This post at Writer Unboxed is among the best discussions of the distinction between “literary” and “commercial” that I’ve seen. Donald Maass’s comparison between excerpts from two books, one “commercial,” one “literary,” makes the difference visible. This discussion ties in well with my own attempts to define “voice” and effective “world building.” Let me know what you think!
Category Archives: Writing and teaching writing
A New Yorker editor writing in the Times Literary Supplement debates a grammar textbook writer! Loads of fun. I personally think the “which” in the sentence under scrutiny should be “that.” It clearly refers to the “sourness” and “relentlessness,” and yes, these are appositives, and yes, the point following “which” is essential to the meaning of the sentence. Do you agree?
Aren’t words a hoot?
Chuck Wendig responds to a reader who finds sentence fragments troublesome (they make writing “unreadable,” in the commenter’s view). If you haven’t met Chuck yet, you’re in for a ride, though you’d best leave your Sunday-go-to-meetin’ expectations at home. I envy his verbal energy!
What I love about this post is that it celebrates the incredible flexibility of language, all the ways that writers can whip it up and lay it down and make it their own (in the great tradition of Humpty Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland!). Wendig illustrates the power of the dreaded fragment with examples from some of the greatest of writers. He reminds us that rules are the groundwork but imagination and a writer’s ear are the scaffolding that builds palaces on those placid rules.
My own caveat is that when I was teaching, so many of my students had a tough time recognizing things like fragments. Especially fragments! The lack of some kind of internal sense of what “a sentence” is may not have handicapped those with the drive and verve to become creative writers; imagination and ear may have been enough.
But I argue (and Wendig cautions) that it’s vital to learn such “basics” of language because if you don’t, you can’t make choices. You can’t switch your verbal code to fit it to different contexts, for example, to a business setting where a lively fragment-sequined style will simply be out of place. You probably can’t write that query letter we all sweat over. At least you can’t write it with confidence that you can decide when to explode on the page and when to hold back.
So many of my students hoped to be great novelists. I couldn’t help worrying that without the ability to choose the linguistic strategies they needed in a given context, they would be handicapped if the whole great-novelist thing didn’t come off. As it so often doesn’t . . . at least not as fast as we’d like it to.
Do you agree with Wendig? What is your fragment strategy? Do you have a favorite “fragment passage” to pass on?
I’m curious what people think because I am on the fence. Unlike ending a sentence with a preposition, these are not nonsensical non-rules. And unlike using “who” when “whom” is technically called for, they’re not completely invisible—or are they? That’s my question: If you were advising a beginning indie author wanting to self-edit, would these go on your “must know” list?
In fact, very well-credentialed writers do ignore them. Is that enough to move them to “okay to ignore”?
I’ll start with one that seems to have been ripped up and stomped on:
The dangling modifier.
I recall the first time I heard a dangling construction on an episode of NPR’s Nova. What??!! Since then, I’ve seen so many of these that if I had a penny for every one, I could pave my driveway in copper.
The pattern’s ubiquitous.
“An accomplished author, her books have sold millions.”
“Long known for her steamy romances, her fans number in the millions.”
“His heart broken, the loss of his lover left him devastated.”
“Running across the street, a car almost hit me.”
Does only an ex-English teacher shrivel inside her arid little syntactical shell when the modifier doesn’t modify the noun or noun phrase that immediately follows? When it’s not her books that are an accomplished author? When it’s not her fans that are known for her books? When it’s not the car running across the street?
It’s not that readers can’t make out what goes with what. Is it only an ex-English teacher who shivers in delight when parts of sentences link together so precisely that they’re like the rocks in Inca walls—you couldn’t force a needle between them?
It’s amazing how obviously problematic these seem in isolation. Yet, zoomed over in texts, it can be hard to catch them. (Hah! See?)
But readers know what’s meant perfectly well, don’t they? So what’s the fuss?
I just saw “laying” when it should have been “lying” in a book I deeply respected. Which editor’s job is it to catch this? Am I silly to care?
I’m going to make the radical claim that the English language has decided. “Lie” and “lay” in the progressive tenses (she was lying/laying, he is lying/laying) are interchangeable, as they are in the simple past (he lay/laid down). Let go of it, you hyperventilators! The distinction has deserted you.
Or has it? Is it worth fighting for?
If you look this one up online, you’ll be told that you “complete” a comparison by making sure to state what is being compared with what. In other words, it’s “incomplete” if you say that “Painkiller X is better.” You must say better than what. Nor can you say, “Product X has the most nutritious ingredients.” You must designate the category in which nutritious ingredients are being measured. The first hits in an online search tie such “incomplete comparisons” to misleading advertising. These hits are correct: We do hear claims like these all the time. But they’re fairly easy to spot if we’re looking.
However, here’s what seems to be a more subtle form of incomplete comparison, given how often it pops up:
1) Education in Europe is a lot cheaper than the United States.
2) The restaurants in Louisville are better than Cincinnati.
3) My friend’s grammar skills are better than some English teachers.
Here’s a sentence I read this morning in an academic journal (I have changed some relevant nouns lest some enterprising soul try to figure out where it came from):
My years as a low-wage employee have been a lot better than some others at many locations.
Now, one could make the case, given the exceptional level of literacy this writer demonstrates throughout the article, that “some others” here refers to “years,” not other, comparable employees. If the referent is “employee,” however, the sentence would have to read (with the “understood” parts in brackets):
My years as a low-wage employee have been a lot better than [they have been] FOR some others at many locations.
Would you have read this sentence as I did? Would you have revised it, possibly to clarify the referent? What about the others above (1-3)? Would they have jumped out at you if you weren’t looking for them?
And then there are these:
Each of these, in some camps, is wrong. Yet I bet we read over them as often as we catch them. So. . . if you were editing your own work or your critique partner’s, would you flag these?
Neither of us are going to be there.
The data explains why the theory is wrong.
McDonald’s raised their prices again.
None of us like making mistakes.
Today: Ernie’s Writing Journey
If, like me, you go through stages in your writing career where you feel isolated and in need of connections with other writers, you may have sought out a writing group–or perhaps even considered starting one. Of course, online resources let us share our writing and collect tips from a plethora of experts. But these tips can be generic, not specific to our needs, and even strong online critique groups can suffer from the limitation of all online “teaching”: the loss of body language and verbal cues and the difficulty of eliciting immediate responses when we have questions about a comment or need follow up.
Recently I’ve read and shared several posts about writing groups, and I’ve written before about my group and how I value it. Some commenters have mentioned joining groups that folded or that didn’t work for them. I realized that my group, Green River Writers, based in Louisville, Kentucky, is an example of a group that has held together for decades. What exactly does make for a successful, long-lived writing group?
One important factor in the group’s longevity and success is its founder and president, Mary “Ernie” O’Dell. I cornered Ernie to learn about how the group began and why it has succeeded.
Today’s post introduces Ernie and her journey as a writer—a journey many of us can identify with in some ways.
A little about Ernie
I immediately asked about one thing I’d often puzzled over: where “Ernie” came from.
It comes from Mary Ernestine O’Dell. Dad’s name was Ernest Forbis Houck. I was named after him and his friends called him Ernie, so when I got in junior high, and was asked what my name was, I said Ernie. So that’s where that was born.
Three of Ernie’s novels have been published by Turquoise Morning Press in Louisville: Cyn, The Sweet Letting Go, and Banger’s People. I asked Ernie about the settings and ideas that fed into her books.
I grew up in West Virginia and the southern and eastern Kentucky region. All the books have the flavor of that region; two of my books involve the West Virginia coal-mining industry: Cyn and the one I’m working on now, which I’m calling “Hope” for the time being. [Hope is one of the main characters, a high-schooler who lives with her older sister Lily and their parents and siblings in a coal-mining town just at the outbreak of World War II.]
Cyn takes place in the neighborhood of little row houses where my daughter became friends with the next door neighbor when they were seven or eight. The opening scene, the little girls in the elderberry bushes getting elderberry stains on their clothes, that was me: I would play in the bushes behind our house with my little cousin and get stains on me and my mother would not like that.
The interesting thing about Cyn was that I wrote in five different points of view. When Sheri McClaren, my mentor, read the first draft, she loved all these characters except the little girl’s father. She needed to know why the child loved him, because she wouldn’t have loved him if he had been her father. So I had to go back and rewrite the little girl’s father, and in doing so I had to figure out where I found him, who he was, and why he was so judgmental and vindictive. I discovered that he was my first husband who was a minister for some years. Then I had to find out why this fictional person would be this negative. I made him the son of an alcoholic and youngest son of three brothers, two of whom were alcoholics; they all made fun of him the time. I had to really deepen his character so he wouldn’t be such a bad guy that no one would care about him.
I wrote The Sweet Letting Go a few years after my second husband (my real husband) died of lung cancer. I was his main caretaker, but I didn’t want to make it autobiographical. I turned the whole thing around to make the female the one with the serious illness with the male as her caregiver.
Ernie’s Writing Journey
Ernie’s writing career began during her career as an elementary teacher in Louisville. Continue reading
Here are some “grammar” rules you DON’T need!
That is, rules that aren’t even really rules. And even if they were rules, they’d fall into that category Joe Williams created of “rules” that are more noticeable and disruptive when they are followed than when they aren’t, because they’re alien to the way most of speak and write.
Of course, if you could see into the innermost grammar hearts of all those agents and editors to whom you direct your missives, you would find people who cringe every time you fail to observe one of these mythological rules. My point is that convoluting your prose to avoid them, or obsessing over them to the point that your creativity begins to ice over, is counterproductive. In these cases, let your natural ear as an English speaker rule.
Here they are (I’ll probably come up with others and invite you to submit your candidates):
Beginning a sentence with “because.”
Williams says that there’s no sign of this prohibition in any handbook he ever saw, and I echo that. Yet, even thirty years after Williams debunked it, my students would still cite this “rule” to each other in their peer reviews.
In my view—a pure hypothesis, I admit—this instruction arose from some teacher’s worry that clauses prefaced with “because” all too often were never connected to the necessary independent clause and thus end up as fragments. We do talk this way: “Because I said so.” “Because I don’t want to.” “Because I like it.”
It’s a fact that the minute you put the word “because” in front of a sentence, it becomes “dependent,” in need of a crutch to make sense. In conversation, the missing information is already present in the ongoing conversation. In formal Standard Written English, the missing components should be supplied in an independent clause attached to the “because clause.” “Because I like it, I often swim in the lake in winter.” (Or because I’m a glutton for punishment.)
It’s probably more natural to reverse the clauses: “I often swim in the lake in the winter because. . . .” But there’s nothing grammatically wrong with starting with the “because clause.” It’s a stylistic choice, not a grammar/moral-fiber choice.
Ending a sentence with a preposition.
I was startled years ago when, at my university, the speech communication people presented the writing faculty with a list of the things students ought to be learning in first-year writing, and the list was just a bunch of grammar “rules,” this one prominently among them. Honestly, I thought anyone teaching writing in college would have a more nuanced idea of what “writing” consists of than that list.
In order to follow this supposed rule, you have to become so rigidly formal that your efforts wave and shout from the page. “Who were you talking to?” becomes “To whom were you talking?” Or say you’re synopsizing in a query and you need a sentence like, “His daughter was the only person he’d confessed to.” Is it really better to write, “His daughter was the only person to whom he’d confessed”? It depends entirely on how “formal” you want to sound. Personally, I’d probably find a way to “write around” this conundrum, but I’m making a point. (We’ll get to the who/whom issue soon enough.)
There’s a very famous example of the preposition-at-the-end issue often attributed to Winston Churchill. Supposedly he responded to an editor’s efforts to eliminate terminal prepositions with a note: “This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.” (My dad loved to quote this at me.) For a lively discussion of this supposed quote, see this post by Geoffrey K. Pullum at The Language Log. This post claims, from a reputable source, that the rule that you can’t end a sentence with a preposition “was apparently created ex nihilo in 1672 by the essayist John Dryden.” The post gives several other examples of smart choices in which the preposition stays where it wants to, including a discussion of the kind of English verb that includes words generally defined as prepositions, such as “put up with.” Separate these at your peril.
I’m old enough to remember expletives fired at the epithet for Star Trek as it shifted into warp speed: “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” Eeek! Split infinitive—separating the “to” from its partner, “go,” which together create the “infinitive” form of the verb, which in English is created exactly this way: a main form of the verb plus “to.” To eat. To see. To write. If you’ve ever taken a foreign language, say Spanish or French, you also learned about infinitives, the more-or-less “base” form of the verb: estar, hablar, manger, sortir.
You’ll note that these infinitives belonging to “romance languages” (not because they’re sexy but because they come from “Roman” or Latin ancestors) are one-word infinitives, not two-word infinitives as in English. At some point, some upmarket grammarians decided that Latin was a more “advanced” or “noble” language than English; English needed to be elevated by becoming more like Latin. You can’t split an infinitive in Latin, for obvious reasons; so you shouldn’t split one in English either. I guess you’ve noticed how much better English sounds as a result of this rule.
Or does it? Does “To go boldly where no man has gone before” really sound better? Not to my ear. One of the reasons the revised version clunks is that the original, “to boldly go,” is in “iambic pentameter,” the poetic meter most natural to English—in fact, the one used by Shakespeare. Here’s a nice account of the rule and advice about (not) applying it.
The upshot: listen to your sentences. Put the adverb (the “boldly”) and the preposition where they most want to go.