—you will need to hand out assignments.
     I won’t make it to the meeting tonight. You will need to hand out assignments.
     I won’t make it to the meeting tonight, so you will need to hand out assignments.
     Since I won’t make it to the meeting tonight, you will need to hand out assignments.
     I won’t make it to the meeting tonight, which means you will need to hand out assignments.

Just remember: if both clauses can stand as sentences, they’ll probably something more than a comma to connect them.


One of the trickiest things about comma splices is that they’re not always a bad thing.
Wait, yes they are.
Well-versed, reputable authors will use them all the time. They're all over the place. For instance, you may be familiar with this famous quote from Julius Caeser:

     I came, I saw, I conquered.

That right there is three distinct clauses, each with a subject and a verb, separated by a pair of comma splices. Even the picky Strunk and White noted that splices are sometimes acceptable when the clauses are short and similar in form.

     The door slammed shut, the lights went out, the air went cold.

Comma splices are especially easy to justify in dialog or in poetic writing, as they can help mimic the cadences of spoken language more clearly than other punctuation might.

So if comma splices aren’t always bad, how do we determine when to use them? Well, if you’re looking to submit to an editor, I recommend playing it safe and just avoiding them. In her excellent book Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Lynne Truss says, “so many highly respected writers observe the splice comma that a rather unfair rule emerges on this one: only do it if you're famous. Done knowingly by an established writer, the comma splice is effective, poetic, dashing. Done equally knowingly by people who are not published writers, it can look weak or presumptuous. Done ignorantly by ignorant people, it is awful.”

If that seems unfair, well . . . comma splices really can be awful if you’re not absolutely sure what you’re doing. It’s the old “you have to know the rules before you can break them” advice. In my opinion, you’re better off avoiding comma splices until you, your editors, and your audience are all confident that you know what you’re doing.


Somewhere out in our audience there is someone who read that advice and said something along the lines of, “Bah! You don’t get published by playing it safe! You have to experiment, share your soul, be bold and daring!” I have two things to say to that reader.

First: that was actually a pretty decent use of comma splices in that last sentence of yours. Good job.

Second: you are wrong. Oh, your sentiment is good—go out there and experiment and be bold and daring. More power to you. But that sentiment does not apply to grammar. It doesn’t apply to the basics of solid prose. Experiment with your plot, share your soul through your characters, and be bold and daring with your themes and content. But learn to write all of that in a clear, legible, and simple manner. Learning to write correctly will get you closer to being published than all the creativity that you can muster. 

In other words—there is no comma splice that is so bold and daring that it will get you published. But if you let comma splices make a mess of your writing, it just may keep you from getting published. Play it safe and don’t let that happen.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Avoiding Synonyms in Adjective Pairs

Language has a natural flow and rhythm that can be difficult to understand and master. Even when we don’t realize it, this rhythm influences how we construct sentences and what words we choose. For instance, there have been many times where I used two adjectives instead of one simply because the sentence felt better with two.

     Dima was exactly what she’d been looking for—a clever and entertaining performer

instead of

     Dima was exactly what she’d been looking for—an entertaining performer.

You’ve probably had similar experiences. It is very difficult to define why the rhythm of a sentence can be improved with an extra word or two, but it is a tangible and important element of sentence composition.

I’m not going to try to break down the mechanics of sentence rhythm today (if ever, for that matter—that’s a difficult subject!), but I do want to point out a problem that frequently arises when writers adjust sentences for better rhythm. It appears most often in cases like the example I gave above, when writers include an extra adjective in a sentence. Here’s some examples:

     Lucy was always happy and cheerful.
     He’s so quick and speedy.
     You need to be sweet and kind to the patients.
     Look, I’m too tired and sleepy to think this through right now, okay?

What is the point of including two adjectives if they both mean essentially the same thing? It’s redundant and repetitive; and if you’ve been reading this blog for long, you know that we don’t like redundant repetition here.

This pops up in the work of almost every unpublished author I’ve ever edited. If you have two adjectives to describe one thing, make sure they’re not synonyms! Otherwise, there might as well be only one word. Don’t waste space saying something twice when you could be using that precious space to give your reader a deeper, more textured glimpse into the nature of this character, setting, or object.

Which do you think will be more vivid: a costume in crimson red and cardinal red, or a costume in red and blue?

Now, it’s possible to have two adjectives together that are very similar but still technically different:

     The building was dark and shadowed.
     His demeanor is just so serious and grim.
     We have to be smart and clever.
     I think she’s fun and entertaining. 

How similar is too similar? That’s a call you have to make yourself. Personally, I recommend playing it safe and keeping such adjective pairs as different as possible. But if you really feel that the distinction between “dark” and “shadowed” is important and that your audience needs to know that this object or person is both, then go for it. Give it to some readers and see if they understand the distinction (without you having to explain it). If they’re not getting it, then you should probably go for some words that are less similar. If they get it, then you’re golden.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Minding Your "ings," Part Three

We’ve previously discussed proper use of present participles (a form of verb that ends in “ing”) in this post and this post. It may be helpful to have read those two articles before you read this one.

In those posts, we went over the need for an “ing” verb to have a subject in the sentence that performs it—usually, present participles are used to indicate that one subject is performing two or more actions simultaneously. For example:

     Humming to herself, Jalila began to paint.

In this sentence, Jalila is performing both actions—humming and painting. Most sentences that use this type of “ing” verb are formatted along these lines, with a single subject. However, it is possible to have multiple subjects in a single sentence performing simultaneous actions:

     Her back was still as straight as a rod, her fingernails digging into the steering wheel and leaving imprints in the faux leather.

This sentence follows the rules from our previous posts—every verb has an appropriate subject performing it (“Her back” for “was” and “her fingernails” for “digging” and “leaving”) and the actions are simultaneous. It’s not a bad sentence by any means, but it could still be a little bit better.

A sentence with this sort of format—subject #1 performs an action while subject #2 performs a simultaneous action with an “ing” verb—carries with it a certain implication. That implication is that subject #2 (and subjects #3, #4, and so on, if there are any more) are somehow part of subject #1. Think of it as a wiki page with several subpages—the subpages are part of the topic introduced by the primary page, adding pertinent information to it. That’s why they’re attached to it. Similarly, subjects #2 and #3 are part of the same sentence as subject #1 because they add more detailed information to the topic introduced by the primary subject. Otherwise, they should just have their own sentence.

In our example sentence, “her back” is subject #1. Subject #2 is “her fingernails.” Although these are both part of the same whole, the whole itself is never mentioned in the sentence. “Her fingernails” are not a part of “her back”—not if she’s human, at least!  Subject #2 isn’t adding detail to the action of subject #1, it is adding separate information. The sentence could be fixed in two different ways:

     Tia sat with her back as straight as a rod, her fingernails digging into the steering wheel and leaving imprints in the faux leather.

Or . . .

     Her back was still as straight as a rod. Her fingernails dug into the steering wheel, leaving imprints in the faux leather.

In the first fixed example, we make the character the primary subject of the sentence instead of her back. Since “her fingernails” are a part of the character, the sentence flows properly. In the second fixed example, we simply take all the information about “her fingernails” and make it a sentence on its own, removing the implication that it is somehow an added detail to the first portion.

Here’s another common use of this format:

     They hurried to prepare the apartment, Jalila shoving discarded clothing and junk out of sight and Naima vacuuming the matted carpet. 

In this case, the primary subject is “They.” Since Jalila and Naima are both part of “They,” the sentence flows correctly. Now, that’s not to say that this is the best format to use in this case—but if you do use it, make sure that it follows the proper logic. “A whole performs an action, with individual parts of the whole performing specific actions x and y.