Apr 29 2017

That which confounds us…

I received my copyedited manuscript back from my publisher, and am proud to say that it was VERY clean, except that I seem to completely miss the difference between which and that. Something about restrictive and non-restrictive clauses, but that means nothing to me. Can you explain?David, author

Restrictive and non-restrictive clauses are adjective clauses – they modify or describe the noun, either the subject or object, of the sentence. They’re also called relative clauses because they relate to the rest of the sentence.

Restrictive clauses do just what they say: they restrict the subject or object. They add a specific description to distinguish the subject or object from any other. Removing the restrictive clause from the sentence would change the meaning of the sentence or make it confusing or too vague.

Non-restrictive clauses add additional information about the subject, but they don’t restrict the subject to a specific item. The non-restrictive clause can be removed from the sentence without changing the meaning.

Makes perfect sense, right? Ahem. Okay, it makes more sense with examples.

The car was stolen.

‘The car’ is the subject of the sentence. It was stolen.

What car was stolen? We need more information.

The car, which was in the parking lot, was stolen.

That is a non-restrictive clause. There may have been lots of cars in the parking lot. If you remove this non-restrictive clause, it doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence. The car was stolen. The non-restrictive clause (‘which was in the parking lot’) adds additional information, but doesn’t restrict it to one specific car.

The car that was in the disabled parking space was stolen.

Oh, that car. “That” added more information that specifically restricted the subject of the sentence to that car. Not any of the other cars in the parking lot. That car. That car that used to be right there but isn’t there anymore because it’s been stolen.

Non-restrictive clauses (‘which’ clauses, adding more info but not restricting) are set off with commas from the main sentence because it is additional information, almost a parenthetical statement. The car, which was in the parking lot, was stolen.

Some ways it can get mixed up:

I love pasta, which this restaurant serves. (non-restrictive)

“Pasta” is the object of this sentence. This sentence means I love pasta in general. Some added information is that this restaurant serves pasta, but I’m not specifically saying I love the pasta served at this restaurant – I’m not restricting my statement to only pasta from this restaurant. In fact, my next sentence might say, “However, this restaurant’s pasta tastes like crap.”

I love the pasta that this restaurant serves. (restrictive)

This means I specifically love the pasta served at this restaurant. I may or may not love pasta from other restaurants — I am restricting the meaning of my statement to refer specifically to the pasta served here.

A way to check: if you can eliminate the word ‘that’ and it still makes sense and is grammatically correct, then it’s a restrictive sentence and you should use ‘that,’ not ‘which.’ Or, even better, you can just eliminate ‘that’ to save on word count and tighten your sentences. I’ve edited novels that contained 1,000 unnecessary ‘thats.’

I love the pasta this restaurant serves.

This sentence removes the word ‘that.’ It’s still grammatically correct, and the meaning of the sentence remains the same. I could use the word ‘that’ if I wanted it, but the sentence stands without it.

WRONG: I love the pasta which this restaurant serves.
‘Which’ is non-restrictive so it needs a comma to set the clause apart as additional, separate information.

WRONG: I love the pasta, that this restaurant serves.
‘That’ is restrictive, so there shouldn’t be a comma in this sentence. If you eliminate ‘that’ from this sentence you wind up with an errant comma and an incomplete sentence: I love the pasta, this restaurant serves.

If you’re referring to people, instead of using that/which, use who/whose. Who/whose can be either restrictive or non-restrictive, so it’s the commas setting the clause apart that signal to the reader whether it’s restrictive or non-restrictive.

The scientist who discovered gravity was named Newton.
This sentence is restrictive, so no comma. I’m referring specifically, restrictively, to the one scientist who discovered gravity. And yeah, don’t quibble on my science here. But here we use ‘who’ instead of ‘that’ because it refers to a person rather than a thing.

My favorite scientist, who discovered gravity, is Newton.
This sentence is non-restrictive. Take out the clause and it still make sense: My favorite scientist is Newton. The non-restrictive clause adds additional information. Newton is my favorite scientist, oh and by the way, he discovered gravity. Here, we use ‘who’ rather than ‘which.’

My favorite scientist, whose discoveries included gravity, is Newton.
Non-restrictive clause adds more information to this sentence, but it still makes sense without the clause. The clause is set off by commas, uses ‘whose’ (possessive) instead of ‘which’ because the clause refers to a person rather than a thing.

My favorite scientist who discovered gravity is Bhaskaracharya.
Restrictive clause. Two scientists discovered gravity, and this sentence restricts my favorite to only one of them.

As we’ve seen above, when it’s a restrictive clause, you can often eliminate the word ‘that.’ Sometimes you can change the verb in the restrictive clause to an -ing verb and eliminate the ‘that.’ For example:

I watch the whales that swim next to the boat.
Restrictive ‘that,’ no commas, specifies exactly which whales I watch. I watch those whales that swim next to the boat. I do not watch the whales that swim a mile away. I watch those whales right there.

I watch the whales swimming next to the boat.
Restrictive, same as above, but drops ‘that’ and changes ‘swim’ to ‘swimming.’

WRONG: I watch the whales, swimming next to the boat.
Does not take a comma here as it is a restrictive clause. Also, that little comma confuses the whole meaning of the sentence. Does it now mean I am swimming next to the boat while I watch whales?

Got all that?

Short version:
Use ‘that’ without commas to restrict the subject or object of the sentence to a specific one. The sentence won’t make sense without the restrictive clause.

Use ‘which’ with commas to add extra information about the subject or object of the sentence. Sentence will still make sense without the clause.

Jul 4 2016

Military terms and style in fiction: Get them right

NOTE: The following are general guidelines on usage and capitalization of military terms, services, and ranks when writing primarily for a U.S. audience.

Using the wrong word, or capitalizing a military term incorrectly, may fly right by a reader who has never been in the military or is unfamiliar with military terminology and style, but if a reader has served in the military, it waves a big red flag that the writer didn’t do the research. Minor errors can create the impression in the reader’s mind that the author is writing about something with little to no knowledge of the topic. That breaks the ‘suspension of disbelief’ for the reader.

So as a diligent writer, you do the research on usage, and guess what? You’ll find a variety of conflicting advice, recommendations, and style choices. Which one should you use?

There are two basic and safe choices to make: Chicago Manual of Style (CMoS) or Associated Press (AP). There are even a few differences between the two. CMoS is generally regarded as the primary style guide for fiction and non-fiction books, and AP is the premier style for journalism.

There are also formal military writing style guides. Each branch of the U.S. Armed Forces has its own style guide for how they use military terms. Like many organizations, they prefer to uppercase a wide variety of terms in internal writing and documents that the fiction writer wouldn’t, and shouldn’t, normally capitalize.

For ranks such as private, captain, and admiral, there are traditional abbreviations and capitalization styles, and then each service branch has their own set of styles.

For example, if Fred Jones is a colonel in the U.S. Army, the military would write his name as COL Jones (all cap, no period). But Bill Smith is a colonel in the U.S. Air Force, so he writes his name Col. Smith.

It’s going to look pretty awkward and inconsistent if you have both COL Jones and Col. Smith as characters in your novel. Your best bet is the traditional abbreviation “Col.”– and the recommendation of both Chicago and AP style is stick with the traditional abbreviations regardless of which branch your character serves.

Keep in mind that different branches of the military have different ranks. Call a Navy officer a colonel and you’ll lose a lot of readers since there is no such rank in the Navy.

In the Navy, a captain is a senior-grade officer, the same level as a colonel is to the Army, Air Force, and Marines. On the other hand, a captain in the other services is a junior-grade or company-level officer, three ranks below that of a Navy captain. One way to help remember this is that in the Army and other services, a mid-rank officer may captain a small group of people (like a company, which usually consists of 100 to 250 soldiers), but in the Navy, a much higher ranking officer will captain a ship or the largest ship in a fleet and all the sailors onboard.

There are also a variety of levels of some ranks. If your character is a lieutenant, is he a first lieutenant or a second lieutenant? Is your character a sergeant, a staff sergeant, a technical sergeant, or a master sergeant? Study the ranks and be familiar with them. Your readers may well be.

When do you capitalize a rank such as Colonel/colonel or Sergeant/sergeant?

Sticking with CMoS and AP style, only capitalize ranks when used as a title with a name or as a name. Use lowercase when referring to the rank generically or collectively for a group.

“I spoke with Col. Jones today.” (title is capitalized)
“I spoke with the sergeant today.” (generic term even though referring to a specific person)
“Yes, sir, Admiral.” (used as a proper name)
“We’re meeting with several generals at the Pentagon today.” (generic, collective)

Notice the title is only abbreviated when used with a name. In other cases, spell out the word, the same as you would with Mr. or mister or Mister and Dr. or doctor or Doctor.

Besides the exact ranks, know the difference between enlisted ranks and the officer corps; between commissioned, non-commissioned, and warrant officers; and between field officers and general officers. Know which ranks, in what order, for each service, and know the general job duties of each rank. You don’t want a general piloting a fighter jet (not likely) in a war zone, and you don’t want a corporal leading a brigade or a lieutenant giving orders to a major.

The names of the services are another conundrum for deciding when to capitalize.

Is it Army or army, Navy or navy, Marines or marines, Air Force or air force?

Again, assuming you’re writing for a U.S. audience, then remember that proper nouns are capitalized. The names of the official branches of the U.S. military are proper nouns – like corporate or organizational names.

– U.S. Army
– U.S. Navy
– U.S. Marine Corps
– U.S. Air Force

Do you still capitalize the U.S. military branches even when you shorten the term by dropping the ‘U.S.’ It depends. Chicago Manual of Style says no, but AP style says yes. Here, my personal preference goes to AP as the word is still referring to the proper noun of the official organizational name.
CMoS: Bill served in the navy in the Gulf War.
AP Style: Bill served in the Navy in the Gulf War.

Do not capitalize when referring to a generic military or to the military of another country, unless you’re specifically using the proper noun for the foreign military organization.

Sarah became friends with her counterpart in the Iraqi army.
The navies of five countries clashed in the battle that waged for three days.

Another point you want to get right is the correct term for a service member based on which branch of the military he or she serves. Meet a Marine in a bar and call him a soldier, you may find yourself with a black eye. Call a Marine a soldier in a novel, you’ll get a black eye from many readers.

Army – soldier
Navy – sailor
Air Force – airman (male or female, doesn’t matter, they’re all airmen)
Marine Corps – Marine

One exception: the word ‘soldier’ is a good generic term for a military service member, especially of a non-U.S. military, when the specific branch is not specified or known. But if your generic military member is serving onboard a ship, chances are he’s a sailor, not a soldier.

Did you catch the capitalization difference on Marine used above?

In AP style, Marine is treated differently than soldier, sailor, or airman. That’s because Marine is one of two cases in which the title of the service member is the same as the proper noun of the organization (we’ll get to the second case later). CMoS, however, doesn’t draw that distinction and does not capitalize marine when referring to an individual member of the Marines. To me, the AP distinction makes sense because it is specifically using the proper noun. But if you want to be consistent and stick with CMoS throughout your book, then go with lowercase marine.

Joe is a Marine, serving in the Marines. (Marine is capitalized in AP Style, but not in CMoS)
Susie is a soldier, serving in the Army. (soldier is not capitalized)

Only follow this capitalization rule on Marine if you’re writing about a U.S. Marine (who serves in the U.S. Marine Corps, which is often shortened to ‘the Corps’), and writing for an American audience.

Boris is a marine, serving in the Russian marines.

Here again, the military branches have their own style guides that differ. If you’re in the Army, for example, and you’re writing a document for the military, the Army’s style guide will capitalize Soldier. But that’s not the style fiction writers should follow.

Here’s a point you won’t find in style guides. For those who have served in the Marines, they take a lot of pride in their service and their branch of the military, and they have a saying: “Once a Marine, always a Marine.”

If you’re writing about a character who used to serve in the Marines but is now out of the military, the word ‘ex-Marine’ can cause a lot of consternation from readers who are or have been Marines. “There are no ex-Marines,” you may hear from readers. While there’s nothing technically wrong with this term, why irritate readers unnecessarily? A ‘formerly active-duty Marine,’ or ‘a Marine who served in the 1990s,’ or some other phrasing that makes it clear this character used to be in the Marines but no longer serves might show a Marine reader you get it. There are no ex-Marines.

One other organization to mention: the U.S. Coast Guard. The Coast Guard is slightly different in that it is under the Department of Homeland Security. Previously, it fell under the Department of Transportation. It is not under the Department of Defense, but it is still considered a military service branch, although it’s the only military service not under Defense.

A member of the Coast Guard (male or female) is a Coast Guardsman, capitalized like Marine since it shares the same title as the proper noun of the organization.

One last pet peeve of mine, and this will set teeth on edge with any military readers.

Athletes win medals at the Olympics.

Service members do not win medals.

Service members are awarded medals for acts of valor and heroism. It is not a contest or a competition. It is awarded for an unselfish act of courage. If someone has received a medal, he is a recipient of that medal, not the winner.

Never say a soldier won the Congressional Medal of Honor. You’ll have military readers throwing your novel across the room in anger.

If you’re writing about military matters in any detail, do your research. It’s important to get it right. How many people are in a squad, a platoon, a company, a brigade, a battalion? How many sailors are onboard an aircraft carrier? What’s the difference between a destroyer, a cruiser, and a frigate? Why do some Navy ship names start with USS and others start with USNS? Isn’t every fighter pilot in the Air Force? (The answer is no.)

The details are endless, and a good portion of your readership will know if you get it wrong.

Post Script: Discussion has arisen about use of periods in the abbreviation U.S. vs. US. Again, there are different styles. AP still uses periods in text (U.S.), but CMoS says either are correct and prefers without (US). However, CMoS says to use without periods if you use the postal code abbreviations for states (NY, MD, IL, CA), but use periods with U.S. if you use the standard state abbreviations (N.Y., Md., Ill., Calif.). I find the postal abbreviations in states awkward in fiction writing, so my personal preference is to stick with U.S. and standard state abbreviations.

Army ranks: https://www.army.mil/symbols/armyranks.html

Navy ranks: http://www.navy.mil/navydata/ranks/officers/o-rank.html

Air Force officer ranks: http://www.military.com/air-force/officer-ranks.html

Air Force enlisted ranks: http://www.military.com/air-force/enlisted-ranks.html

Marine Corps ranks: http://www.marines.mil/Marines/Ranks.aspx

Robb Grindstaff has never served in the military, but for thirteen years worked for Stars and Stripes, the daily newspaper published for U.S. service members and their families stationed overseas. He served in positions including general manager of the Asia/Pacific region, based in Tokyo, Japan, and executive editor in the Washington, D.C., headquarters. Robb’s newspaper career has spanned more than thirty-five years. He has edited fiction for ten years and has two published novels (Evolved Publishing), one of which is about a teenage military brat growing up overseas (Carry Me Away), plus a dozen or so published short stories.


Jan 5 2013

Why are verbs so tense?

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I’ve heard that mixing “ing” and “ed” verbs in a sentence is wrong. But isn’t this is the grammatically correct way to describe when a second action takes place within the time frame of another past tense action? – Ben H. Hugh

What verb forms should you use when a sentence contains two actions? It depends. How’s that for an answer?

There are lots of variables, and verb tense gives writers and editors fits. I see it done incorrectly all the time on work I edit. I also mess it up in my writing until I go back and edit myself, or my editor catches it.

There are two basic ways in which multiple actions occur in the same sentence. Either sequential (one thing then the other) or simultaneous (both things happen at the same time).

Sequential actions—a character does one thing and then does another thing:

He drove home and cooked dinner. [Correct. Don’t use the -ing verb]

Driving home, he cooked dinner. [Wrong, unless he’s cooking dinner in the car while driving.] 

Simultaneous actions—a character does two things at the same time:

He drove home, thinking of her. [Correct. The -ing verb shows the two actions happen at the same time]

It can get slightly more complicated if the two actions are done by two different characters.

She walked down the beach, the sun shining on her face. [Correct. The two actions are happening at the same time]

You could break it into two separate actions and it will be just as clear.

She walked down the beach. The sun shone on her face.

You can also use one of those timing words such as then, as, or while to indicate timing of actions. Sometimes one of these is necessary, but they can be cumbersome, so don’t overuse them:

As he drove home, he thought of her.

He drove home then cooked dinner.

She walked down the beach, while the sun shone on her face.

A problem shows up if the actions are sequential, but written as simultaneous, like the example above about the guy driving and cooking dinner at the same time. It’s not always that obvious:

She walked down the beach, going for a swim. [Wrong. She didn’t walk on the beach and swim at the same time.

She walked down the beach and went for a swim. [Correct.]

Another problem comes in with the famous dangling participle:

Walking down the beach, the sun shone on her face. [Wrong. The way this sentence is written, it means the sun was walking down the beach.]

You could say:

She walked down the beach, and the sun was shining in her face.

But that adds a passive ‘to be’ verb where it’s not needed and weakens the sentence.

Then there’s the past continuous tense, which pairs a ‘to be’ verb with an ‘ing’ verb. This indicates an action that was in progress over a period of time in the past. If writing in simple past tense (the standard for most fiction), the continuous tense indicates an ongoing action.

She was walking down the beach. [Shows an ongoing action; she started walking at some point in the past, and continued to walk for a period of time]

Why is it needed if ‘She walked down the beach’ is just as clear in context? The continuous tense gets used a lot when it’s not needed, even if technically correct.

But let’s get back to sentences with two actions. If you need to show a continuous action that started in the past and continues until the next action, you might need the past continuous verb tense:

She was walking down the beach when the assailant robbed her of her flip-flops.

This shows she was in the process of walking down the beach—she started walking before she was robbed, and she was still in the process of walking at the moment of the robbery. Sort of a mix of the sequential and simultaneous actions because one action took place over a period of time, then the second action occurred at a single moment in time while the first action was still happening.

Then there’s past perfect, which often uses ‘had’ with the -ed verb:

She had walked down the beach.

This shows she started the action in the past, and that action is now completed. It happened at a prior time, such as:

Every day this week, she had walked down the beach. Today it rained, so she stayed inside. [Note that this is all in past tense, even the current moment of ‘today.’]

The word ‘had’ makes it clear that this was a prior action that had been completed in the past. That, of course, gets confusing if you’re writing in past tense, because everything technically happened in the past. When writing in past tense, use the past perfect to indicate an action that was completed before the ‘present moment’ in the scene. It helps differentiate between the present moment written in past tense and an action that happened prior to the present moment.

To really get confusing, when ‘had’ is paired with a ‘to be’ verb + an ‘ing’ verb, you’ve got the past continuous verb tense.

She had been walking down the beach.

This also refers to a prior time (maybe five minutes ago, maybe five years ago, doesn’t matter). But it shows a continuous or progressive, longer term action, something that started in the past, continued for a period of time, and was completed in the past. This verb tense works best when it leads to the next action or event.

Yesterday, she had been walking down the beach when the assailant robbed her.

This indicates that it happened at a time prior to the present moment in the story, not the current, live action scene in the story; that the walk was a progressive action that took up some amount of time; that the walk had finished before the current moment in the story; that the walk was still in progress when she was robbed. That’s packing a lot of information into two verb tenses.

The issue with these various verb tenses is that they get misused, or they’re used when not needed. They use extra words and pad the writing. My personal preference is more direct writing with as few words as possible (not that you can tell from this blog post). I like to reserve the more complex verb tenses for the times when they are truly needed.

To complicate matters even more, all these recommendations change slightly if you’re writing in present tense.

Remember that each verb tense has a specific use. Sometimes more than one tense can work, depending on exactly how you want to portray the actions to readers and the surrounding context. There are lots of ways to use them incorrectly, and there are ways that are technically correct, but tend to water down the prose, especially if used too frequently.

Nov 12 2012

Cart? Horse? When to hire an editor

Here’s some unsolicited advice from an editor to writers. I’ll start with a message I receive way too frequently (a composite paraphrase of multiple emails here):”Dear Robb, I found your website (or were referred to you). I have spent the past 6 months (or year, or 5 years) writing my first novel. It is a 150,000-word epic saga, the first of a planned trilogy. I have decided to self-publish, and have set a launch date, have a book-signing event set up, ads on Facebook promoting the upcoming debut, and the cover art designed. The launch date is set for the first of next month. Would you be able to edit my manuscript by next week?”

Um. No. Cart? Horse?

If you spend six months or six years writing a novel, plan for the editing and revision process too. Make sure you have completed the editing and revisions, and that you’ve had a thorough final proofread done and complete before you announce a launch date or start submitting to agents and publishers. If you’re self-publishing, you’re setting your own deadlines. Why set it up so that you don’t have adequate time for revisions and editing?

An editor may be booked up with work for weeks in advance. So you’re out scrambling to find an editor who happens to have an opening next week. Hmmm. An editor with no work on his schedule? It happens to all of us at times, but any editor who has been doing it for a while and has a good track record probably isn’t sitting around hoping a new customer walks in the door because they have no project scheduled for next week.

Once the editor begins works on your manuscript, how rushed do you want him or her to be? Or do you want your editor to take his time and be thorough? Allow your editor at least a month to spend on it. At 150,000 words, maybe two months.

When the edits have been completed, how much time do you think you should spend going through those edits? A day? A day and a half? Maybe you should plan on at least another month to make the edits and revisions. Maybe you’ll have questions for your editor and will need to have conversations back and forth to figure out the best solution for a particular issue. Maybe you need to plan for more than one edit of your manuscript with a series of revisions to be made.

Why the rush? You’ve spent hours and weeks and months and maybe years to craft your story. Take your time with the editing process and put out a product you will be proud of and readers will enjoy.
There’s no benefit to publishing it a month or two earlier rather than a month or two later, especially if your book is considerably better a month or two (or six) later.Take a breath. Horse. Cart.

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Mar 11 2012

Never use an adverb!

If you’ve been writing fiction for more than a day, and have ever read a writers’ magazine, visited a writing website or blog, attended a writing critique group, or taken a college course in creative writing, you’ve probably heard this rule.

Here’s a good piece of advice: Anytime someone says ‘Always do this’ or ‘Never do that’ when it comes to writing, that’s a good time to tune them out. The only hard and fast rule to writing fiction: Never bore your reader.

But like many of these alleged rules and regulations for writers, there is a kernel of truth packed away underneath the prose fascist’s pronouncement.

Most of the time, these never-rules have morphed over time through misinterpretation, like the children’s game of gossip or telephone. What started as good advice to help keep novice writers from falling into the most common novice writer mistakes has transformed into dictatorial fiat by the literazis.

Adverbs are an easy place for novice, or even more experienced, writers to slip into lazy writing habits.

The problem is obvious in many beginning writers’ manuscripts. The problem isn’t that they’ve used an adverb. The problem is that they’ve never met an adverb they didn’t like. If a sentence feels flat—add an adverb! If one adverb is good, two must be better! There’s no adverb in this sentence—get one!

Adverbs aren’t wrong. They’re just weak. There is usually a better verb that conveys the image the writer wants to show, a verb that doesn’t need an adverb tacked on in an attempt to make a boring verb interesting. It’s like dressing a Chihuahua in doll clothes. Just get a more interesting dog, like a Basset hound or a Siberian husky or an Australian shepherd.

“I quickly ran home.”

Boring. Maybe “I sprinted home.” Or “I dashed home.” You’ve got dozens of choices more interesting than ‘ran’ that don’t need to be shoved into an adverb like Panchita into a Cabbage Patch dress.

One of the most common offenders of the ugly adverb syndrome is the dialog tag (he pontificated wisely). Dialog tags will be the subject of a blog post all to themselves in the near future, but if you’re adding an adverb onto your ‘said’ or ‘asked’ more than, oh, let’s say twice in a 100,000-word novel, you’re probably overdoing it. It sounds amateurish. Really, it does. Get over it.

“Wh-wh-what do you mean by that?” he stammered haltingly.

Is there any other way to stammer other than haltingly? In fact, why do you need to say ‘stammered’ since the dialog clearly shows th-th-the character stammering? You don’t. Lose it.

So when can you use an adverb? That’s easy.

When it’s right. When the adverbly verbed combination says exactly what you want to say, you’ve got the adverb in the right place for the right emphasis, and you’ve used them sparingly throughout your story. Adverbs, like adjectives, are a pungent spice. A little goes a long way. You can use them more than never, but less than distractingly, irritatingly, obnoxiously frequent.

And now a quick note on adverb placement for when you do use them—say, zero to twenty times per novel (okay, twenty-five if you’re writing an epic historical saga trilogy, or ninety-seven if you’re writing category romance or erotica). As a general rule, place the adverb closest to the word it modifies. This is especially true if it’s a complex sentence with two or more verbs or a prepositional phrase. Otherwise, you can change the meaning of the sentence. Consider these two sentences:

I nearly lost all of my money.

I lost nearly all of my money.

Example number one, nearly modifies lost. Something happened in which I came very close to losing all of my money, but thank goodness I didn’t lose it. I still have all of my money.

Example number two, nearly modifies all. Something happened in which I lost most, but not all, of my money.

Does the adverb go before or after the verb? Unless it changes the meaning, it doesn’t matter. Go with the one that sounds best. Putting the adverb first can change the emphasis of the sentence to the adverb.

Go boldly where no man has gone before.

Boldly go where no man has gone before.

Same meaning, different emphasis.

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It is acceptable to occasionally split infinitives.

It is occasionally acceptable to split infinitives.

The first one is the split infinitive, in case you were wondering, because the adverb comes between the two-word verb phrase ‘to split’.

So the next time someone tells you, “Never use an adverb,” remind them that ‘never’ is an adverb and they just used one.

Sep 20 2011

That word clutter

Instead of someone writing in with a question today, let’s look at an excellent editing tip sent in from Alexander McNabb. Alexander suggested this topic and graciously allowed me to use a few examples from his novel, Olives, pre- and post-editing.

Do you need to tighten up your writing? Need to cut a thousand words from your manuscript and can’t find a single scene you’re willing to eliminate? Maybe you only need to trim 14 words from your short story so it will qualify for a flash fiction contest with a maximum word count, but every single word of your snappy dialog is brilliant. 

That’s how many thats that you can delete

The word ‘that’ is a funny little word. Sometimes you can use it. Sometimes you can’t. Sometimes it’s optional, and the sentence means exactly the same thing and is grammatically correct either way.

An example from Alexander:

He’s tied into the family that you’re so buddy-buddy with.

In this sentence, the word ‘that’ introduces the relative clause ‘you’re so buddy-buddy with.’ It refers to, or is related to, the first part of the sentence – ‘the family.’ This is a restrictive clause because it describes and defines a specific family to the exclusion of any other families. Which family? That family.

But rewrite the sentence without the word ‘that’:

He’s tied into the family you’re so buddy-buddy with.

That sentence (Which sentence? That sentence!) is perfectly grammatical with or without ‘that.’ ‘That’ is optional.

NOTE: Do not use a comma before ‘that’ in this sentence structure.

Open up your manuscript. Do a search/highlight for the word ‘that.’ Often it can be deleted outright just like Alexander did in the example above.

The key is to see if the sentence is still clear without ‘that.’ Does it read smoothly? Does it maintain the right reading rhythm? If you excise ‘that’ and the sentence is no longer clear and precise, or it sounds awkward without it, then put ‘that’ back. If the word is used in dialog, and it feels more natural to a particular character’s voice to use ‘that,’ by all means keep it. But you may be surprised how many you can eliminate.

You’re probably wondering why you should go to all that effort to get rid of a few optional ‘thats.’

I checked a novel manuscript from one of my clients, a very good writer, as an example. The original, unedited manuscript contains slightly more than 100,000 words. The word ‘that’ appears 1,074 times. Deleting fewer than half of the ‘thats’ eliminated 500 words, about two full pages from a 400-page manuscript. You might be able to get your manuscript down below the 100K threshold an agent or publisher requested without having to eliminate a single riveting scene, breathtakingly vivid description of the sky at dawn, or even one line of your brilliant, pithy dialog. And no one will ever miss those 500 ‘thats.’

Sometimes you can’t just drop the word ‘that,’ but you can make other minor revisions to vary the sentence structure and not rely on ‘that’ so frequently. Even if it doesn’t reduce the word count, it helps reduce what can be an irritating repetition of the same sentence structure.

Here are a few more examples from Alexander:

Did you mean ‘that’ or ‘who’?

It’s a problem for Her Majesty’s Government precisely because we don’t like terrorists or the people that fund them.

It’s a problem for Her Majesty’s Government precisely because we don’t like terrorists or the people who fund them.

Generally speaking, use ‘who’ instead of ‘that’ when referring to people. Use ‘that’ for animals and inanimate objects.

Check your verb tense 

I had a sudden urge to flee, to strike out at him, to take any action that would affirm my right to a choice.

I had a sudden urge to flee, to strike out at him, to take any action to affirm my right to a choice.

Both of these are grammatically correct. The second version is more direct, which fits the tone of the sentence better. It also tightens the sentence by one word. Don’t think tightening a sentence by one word helps? How many sentences in your novel? Take one unnecessary word out of 25 percent of your sentences and see what happens.

General word clutter

‘Does there have to be another woman for you to rationalise the fact that it’s over?’

‘Does there have to be another woman for you to rationalise it’s over?’

I had a recent client whose writing tic was the phrase ‘the fact of the matter was that.’ Writing tics are those little quirks all writers have, and this one stood out because it was used in both narration and dialog, and by every single character. Repeatedly.

Check for passive sentences

Some of the most sophisticated deep geophysical mapping systems in the world, systems that were developed to explore for oil and gas …

Some of the most sophisticated deep geophysical mapping systems in the world, systems developed to explore for oil and gas …

If you’ve got the word ‘that’ in a sentence where ‘that’ requires a ‘to be’ verb to go along with it, BONUS! You get to cut two words from your formerly bloated manuscript.

Why bother?

Another writer/client asked me, “Why spend hours doing all this editing to eliminate a single word when readers won’t even notice the difference?”

My response, regardless of the word: “If readers won’t notice it’s missing, what better reason to get rid of it? Why was it there to start with? Don’t waste your readers’ time making them read clutter. Make every word count.”

So that’s that – one easy tip in your search and destroy mission on word clutter. Tighten your manuscript and you might save one of your favorite scenes from the editing room floor when you have to trim a few hundred words from your novel. Edit one or two of your manuscripts for the word ‘that,’ and soon you’ll start catching it in your first draft writing. Eventually, it becomes an ingrained good writing habit and automatically disappears from your writing when it’s not needed.

Th-th-th-that’s all folks.