Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Timey-Wimey Tenses: Past-Tenseception

Finding the most efficient order in which to tell a story can be a tricky process. Sometimes, a perfectly linear narrative storyline will suffice—the story begins, progresses through a series of events, and then comes to an end. More often than not, however, your narrative will have important background information: events that happened before the book itself began that are important for understanding the plot. Some stories have only a little background information to be worked into the narrative; other stories are made up of fifty percent or more backstory.

When the characters learn a backstory that they didn’t know, it is usually easy to work into the narrative—the audience learns it in the same manner as the characters. Luke finds out that Darth Vader is his father, he wants to find out how this could be true, he asks Obi-Wan, and Obi-Wan tells him (and us) the backstory. Simple as can be. Other times, however, the characters already know their backstories, and your task as an author is to find a smooth way to inform your audience of the information.

The problem that often arises with backstory is one of tense: if your story is already written in past tense, then how do you relate information that is even more past tense?

Because it's timey-wimey and past tense within past tense! Eh? Eh?
Past Perfect Tense

The answer lies on our list of the sixteen different tenses in English. Most stories in past tense employ the “Past Simple” tense (Freja picked up the gun and pointed it at the guard). In order to relate events that happened before the current narrative, you simply need to switch to “Past Perfect” tense—it’s the tense that uses the word “had” a whole lot:

     Freja studied the ramshackle warehouse from the pub across the street. There were no signs of activity around it. But she had visited every other building on the list, and had found nothing. If this wasn’t where the cultists were hiding, then the list was wrong.

Most of that paragraph is written in past simple tense: “Freja studied,” “There were,” and “This wasn’t.” But that third, highlighted sentence is relating events that happened before the rest of the paragraph, so it uses had to drop into past perfect tense—even further in the past than the rest of the story.

Many writers forget the hads, leaving background events in the same tense as the rest of the narrative, like so:

     Freja studied the ramshackle warehouse from the pub across the street. There were no signs of activity around it. But she visited every other building on the list, and found nothing. If this wasn’t where the cultists were hiding, then the list was wrong.

See the problem? Now there’s nothing in that third sentence to indicate that those events happened before the rest of the paragraph—it almost sounds like Freja sat in the pub studying the warehouse, left and visited a bunch of other buildings, and then returned. Readers would probably puzzle out what the writer really meant, but it’s needlessly confusing.

So, you can use “had” in past perfect tense to relate events that happened before the current events of the narrative, but there’s still a problem: all those hads can really clutter up your prose. Past perfect tense can become really tiresome to read and to write if it goes on for more than a paragraph or so. For backstory that would take any longer than that to relate (anything you might call a bona fide flashback), you’ll probably want to use another method to share the information.

Past Perfect Introduction

One method is to use a few passages of hads to introduce your flashback, and then transition back into past simple tense for the rest of the backstory. Then, when you return to the “present” events of the narrative, you mark that transition with the word now or something similar. For example:

     Freja approached the warehouse empty-handed and alone. She had learned that weapons and backup would do her no good when she had gone up against the cult at the apartment complex in Copenhagen. She had been armed with an H&K MP5 rifle and her 9mm pistol, and had brought along two AKS squadrons for the raid.
     The first squadron went into the complex through the front doors while Freja led the second squadron through the rear. They rammed in the doors, forgoing stealth for speed and surprise.

     [More events, etcetera.]

     When her backup pistol jammed as well, Freya was forced to withdraw with the rest of the squadron. It had been an unmitigated disaster.
     This time, Freya was armed with only her wits and the small book of spells that Emil had given her. But with her new understanding of what the cultists were, she knew she could stop them on her own. She walked up to the warehouse door and pulled it open.

See how it works? A few sentences of past perfect tense at the beginning (and one at the end) let readers know that we’re jumping backwards in time. This can still be a little confusing for readers if you’re not careful with it, but it is far more readable than umpteen paragraphs of hads.

Break and Flashback

An even clearer method of relating a flashback is to simply use a line break or chapter break to show your readers that you are switching gears and to then relate your flashback in the same tense as the rest of the story. This method is used quite often by many authors. You can find some professionally-done examples in several books that I can think of off the top of my head:

The Shadow Rising by Robert Jordan (Book four of The Wheel of Time)—this is the method by which Mr. Jordan related the history of the Aiel when Rand went to Rhuidean. Note that he used an in-world method of delivering the flashbacks; that is, these were memories being projected into the mind of the protagonist, and we received them as he did.

The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson—the first two books of The Stormlight Archive have both featured entire chapters devoted to the backstory of one of the characters (Kaladin in the first book and Shallan in the second). These chapters are scattered throughout the book, effectively serving as a series of flashbacks.

Holes by Louis Sachar—this book is actually unusually complex compared to most middle-grade stories. The story continually jumps around between the “present day” events of the story to the recent background of individual characters to various historical events that pertain to the narrative. In fact, in this book Mr. Sachar employs every single method of delivering backstory that I’ve outlined in this post. If you want to improve your flashback delivery, go read Holes and pay close attention to his tense usage. In fact, that’s your homework—who doesn’t want to read Holes again, am I right? Go do it.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Timey-Wimey Tenses: Getting Future Tense Right

Last time we discussed the sixteen different tenses of the English language, all of which you’ve probably used before. Of course, some of them get used more often than others. All of those “future in the past” tenses, for example—those are complicated and strange enough that you surely won’t need to use them often, right?


The future-in-the-past or relative tense is used when speaking of an action or event that will be in the future for a particular person whose actions are being related in past tense. It’s a bit of a convoluted notion, and that’s why many people consider it an obscure tense when they first encounter it—I know I did. But think about it; the vast majority of stories are written in the past tense, right? So if a story is written in past tense, and the author needs to discuss actions that the characters plan to undertake later on in the narrative—in their future but not ours—then the author will need to use the relative tense.

Yes, I am going to use Doctor Who memes for every single post on tense that I ever write. I may even go back to old posts on tense and put pictures of the Doctor in them, because he can go back in time like that.

As it turns out, authors use the relative tense all the time. Here . . . I will grab the nearest book to me and flip through it; I can almost guarantee that I will find some usage of the relative tense. The book is The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss (italics added for emphasis):

     The two talked of small matters as they worked. And while they moved around a great deal, it was obvious they were reluctant to finish whatever task they were close to completing, as if they both dreaded the moment when the work would end and the silence would fill the room again.

There you go. The story is told in the past tense—“the two talked” and “they moved around”—but the author needed to refer to a moment that was yet to come for the two characters. The moment is in the future for the characters but not for us, the readers, so the proper tense to use is the relative tense.

I often see errors when it comes to future tense in stories, and it’s usually because writers use the future tense where they should have used the future-in-the-past tense. The mistake might look something like this:

     Callie kept glancing at the clock as she worked. Her shift will finish at five o’clock, and then she will go hunt down the nightbeast.

Callie’s shift finishing and her hunting down the nightbeast are events that are in the future for her, but not for us the readers, since the whole story is in past tense. Therefore, those wills should be woulds:

     Callie kept glancing at the clock as she worked. Her shift would finish at five o’clock, and then she would go hunt down the nightbeast.

Simple as that. Note, however, that if this had been dialog, the normal future tense would have been required. If the narrator is speaking of future events, then you need to use future-in-the-past tense; but the characters themselves still speak of their future in future tense.

     “Callie, you need to take care of this,” Maria insisted.
     Callie glanced at the clock. “My shift will finish at five o’clock, and then I will go hunt down the nightbeast.”

The same rule applies to stories told in the present tense:

     Callie keeps glancing at the clock as she works. Her shift will finish at five o’clock, and then she will go hunt down the nightbeast.

But if you’re writing a story in past tense, keep an eye out for situations where the narrator refers to events that haven’t come yet—these will often require the relative tense.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Tricky, Timey-Wimey Tenses

A few months ago we discussed tense in stories—how most stories are written in either past or present tense and how authors can accidentally switch between the two. On the surface, tense is very simple, right? There’s past, present, and future, and that’s that.

But not really.

Without getting too technical, English grammar has this thing called aspect which alters tense. There are four different aspects, which can combine with past, present, and future tenses to produce twelve different combinations.

But wait, there’s more!

There’s actually more than past, present, and future tense—English also has what is called a relative tense, or a “future in the past” tense. This tense can combine with the four different aspects just like the others, bringing our total of tense-aspect combinations to sixteen.

I’m going to briefly describe each of these tenses, but before I do, I’d like to give a disclaimer: I don’t expect you to remember all of these tenses. The purpose of this post is not to freak writers out with the hidden complexities of the English language. I’m not saying that every writer should be able to identify each of these sixteen tenses by name at the drop of the hat.

The real purpose of this post is to help English-speaking writers understand their language a little better—trust me, just being aware of the existence of all sixteen tenses will improve your writing. It will help you pick out occasional errors a little more easily. You’ve used all of the tenses before; their use is instinctual to you. So don’t stress out—just read through the tenses below and enjoy the rush of new knowledge.

(Of course, I’m not saying you shouldn’t memorize all the tenses and how they’re used. I’m just saying that you shouldn’t feel any pressure to do so—it’s not a requirement for being a good writer.)

Present Tenses

Present Simple: Juan walks to the store.

Indicates that a person performs an action with some measure of regularity. Can also be used in dialog to describe an action in the moment (there she goes).

     Nanette jogs two miles every day.

Present Continuous: Juan is walking to the store.

Indicates that a person is currently in the middle of an unfinished action or that a person hasn’t finished a task yet but periodically returns to the task with an eye to completing it in the future.

     “Nanette? I think she is reading right now. Just a second, I’ll check.”
     “I’m studying Italian in school.”

Present Perfect: Juan has walked to the store.

Indicates that a person has just completed an action and is now either ready to perform or is currently performing a new action.

     “The suspect has approached the target and is initiating dialog.”

Present Perfect Continuous: Juan has been walking to the store.

Indicates that a person has just spent a period of time performing an action which may or may not be finished—often used when the action is now being interrupted. Also used to indicate that a specific action or portions of a task have been occurring regularly for some period of time.

     “No, Nanette has been sitting here with me all day. She couldn’t have stolen the jewels.”
     “Juan has been studying Italian lately.”

Past Tenses

Past Simple: Juan walked to the store.

Indicates that an action of indeterminate length or completeness occurred at some point in the past.

     “Nanette jogged twice today.”

Past Continuous: Juan was walking to the store.

Indicates that an action was in the process of occurring (and then was probably interrupted or something else occurred at the same time).

     Nanette was jogging when she got the call about Juan.

Past Perfect: Juan had walked to the store.

Indicates that an action was performed and completed before further actions took place.

     Juan suggested they go out for dinner, but Nanette had eaten already.

Past Perfect Continuous: Juan had been walking to the store.

Indicates that an action was in the process of being performed when it was interrupted and probably left incomplete.

     “The suspect had been working for hours before we apprehended him. We don’t know yet how much he got done.”

Future Tenses

Future Simple: Juan will walk to the store.

Indicates that an action of indeterminate duration or completeness will occur at some point in the future.

     “Nanette will pick up the ingredients we’re missing.”

Future Continuous: Juan will be walking to the store.

Indicates that an action will be in the process of occurring (and will then probably be interrupted or something else will occur at the same time).

     “I guarantee you Nanette will be reading the book when you get home.”

Future Perfect: Juan will have walked to the store.

Indicates that an action will have already been completed at a future point, when something else may then occur.

     “Do you think Nanette will have read the book by that point?”

Future Perfect Continuous: Juan will have been walking to the store.

Indicates that an action will have been going but will yet be incomplete at some point in the future. Statements with this tense will usually focus on the duration of the incomplete task.

     “Nanette will have been studying for ten straight hours by the time you get home. She will need a break.”

Relative (Future-in-the-past) Tenses

Here’s where things get fun. Relative or future-in-the-past tense generally refers to an action that will be in the future for a specific individual, but not necessarily for the speaker. This often means that a portion of the sentence (or the surrounding sentences) will be in past tense, but the action referred to in relative tense will be yet to happen at that point in time, although it may have already happened for the speaker.

It gets even more confusing because relative tense takes the same form as conditional sentences, were something will only happen if something else happens first.

… let’s just get to the examples.

Tenses are concerned with the time of  events in your story, so things can get a little . . . wibbly-wobbly.

Relative Simple: Juan would walk to the store.

Indicates that someone in the past expected to perform an action of indeterminate length or completeness at some point in their future.

     Nanette knew that she would buy the book.

Relative Continuous: Juan would be going to the store.

Indicates that someone in the past would be, in their future, in the process performing an action (which would then probably be interrupted).

     Nanette figured that she would be reading by then.

Relative Perfect: Juan would have gone to the store.

Indicates that someone in the past would perform an action that will have already been completed at a future point, when something else might then occur. Confused yet?

     Nanette realized that she couldn’t read that night, because by then Juan would have already retrieved his book from her place.

Relative Perfect Continuous: Juan would have been going to the store.

Indicates that someone in the past would perform an action that will have been going but will yet be incomplete at some point in their future.

     Nanette knew that on a normal day she would have been jogging for fifteen minutes by this point in the evening.

You made it! That post ended up a lot longer than I’d planned, but I hope it was informative. Next time, we’ll discuss a little more about why all these tenses are so important.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Grammar Basics: What Every Writer Should Know

Like every other vocation, writing comes with a plethora of technical terms—everything from past perfect continuous tense to non-defining relative clauses. Unlike many other vocations, however, writing is a task that can be performed with next to no knowledge of its technical aspects. In other words, you don’t need to know what a grammatical article is in order to use one correctly. Most people do this instinctually.

That’s not to say that a knowledge of the technical aspects of writing isn’t useful and important. Generally speaking, the more thorough a person’s knowledge of grammar, punctuation, and all of the technical details of writing, the more precise, legible, and skilled their writing will be. But such detailed expertise is not necessary to write a good story. That’s why I usually refrain from using technical writing terms in my blog posts: it’s not so important that you know what a present participle or a gerund is, it’s just important that you know how to use verbs that end in –ing.

But there is a minimum level of knowledge that every writer should have if they want to write for a living. You don’t need to be able to diagram a sentence, but most editors will expect you to know at least the following terms and what they mean:

Basic Sentence Structure: Subject, Verb, and Direct Object

I’ve gone over the basics of what makes up a sentence before: a subject, a verb, and (often) a direct object. Every writer should know what each of those terms means and be able to identify them in a sentence.

The subject of the sentence is the thing that is performing an action.
The verb is the action that is being performed.
The direct object is the thing that is being acted upon—the thing that the verb is affecting.

        Koharu         sipped          her sake.
        Subject           Verb        Direct Object

Remember that not all verbs require a direct object.

       Haruto     slept.
       Subject     Verb      (no direct object needed)

If a sentence does not have that central subject and verb, then it (usually) isn’t a sentence—it’s a sentence fragment.


An adjective is a word that modifies a noun, like so:

     Koharu was an intelligent woman.

Adjectives can be colors (the blue car), qualities (the adorable baby), materials (a wooden sword), nationalities (a Japanese car), ages (the seven-year-old girl), and more. The limiting factor is that they will always describe a noun.


Adverbs (the use of which is discussed here) are words that modify pretty much everything but nouns. They can modify verbs, adjectives, other adverbs, phrases, and even entire sentences. They usually end in –ly, but not always.

     Modifying a verb: Haruto spoke quickly.
                                   Koharu visited yesterday.    
     Modifying an adjective: Haruto thinks that he is extremely clever.
                                            Your overly worried sister doesn’t think so.
     Modifying an adverb: Haruto spoke very quickly.
     Modifying a phrase: Koharu drove us nearly the whole way. (Modifies the phrase “the whole way.”)
     Modifying a sentence: Eventually, we all decided to go together.

Prepositions and Prepositional Phrases

A preposition is a word that describes the location, direction, time, or possessive quality of a noun or action. Some examples:

     Location: Your coat is in the closet.
     Direction: Haruto drove to the store.
     Time: We’ll eat after the lecture.
     Possession: We’re going to meet the President of Japan!

A prepositional phrase is simply a preposition and the words it is linking to the rest of the sentence.

     My book was on the shelf.
     The creatures came from outer space.
     I’ll get this done before I clock out.
     The Queen of England won’t be there, sadly.

Tense and Perspective

You should know which tense and which form of perspective your story employs and be generally familiar with the most common tenses and perspectives. You can find a handy rundown of tense and perspective here.


A pronoun is a word that takes the place of a noun or noun phrase. Examples include I, you, she, this that, these, who, what, whose, mine, his, and so many more. There are a good ten or so categories of pronouns, which I don’t expect everyone to learn—just know what a pronoun is and the basics of how to identify them.

Now, again: I’m not saying that you would not be well-served in studying your grammar and punctuation—all the elements of writing, really—to a greater depth than what I’ve covered here. But at the very least, every writer should know the terms above and how to identify the parts of speech that they refer to. Instinct and experience can make up for a lack of detailed knowledge, but they can’t make up for the basics.

Remember what Uncle Iroh taught us all: learn the basics, as they are your greatest ally.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Mismatched Lists, Part Two

This is part two of our discussion on mistakes that crop up when authors write lists; you can find part one here. In part one, we discussed mismatched lists of nouns; today, we’ll discuss lists of actions. For instance:

     Before he could go out for the evening, Jeremy had some chores to get done, like walking the dog, cleaning out the car, and run to the store for snacks.

     Do you realize how much effort I put into this? I had to research all of the information myself, tracked down the original designers, and convinced them to help me put together a matching setup.

Can you see the problem with those lists? The items in these lists don’t all match. Let’s play a game of “one of these things is not like the others”:

     walking the dog
     cleaning out the car
     run to the store for snacks

The first two items in the list begin with “-ing” verbs (we’ve discussed those several times before), but the final item in the list does not (it begins with an imperative verb, if you’re curious). That’s a problem—when you list actions like this, the format of each action needs to match the others. Partly, we do this because symmetry looks and sounds better. But it’s often more than that.

The formatting of each action needs to match up with the portion of the sentence that introduces the list. You should be able to remove all of the actions in the list but one (any one) and still have the sentence make sense. Let’s look at the second example above in this manner:

     I had to research all of the information myself.
     I had to tracked down the original designers.
     I had to convinced them to help me put together a matching setup.

That didn’t work, did it? Those second two items on the list switched to past-tense verbs, even though the introductory text required an infinitive form of the verb (the basic, “unchanged” form of the verb). We can fix the sentence in one of two ways: we can fix the second two entries in the list or we can change the introductory text and first item in the list.

     I had to research all of the information myself, track down the original designers, and convince them to help me put together a matching setup.

     I researched all of the information myself, tracked down the original designers, and convinced them to help me put together a matching setup.

It’s that simple: items in a list should match one another in format, especially when it comes to the tense of the verb.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Mismatched Lists, Part One

Lists tend to show up a bit less often in stories than in other writing like essays or advertising, but they’re often done wrong in any medium. The basics of list-making are simple: mention a series of items, events, people, or whatever, separated by commas. You can use an Oxford comma after the penultimate item in the list or not, whatever you prefer (seriously, though, use the Oxford comma). Here’s some examples:

     Cary’s wife called to remind him that he needed to pick up eggs, milk, and rice from the store on his way home.

     Liesel arose early that morning, washed thoroughly, dressed in her Sunday finest, took a moment to apply some makeup, and then headed to her meeting.

There are, however, a couple common mistakes that crop up in lists that I read. We’ll discuss one today and the second next time.

Mismatched plurality

When we refer to a singular item in English, it is usually preceded by an indefinite or definite article—more specifically, either the word “A” or the word “The.”

     Could you hand me the butter?

     Can I have a bite?

When you make a list, you still need to include A or The, just as you would have if the item was not part of a list:

     Incorrect: Could you hand me the butter, knife, and roll?
     Correct: Could you hand me the butter, a knife, and a roll?

Now, if several items in a list would take the same article and they are all in a row, it is sometimes acceptable to put the article before the first word but leave it off with the rest:

     To get this open, we’re going to need a screwdriver, drill, accordion, and some peanut butter.

     The thieves took my keycard, jacket, and cell phone.

The problem usually arises in lists that contain any combination of plural items, singular items, or items that do not have a plural. Because plural and non-plural-izable words don’t require A or The, some writers feel like they don’t need to add in a or the for any singular items in the list:

     Incorrect: For the trip, Liesel packed clothing, toiletries, book, and snacks.
     Correct: For the trip, Liesel packed clothing, toiletries, a book, and snacks.

     Incorrect: These apartments feature granite countertops, hardwood floors, in-home washer and dryer, ceiling fan, and wifi access.
     Correct: This apartment features granite countertops, hardwood floors, an in-home washer and dryer set, a ceiling fan, and wifi access.

If you’re unsure about whether or not you can leave out the A or The from an item on your list, just go ahead and put the correct article in. You might be able to leave it out, but you’ll never be wrong if you include it.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Unintentionally Limited Superlatives

A superlative is an adjective or adverb which expresses that something is of the highest or a very high degree of a particular quality. Most superlatives use the suffix -est or are made through combination with the word most: examples include best, smartest, shortest, most clever, and most foolish.

Superlatives are usually limited by clarifying that the object being described is part of a narrower category. For example:

     Gabrielle was the smartest person Jun had met in his two years at the university.

     Jun is the most stubborn man at this school.

     This place has the best ice cream in town.

People almost always limit superlatives in this way to keep their expressions from being hyperbolic or ridiculous, or simply to be precise. However, I often see writers doing this unintentionally. For example:

     Prince Samuel paused, his breath catching in his throat. Across the ballroom stood the most beautiful woman he had ever seen in a sky-blue dress.

You see the problem, right? The author was trying to convey two things: first, that this woman was the most beautiful woman that Samuel had ever seen; and second, that she was wearing a blue dress. But by combining these two facts into one statement, the author inadvertently ended up sounding like a Flight of the Conchords song:

I see these sorts of unintentionally limited superlative statements with surprising frequency. The obvious problem with them is they tend to take a serious statement—one meant to convey a character’s awe or surprise—and turn it into something comical.

So how can you fix these sorts of sentences? Contrary to what many writers seem to think, a comma is not the best way to fix the problem:

     Prince Samuel paused, his breath catching in his throat. Across the ballroom stood the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, in a sky-blue dress.

Now it looks like you’re just saying the same thing, but with poor punctuation. The best way to fix unintentionally limited superlatives is to separate the extra description out into its own sentence:
     Prince Samuel paused, his breath catching in his throat. Across the ballroom stood the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Her golden hair cascaded in curls over her shoulders, and she wore a sky-blue dress that sparkled with hidden gems.

Keep an eye out for this in your writing; if you want to hunt down any superlatives in your story, you can do searches for “most” and for “est ” (with a space at the end) to get it done quickly.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Punctuation Problems: Proper Parentheses, Part Two

On Punctuation With Parentheses

Parenthetical statements come in two varieties: small statements within a sentence, or longer statements of one or more sentences.

When inserting a parenthetical statement into a sentence, don’t move any of the sentence’s punctuation into the parentheses or adjust the grammar of the sentence to account for the text in the parentheses. You should be able to completely remove the parenthetical statement from the sentence and still have all grammar and punctuation flow correctly:

     Original: While I was speaking with Ludwig, I was also texting my wife.
     Wrong: While I was speaking with Ludwig (my step-father,) I was also texting my wife.
     Right: While I was speaking with Ludwig (my step-father), I was also texting my wife.

     Original: I don’t dislike Ludwig, but I don’t really enjoy his company, either.
     Wrong: I don’t dislike Ludwig (or his children,) but I don’t really enjoy their company, either.
     Right: I don’t dislike Ludwig (or his children), but I don’t really enjoy his company, either.

As a good rule of thumb, if the parenthetical is within a sentence, two things should be true: first, you should not begin the parenthetical with a capital unless it is a word that is normally capitalized (like a name); second, you should never have any punctuation at the end of the statement inside the parentheses. The only exception for this is if the statement is a question or an exclamation, in which case you can end it with a question mark or exclamation point, respectively. Note, however, that the question mark or exclamation point will not end the sentence.

     Wrong: Ludwig is really smart (He is a physicist.) and kind of socially awkward.
     Right: Ludwig is really smart (he is a physicist) and kind of socially awkward.

     Wrong: I don’t really get Ludwig (and probably never will;) he doesn’t really get me either.
     Right: I don’t really get Ludwig (and probably never will); he doesn’t really get me, either.
     Right: The other day, Ludwig wore lederhosen (seriously  . . . lederhosen?) to my baseball game.

     Original: But he bought me ice cream afterward, which was nice.
     Wrong: But he bought me ice cream afterward (my favorite!) Which was nice.
     Right: But he bought me ice cream afterward (my favorite!), which was nice.

If, on the other hand, your parenthetical statement is a sentence or more, then simply insert the entire thing into your paragraph as you would any other sentence, only with parentheses around it:

     My mom and Ludwig are planning a big vacation to Germany this summer, so that he can show us where he grew up. I’m not sure I want to go. (I’d have to skip out on band camp. I’m a section leader this year, so that seems like it would be irresponsible.) But my mom really wants me to come.

Note that, as always, the entire parenthetical statement could be removed from the paragraph without a problem:

     My mom and Ludwig are planning a big vacation to Germany this summer, so that he can show us where he grew up. I’m not sure I want to go. But my mom really wants me to come.

This is why you should make sure that none of the information outside the parentheses refers directly to any of the information inside the parentheses—otherwise, the parenthetical wouldn’t be able to be removed without affecting the flow of information.

     My mom and Ludwig are planning a big vacation to Germany this summer, so that he can show us where he grew up. I’m not sure I want to go. (I’d have to skip out on band camp. I’m a section leader this year, so that seems like it would be irresponsible.) But my mom really wants me to come, so I may need to get permission from my Band Director.

Without the parentheses, that paragraph wouldn’t make sense:

     My mom and Ludwig are planning a big vacation to Germany this summer, so that he can show us where he grew up. I’m not sure I want to go. But my mom really wants me to come, so I may need to get permission from my Band Director.

In such cases, you’re best off moving more information into the parentheses or getting rid of the parentheses altogether.

     My mom and Ludwig are planning a big vacation to Germany this summer, so that he can show us where he grew up. I’m not sure I want to go, but my mom really wants me to come. (I’d have to skip out on band camp. I’m a section leader this year, so that seems like it would be irresponsible. I may need to get permission from my Band Director.)

     My mom and Ludwig are planning a big vacation to Germany this summer, so that he can show us where he grew up. I’m not sure I want to go. (I’d have to skip out on band camp. I’m a section leader this year, so that seems like it would be irresponsible.) But my mom really wants me to come (so I may need to get permission from my Band Director).

     My mom and Ludwig are planning a big vacation to Germany this summer, so that he can show us where he grew up. I’m not sure I want to go, since I’d have to skip out on band camp. I’m a section leader this year—skipping seems like it would be irresponsible. But my mom really wants me to come, so I may need to get permission from my Band Director.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Punctuation Problems: Proper Parentheses, Part One

The Short Version

When writing a story, use parentheses as sparingly as possible.

The Long Version

There are some forms of punctuation that are generally frowned upon in professional writing, such as the interrobang (?!), repeated exclamation marks, and emoticons. Using parentheses to create parenthetical statements, on the other hand, is perfectly acceptable punctuation usage. So why do I recommend that you do so sparingly?

One of the greatest challenges of writing is getting your thoughts to flow smoothly from one to the next without any hard-to-follow leaps that will be difficult for readers to follow. You want your story to flow naturally and logically, A to B to C to D and so on rather than G to W to T to G again. If this is done well, readers can breeze through hundreds of pages at a time without ever having to pause and figure out what is being said—your thoughts will flow as naturally through their minds as their own thoughts do.

Now, if you read this post, you know that parentheses are specifically supposed to be used to insert information into a sentence or paragraph that is no more than loosely related to the topic at hand—“flavor” text that might be interesting, might be funny, but isn’t actually needed. In other words, parentheses are intended to insert information that will specifically interrupt the smooth, logical progression of thoughts that most writing is intended to achieve. It is hard enough to manage such smooth prose normally; but if you’re adding extraneous thoughts left and right, it’s going to be even more difficult. So use parentheses as sparingly as possible.

What qualifies as “sparingly” will vary depending on the style of story you’re writing. If your story is being narrated—either in first-person by one of the characters or by an omnipotent third-person narrator with its own personality—then you’ll be able to use more parenthetical statements than in other situations. In these situations, parenthetical statements can be used to mimic the often-erratic nature of speech and oral storytelling, to give your protagonist or narrator more of a realistic and engaging personality. 

Third-person-limited and narrator-less third-person-omniscient stories, however, aren’t narrated by characters. In those sorts of stories, parenthetical statements will be more likely to interrupt the flow of the narrative—I would go so far as to recommend avoiding parentheses entirely in such stories, if at all possible.

Found this nice little explanation here.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Punctuation Problems: Breaks

There is a set of punctuation marks that are used to separate thoughts in writing, which I like to refer to as Breaking Punctuation. They are the comma ( , ), the em dash ( — ), the semicolon ( ; ), the colon ( : ), parentheses ( ), and the period ( . ). Each of these has a subtly different meaning from the others, which we’re going to break down here.

The Period

The period is the ultimate and strongest form of breaking punctuation, which is why it’s known as a “full stop” in the UK. It is placed at the end of the sentence to indicate an end to that statement and a transition to a new one.

The Comma

Buttersafe.com, everyone.

The comma is used to provide a bridge between very closely related statements or between sequences of incomplete statements. You’ve probably noticed that proper comma usage can be very tricky to master, and you’re not alone in that experience. We’ve covered some of the depths and complexities of comma usage in several posts, but for now what you need to know is this: the comma connects closely related thoughts, and the period separates finished, more-or-less unrelated thoughts.

The Semicolon

The other forms of breaking punctuation fall on a spectrum between the comma and the period. The semicolon is halfway between the two; it generally separates statements that could be broken into individual sentences, but which the author wants to be connected in the mind of the reader. Use it sparingly—it tends to create sentences that are very long and difficult to follow.

The Colon

The colon serves the specific purpose of introducing information; it can only be used if the text preceding it says something along the lines of, “I am going to tell you this.” So, for instance:

     Gary picked up all of the items on the list: a pickaxe, a jump rope, and
—for some reason—a huge container of lard.
     This is what I was sent to tell you: that you must put an end to your company’s project, or your world will be destroyed.
     You have chosen the greatest hamburger of all: the Beefinator.

Remember: the colon should only be used if the text before it is somehow introducing the text that comes after it.

The Em Dash

The em dash is the jack of all trades. It swings back and forth between the comma and the semicolon and the colon. It can be used in place of a comma to provide a little more emphasis to the pause between related information, or in place of a semicolon to provide a little more connection between statements. It can also serve as a sort of weak colon, separating an initial statement from another that provides more connected or explanatory information. Often, I’ll simply use it to create variety when I’ve already used several commas or semicolons. But be careful about using it too much—the em dash is wide and easily noticeable, and a cluster of them in the same area of the page will tend to stand out garishly.

In summation, the comma is weakest form of breaking punctuation, used to separate closely related information; the semicolon separates weakly related or unrelated statements; the colon separates introductory text from the information it’s introducing; the em dash can serve as a strong comma, a weak colon, or a weak semicolon; and the period is the full stop that means that the previous statement is complete and we are moving on to something else.

It may seem like there is considerable overlap between the uses for these breaking punctuation marks—that’s because there is. Often, you’ll be able to use either a period or a semicolon; in other cases, either a colon or a semicolon or an em dash would work. What punctuation you choose should depend on how connected you want the information it breaks apart to be, on how much you’ve already used each form of breaking punctuation, and on how you want the sentence or sentences to flow.  That is the reason for this post—to let you know how the breaking punctuation can be used, so that you know what your options are when you have more than one.

If you want some helpful homework, go back over this post again and pay particular attention to the breaking punctuation. You’ll notice that I’ve used each form of breaking punctuation at some point, and in just about every way they can be used. Find each point where I’ve used a breaking punctuation mark, and make sure you understand why I chose that particular mark at that point in the text. Good luck!

Monday, May 4, 2015

Subject-Verb Agreement, Part 3: Miscellaneous Problems

We’ve previously discussed subject-verb agreement and some of the ways writers get it wrong. Today, we’ll cover a few more common, miscellaneous errors, and then we’ll put this subject to bed for a while.

Indefinite Pronouns

An indefinite pronoun is a pronoun that refers to a non-specific person, object, or place; examples include anyone, everyone, someone, no one, and nobody. Although many of these words seem to refer to multiple people (such as everyone and anyone), they are in fact singular nouns.

     No one has arrived yet.

     Somebody needs a hug.

     Everyone is here.

Photo from My English.

However, a difficulty commonly arises when indefinite pronouns and other pronouns are used together:

     Someone has left his keys behind.

The trouble is that someone has no implied gender, but English lacks an animate, non-gender-specific pronoun. (It is not gender specific, but it also is not generally animate—by which I mean that it doesn’t generally imply a sentient being.) This is a sensitive issue for many people who feel that masculine pronouns such as he or his should not be used by default for an unidentified or nonspecific person. There are many suggested workarounds for this problem. You can use the compound pronoun his or her (or her or his, if you prefer):

     Someone has left his or her keys behind.

If that feels awkward to you, then you’re not alone in that feeling. Another suggested workaround (the most common solution that people use in their day-to-day speech) is to use the pronoun their. While their is technically plural, it is an increasingly acceptable practice to use it as an indefinite singular pronoun in these sorts of situations:

     Someone has left their keys behind.

Note that the sentence uses has and not have—despite the use of the plural pronoun their, someone still remains singular.

The final (and usually best) solution is to simply rewrite the sentence to avoid the pronoun altogether:

    Someone has left some keys behind.


Like the examples above, each is always singular. Writers are often confused because each has a tendency to be followed by a prepositional phrase ending in a plural word:

     Each of the cars comes equipped with GPS.

The phrase “of the cars” does not change the plurality of the subject—each is the subject, and it is always singular.

Neither and Either

Again, neither and either are both singular, despite the fact that they refer to two things:

     Neither of the lawnmowers is working.

     Either way works for me.


Words and expressions that indicate a portion of a greater group or whole are sometimes singular and sometimes plural. These include half of, a part of, a percentage of, a majority of, all, any, more, most, and some, as well as fractional expressions like one-third. The plurality of these phrases usually depends on the “whole” of which they refer to a portion—if the whole is a plural word, then the portion will also be plural, but if the whole is a singular word, then the portion will also be singular. For example:

     Most of the workers (plural) are upset.

     Most of the water (singular) is tainted.

     One-third of the vehicles were faulty.

     Two-thirds of the estate was lost.

Note, however, that the phrase “more than one” is singular:

     More than one pilot has tried that stunt.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Avoiding Repeated Words

Too many repetitions of the same word in a short space, such as within a single paragraph or even withing a single sentence, can be distracting to your readers and throw off the flow of your prose. Take a look at the following example:

     The wall was too tall to climb, but only just; it was short enough to seem climbable but tall enough that a fall from anywhere near the top would kill you. Raek studied the wall carefully and realized that the top of the wall was covered in a slimy-looking green moss that would make climbing impossible. But if he couldn't climb it, how would he get over the wall? The wall was between him and the chalice. He had to get past the wall.

Notice how the words "the wall" get repeated over and over again? Six times in one paragraph. Some variation of the word "climb" appears four times as well. It feels awkward and clunky.

No matter how good the word is, too much will make your readers sick. Don't be a Trunchbull.
Cleaned up, that paragraph might look like this:

     The wall was too tall to climb, but only just: it was short enough to seem scalable but tall enough that a fall from anywhere near the top would kill you. Raek studied the wall carefully and realized that the top was covered in a slimy-looking green moss that would ensure that anyone clinging to the rock would lose their grip. But if he couldn't climb the wall, how would he get over? It was between him and the chalice; he had to get past.

This version is smoother, with just three uses of "the wall" and two of "climb."  Some of the repeated words were removed by heavily re-writing the sentence, some were simply not necessary to begin with and could be removed without changing anything else, and others were replaced with synonyms ("scalable" in place of "climbable").

That final method, using synonyms, is one of the easiest ways to avoid repetition:

     The manor loomed above her, at least three stories tall. The entire edifice was wreathed so thickly with crawling ivy that it was difficult for her to tell what the manor was made out of.

In this example, we've used edifice in place of manor in one spot, to avoid using the word "manor" three times in two sentences. The variety of descriptive words helps the prose to flow more smoothly.

The same thing can be done to avoid repeating a character's name too often. Take this example from Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn (emphasis added):

     "Fears?" Kelsier asked, turning to look up at Sazed. Despite Kelsier's above-average height, the Terrisman was still a good head taller. I'm not sure if he fears anything, Saze."

Notice how the author avoided repeating Sazed's name by referring to him as "the Terrisman." It is the same method of avoiding word repetition.

Some cautions:

Don't use too many synonyms

In the example above, we used edifice in place of manor. Here are a few other words we could possibly have used: building, structure, dwelling, residency, or mansion. But if you look at that example again, you'll notice that I chose to use the word "manor" twice rather than replace it with one of these words. Why?

Too many synonyms can become confusing to the reader; it becomes difficult for them to keep track of what they all refer too.  It also calls too much attention to the fact that you're trying to avoid repeating yourself, which can pull the reader out of the story. Usually, you don't want to use more than one synonym for a given word in a section. So in the first example, I might have described the manor simply as a building when the characters were far away and still approaching it. Then, when they have drawn close and I am describing the manor's appearance, I use manor and edifice, but no more than that. 

Make sure that it is clear what your synonym refers to

Another hazard of using synonyms is that they are not always as clear as the author thinks. We'll take the example of manor again. The Merriam-Webster dictionary lists the following words as synonyms for the word "manor":  castle, chateau, estate, hacienda, hall, manor, manor house, manse, palace, and villa.

The problem with most of these words is that they evoke a completely different image than the word "manor."  Take this example:

     Amy was relieved to finally leave the manor behind. As they drove away, she turned and looked out the back window as the palace vanished behind the trees.

That didn't work at all, did it? Using palace almost made it sound as though there were two buildings, as if Amy left one building and is now looking at another. Don't use synonyms unless it is clear what they're replacing.

One more caution on using synonyms as placeholders for a character's name (as in the Mistborn example above) can be found in this post.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Controlling Your Dialog Tags

A while ago, we discussed the two prominent schools of thought regarding dialog tags; today we'll go over the kinds of dialog tags you should always avoid. These fall into three classes: grandiloquent, repetitive, and non-dialog.


Grandiloquent means "overly high-minded, pompous, or pretentious, especially in language," and it is a condition that afflicts many new authors. My preferred term for this behavior is highfalutin. 

The amount of grandiloquence you employ should vary depending on what you're writing. If you're working on a very flowery, "literary" type of story, then you'll want to be a little more eloquent, as florid prose is a hallmark of that genre. In any other genre, however, you'll generally want to ensure that your prose calls as little attention to itself as possibleyou want your readers to almost forget that they're reading and simply absorb the story, which they can't do if they have to stop and think over highfalutin language.

Here are some grandiloquent dialog tags that I often see crop up in novice writing:

"Dialog," he opined. < Just use said.
"Dialog," she queried. < asked, unless maybe the character is a computer.
"Dialog," I ruminated. < reflected, remembered, or recalled could all work here. 
"Dialog," it pontificated. < said, lectured.
"Dialog," John soliloquized. < said or reflected, depending on the context.

The line between being precise with your word choice and being too highfalutin is very finegenerally, I recommend leaning toward simpler language if you're ever in doubt.


Novice writers have a tendency to repeat themselves, and one way that they do this is often in dialog tags. Take a look at the following example:

"Welcome to the Nodsdown Fair!" the young woman greeted.

Here, the tag greeted is redundantthe dialog itself already made it very clear that the woman is greeting someone. The tag is only there to let us know who is speaking, so said would be more efficient here. Some other frequently-repetitive tags are cursed, pontificated, lectured, rambled, hinted, joked, agreed, elaborated, and explained.

Now, you might have noticed that some of those words can be found on my list of possible tags from the last post. Sometimes these words aren't redundant, and sometimes they are. It's an even finer line to walk than the grandiloquent line. Just be on the lookout for any redundant tags in your writing, and when in doubterr on the side of simple.


The final type of dialog tag to avoid is tags that don't actually describe the manner in which the dialog was spoken. Take this example:

"I think I can do that," John smiled. "Give me the stick."

Smiled doesn't actually describe the dialogyou can't smile words. This kind of construction usually arises from writers who are trying to cut out extra words and go a little too far. Cutting out excess words is good, as long as the remaining words still accurately state what they're intended to. Our example can be rewritten in several ways:

With dialog tags:
"I think I can do that," John said, smiling. "Give me the stick."
"I think I can do that," John said with a smile. "Give me the stick."

Without dialog tags:
"I think I can do that." John smiled. "Give me the stick."
John smiled. "I think I can do that. Give me the stick."

Some other words that I often see used as tags which don't actually describe the dialog are: nodded, shrugged, blushed, snorted, and ground (as in "he said while grinding his teeth").

(I'll also mention laughed, coughed, scoffed, chuckled, gasped, sobbed, grunted, sighed, and cried. These can be acceptable, as they describe the sounds coming out of a character's mouth simultaneous to the dialog. No, we don't actually laugh words, but we can speak while laughing. But try to use these sparingly.)

I also want to place special emphasis on my personal, most-hated non-dialog dialog tags:

"Dan here couldn't hit a baseball if it was the size of a pumpkin!" Mike jabbed.
"Maybe I should practice with your head," Dan returned.

hate "jabbed" and "returned." Don't use them, not ever. They fall into both the repetitive and the non-dialog categories; what's worse, they always tend to be attached to back-and-forth teasing that isn't nearly as clever as the author wants to believe it is. Please do not use these words as dialog tags.


Many authors use the word sang to mean "shouted jubilantly." While this usage is not uncommon, it can be a little confusing; after all, it is possible to literally sing words. I recommend avoiding it.

Crowed can be used to mean the same thing, and I don't like it. There's nothing technically wrong with it; that's mostly just me.