Some of you who have been following and reading, and stalking, for a while might remember a series of posts in which I examined common grammar and punctuation errors. At first, it was done rather straightforward, but then it got out of hand. I was illustrating errors with pictures of women puking in the streets at Mardi Gras and an occasional naked selfie. However, now that I’m a *ahem* published author, I can’t be bothered with such immaturity.
I have incorporated the basic idea into my Writing 2.0 series, but I’m focusing more on elements that might involve more in-depth writing and things that go beyond simple proofreading. I think.
Really? Not Really.
Did you watch the game last night?
Not really. I was writing a poem about nachos.
In this exchange, “not really” is perfectly acceptable because it’s dialogue. It is how real people speak, and that is the first rule of dialogue – to be real. However, dialogue and narration have different “rules” when it comes to word choices. Let’s turn the dialogue above into narration. To have “not really” in narration is rather juvenile and shows a lack of writing experience. There are many options.
Jim clicked on the television and found ESPN. However, he paid little attention to the game and worked on his poem about nachos.
…However, the baseball game was only background noise as he worked on his poem about nachos.
…However, he focused less on the game and much more on his poem about nachos.
This is how writers separate themselves from others. When you’re querying an agent, and they are forced to read “really” and “not really,” they’re going to know you have not yet written enough to gain any writing maturity.
“Not really” is pretty much the same as “not” or “no,” and it’s rather useless. For example:
I’m not really a good bowler.
I’m not a good bowler.
There’s no significant difference.
As for “really,” it’s a bit of an intensifier, but it’s a dull one.
Jim edited his poem about nachos once more because he really wanted to impress Conchita.
Let’s improve that.
…once more, hoping to impress Conchita.
…once more because nothing was more important than impressing Conchita.
…once more, quite certain it would impress Conchita.
…once more, making every effort to impress Conchita.
When you finish a manuscript, use the search feature in MSWord and see how often you used “really.” Then fix them. I admit that I’ve never done that. Yet.
Disclaimer: Jim really wants to impress Conchita, so don’t call me racist.
Now? Not now.
From a real memoir:
Finally, after struggling for six years at two different colleges, I graduated. Now, it was time to find a job.
There is only one “now,” and it is now. Nope, it’s gone, but here’s another one – now. And that one’s gone too. When a “now” is gone, it becomes a “then.” Of course, every moment was once a now, but every moment becomes a then. They become a then when they are no longer now. I realize this sounds like a mash up between Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein, but there isn’t much I can do about that now. Or then. Let’s look back at the last sentence from that memoir passage. Now it was time to find a job. “Now” is immediate – present – right now! You can’t have “now” and “was” in the same sentence. It would have to be “now” and “is.”
What’s true is that there really was a “now” in which the writer had graduated and needed to find a job. At one time that was a legitimate “now,” but now it’s a “then.” The correct way to write this would be “Then, it was time to find a job.” That’s because this writing is occurring now, but the moment is no longer a now. The only time something like this would be acceptable is in dialogue because whatever someone actually says can’t be changed, regardless of the rules.
This occurs more in non-fiction, especially in an autobiography or memoir, than in fiction. Also, with regards to fiction, if one writes in present tense, then every single sentence is a “now,” so there would never be anything to worry about. In past tense, I would write I ran to the tree and climbed until I was high enough that the wolves couldn’t reach me. In present tense, I would write I run to the tree and climb until I am high that the wolves can’t reach me. Past has four “thens,” and present has four “nows.”
I read a lot of memoirs and autobiographies, and this occurs more often than you think. You’ve probably seen it before and didn’t think about it, but it might catch your attention next time it comes your way.
Are rules made to be broken?
Well, no, not all of them. Some rules can be broken if there is something to gain from it, which I will point out, but there is not always something to gain in rule breakage. Some people break rules because they like to think it’s their “style.” Sorry, but that’s not a style. That’s more like linguistic graffiti. Breaking rules in general can sometimes be fun, but keep in mind that rules exist for a reason.
The rules of spelling, grammar, punctuation, and language exist to clarify meaning at both ends of communication – the writer and the reader. Without rules, you may as well try watching television through your microwave. Communication between people following two different sets of rules is like trying to play Monopoly but you have the rules for Clue and I have the rules for Trivial Pursuit.
Rules are not made to be broken, but that doesn’t mean rules should never be broken. There are times when breaking a rule is a good thing, but the “good thing” is not the actual breaking of the rule. Some people say, “You have learn the rules before you can break them.” That’s true, but the reason is so that you know what changes when you break a rule and can be sure you’re breaking the right rule for what you want to change.
The most common reason to break a rule is timing, to create a pause in order to stress what follows. I’m going to write something two different ways, first following the rule and then breaking it. See if you can tell what changes.
Invisible fumes caused the cab driver to lose consciousness just as the car reached the top of the hill. Our speed gradually increased. I briefly considered opening the door and jumping out, but by the time I thought of it, we were already going too fast. Trapped in the car were Joe, Mary, me, and death.
Invisible fumes caused the cab driver to lose consciousness just as the car reached the top of the hill. Our speed gradually increased. I briefly considered opening the door and jumping out, but by the time I thought of it, we were already going too fast. Trapped in the car were Joe, Mary, and me. And death.
In the second example, I broke the rule of a complete sentence and put “And Death” by itself. When you read the first one, it’s kind of dramatic and serious. However, the second one is kind of funny. It’s like a spontaneous addition with some comic timing. With the second one, you can tell that all will end well and the storyteller is trying to entertain you in a positive way. In the first example, it seems more serious and straight forward. You break the rule when there is something to gain from breaking the rule. Unless you’re going for a little bit of fun, there’s not reason to break anything in this example.
A parenthetical aside is when a writer uses parentheses to interrupt a sentence in order to provide a small piece of information to highlight or illustrate something in that sentence. Too often I see them used incorrectly, such as:
One of my favorite authors is writing a book about hockey (my favorite sport), and I hear it’s great.
Why is this wrong? Most writing is a one-to-one experience, me writing to you. Of course, it’s me writing to many of you, but each is an individual “you” unless you’re sitting with a group and all reading at the same time, which I can’t control and can’t write in such a way. Later I’ll give an example of a one-to-many, but let’s stick with a great majority of writing for now.
In a one-to-one situation, to whom am I making the aside? You, but I’m already writing to you and nobody else but you, so there’s no reason for an aside. The purpose of an aside is to address a different audience from the real audience. Imagine we are on a Q&A panel, and we are talking to an audience. Then I cover my microphone or lean over to you and whisper something so that the audience can’t hear it. That’s the equivalent of a parenthetical aside, but I can’t do that unless there are at least three people in the conversation. Therefore, what’s the correct way to write the above sentence?
One of my favorite authors is writing a book about hockey, my favorite sport, and I hear it’s great.
That’s all you need. It’s called an appositive phrase, and it simply adds a little info to something in the sentence. So when do you actually use the parenthetical aside? As I said, it’s when you have a one-to-many writing situation. An example is if I were writing about a discussion I had with an audience. For example, if I were writing about a speech I had given to an audience.
After the applause softened, I began my graduation speech. “First, I’d like to thank my teachers (90% of whom I hated). I would also like to thank my parents (who probably didn’t even show up today). I would also like to thank my classmates (who probably don’t even know my name). I wish all of you the best of luck (at suicide) in your future.”
In the above paragraph, there are three “people” involved: me, you, and the audience. My asides are necessary because they can’t be included in the actual speech to the real audience. It’s a way of speaking to two different people at the same time, but you get a little extra that I don’t want them to hear.
An Historic Error
What is the rule for whether to use “a” or “an” before a noun? Most people would probably say to use “a” with nouns that begin with consonants and “an” before nouns that begin with vowels. If you said that, then you will usually be correct. However, there are exceptions. Before those exceptions can be understood, we first have to understand exactly what defines a consonant and a vowel.
If you are anything like me, your ears probably hurt a little bit when someone, usually a politician or news person, refers to “an historic event.” If you look at it, “historic” starts with a consonant, right? I think? It actually starts with both a consonant and a vowel because choosing “a” and “an” is not just about script but also about sound.
One of the aspects of a consonant is contact, specifically the contact of parts inside your mouth when you speak. When you make a “t” sound, the front of your tongue contacts the roof of your mouth. When you make an “f” sound, your top front teeth contact your lower lip. When someone lists the vowels as “a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y,” there really is no reason to list “y.” Say the word “yes” and get a feel for what contacts what. Your tongue curls side to side, and the sides rise up to contact your back teeth. However, say the word “easy,” and the same thing happens. Does that mean an “e” is a consonant? Yes, but that’s the long “e” sound, as in “easy.” Try the short “e” sound, as in “egg” or “bet.” Now it’s a vowel. Oh well.
Let’s get back to the phrase “an historic event.” Say “historic” and feel for contact with the initial “h” sound. It is very similar to the “e” in “easy,” but there’s an added push. The only way “historic” should be preceded by “an” is if the initial “h” were dropped, but I have no idea why anyone would do that. The only correct way to say it is “a historic event.”
Let’s get back to the “e” sound. Fill in this blank:
“Kicked the bucket” is ___ euphemism for “dead.”
Do you fill in the blank with “a” or “an”? “Euphemism” starts with a vowel, so it should be preceded by “an,” right? But say it aloud – “an euphemism.” Are you comfortable with that? I didn’t think so, and that’s because we can’t simply decide by the spelling. “Euphemism,” phonetically, starts with a “y,” not an “e.” So now the letter “e” is being recognized as a consonant instead of a vowel.