Sunday, December 13, 2015

Who and Whom

Deposit this statement into your memory bank:

Who is the subject, and whom is the object in a sentence.

The subject of a sentence is a noun or a noun substitute about which something is asserted or asked in the predicate (the predicate is the part of a sentence comprising what is said about the subject).

The object of a sentence is a noun or a noun substitute governed by a transitive verb, a nonfinite verb, or a preposition. A direct object is any noun or a noun substitute that answers the question What? or Whom? after a transitive verb. A direct object frequently receives or is in some way affected by the action of the verb. Example:

John hit the ball.  (ball is the direct object of the verb hit)

Subject: Who hit the ball? John hit the ball.

Object: John hit the ball to Linda. Linda is the object of the verb hit.

I should define one more term: case. Case is the form of a noun or pronoun in a specific context that shows whether it functions as a subject, an object, or a possessive. We use the terms subjective case for the subject of a sentence and objective case for the object of  a sentence. 

The pronouns who and whoever are in the subjective case, meaning that they are used as the subject of a sentence. The pronouns whom and whomever are in the objective case, meaning that they are used as the object of the subject in a sentence. See direct object above.

Zzzzzzzzz . . . Right?

Wake up. There’s more.

To find the correct pronoun case in a sentence, you must determine whether the pronoun functions as a subject or an object. To do that, use these tests:

Test for who or whom in the subjective case

Example:  I wondered (who, whom) would vote.
Test:  Substitute he and him (or she and her):  “He would vote” or “Him would vote.”
Answer:  He. Therefore, because he is subjective, who, which is also subjective, is correct:  “I wondered who would vote.”

Test for who or whom in the objective case

Example:  Volunteers go to senior citizen centers hoping to enroll people (who, whom) others have ignored.
Test:  Try using they and them at the end of the sentence: “Others have ignored they” or “Others have ignored them.”
Answer: Them. Therefore, because them is objective, whom, which is also objective, is correct: “Volunteers go to senior citizen centers hoping to enroll people whom others have ignored.”

I hope all this makes sense to you so you can apply these rules in your writing.

One final point: Some grammatically correct sentences sound too fussy. If a sentence that says “We had a minister whom everyone seemed to like” sounds that way to you, then recast the sentence:

Everyone seemed to like the minister of our church.

This is fascinating stuff, isn’t it? Now you can amaze your friends by explaining the proper use of who and whom to them. I know they will thank you for that. Surely most of them have lost sleep by wrestling with the who/whom dilemma.

Paul Thayer

To reward you for reading all this gobbledygook, here’s a limerick that might amuse you:

A certain young man never knew
Just when to say whom and when who;
“The question of choosing,” 
He said, “is confusing;
I wonder if which wouldn’t do.”
— Christopher Morley

Sunday, November 15, 2015

To prologue or not to prologue?

Should you write a prologue for your novel? Maybe yes, maybe no. To find the answer, let’s begin by defining the term:


  • a separate introductory section of a literary or musical work: This idea is outlined in the prologue.
  • an event or action that leads to another event or situation: Civil unrest in a few isolated villages became the prologue to widespread rebellion.

Sometimes I pick up a book and read the prologue and wonder why the author thought it was needed. I ask myself, Does it do anything that can’t be done in the first chapter? If the prologue is all back story, shouldn’t that material be braided into the story as the plot and characters develop? Is the prologue intended only to hook the reader? If so, why wasn’t that done on page one of Chapter One, where the reader-baiting and -hooking should take place?

You may think I’m death on prologues, but I’m not. A prologue can be effective if it’s written well, with a clear view of its purpose, and if it includes significant facts that contribute to the reader’s understanding of what kind of novel this is and where the plot is heading. Furthermore, contrary to what some believe, I think a prologue can be used to pull readers into the story, to create a sense of place and time, to foreshadow events to follow, and to provide the voice and viewpoint of an important character.

Even so, I often find myself sighing with impatience when confronted with a prologue. Just get to the damn story already! I think. Show me a scene. I want to see someone doing something worth writing about. I want to hear people speak. I want setting. I want conflict. I want to know what kicks this story in the ass to get it moving.

The prologues of far too many self-published novels, especially, contain none of these things. They tell; they don’t show. The only thing they do well is extinguish any interest an intelligent reader has summoned in order to start reading the book in the first place.

That’s why I often urge new writers to deep-six their prologue. I’m pretty sure they haven’t given much thought to the craft of writing one, to its purposes and pitfalls. They just jump into the task of prologue-ing and fire away only because it seems like a good idea at the time and is an easy way to get started. All too often this results in a long-winded info dump of back story and character introduction written from the viewpoint of an omniscient narrator, that invisible godlike being in the sky who sees all and knows all, even when we’re in the shower (Yikes!). I don’t know about you, but I find no pleasure in hanging out with a bossy, faceless narrator who’s bent on force-feeding me great globs of information that are too much to digest in one sitting before the story gets under way.

Note: Reading page after page of back story and background info about people you don’t know is not entertaining. It’s more like a chore, like trying to memorize a page of a phone book or, even worse, trying to read Ulysses.

I often tell my writers this: Readers won’t be very interested in learning about a character’s background until they’re interested in his or her foreground.

How to drive a literary agent to drink

Some people say that all literary agents hate prologues. Not true. But many of them do. Here’s what some of them say:

“I’m not a fan of prologues, preferring to find myself in the midst of a moving plot on page one rather than being kept outside of it, or eased into it.” — Michelle Andelman, Regal Literary

“Prologues are usually a lazy way to give back story chunks to the reader that can be handled with more finesse throughout the story. Damn the prologue, full speed ahead!” — Laurie McLean, Foreward Literary

“Prologues often show that the writer doesn’t know where to start the story.” — Carly Watters, P.S. Literary Agency

“Almost all the agents I know completely skip the prologue and start with chapter one when reading sample pages.” — Kristen Nelson, Nelson Literary Agency

“Most agents hate prologues. Just make the first chapter relevant and well written.” — Andrea Brown, Andrea Brown Literary Agency.

I'd say 99% of the submissions I receive with a prologue don't need it. Most of the time they read (to me) like: Look at me! I can write an AMAZING scene! Oh, but sorry, you have to read 100 more pages to get to the story. — Natalie M. Lakosil, the Bradford Literary Agency.

In best-selling author Kristen Lamb’s blog (, she says that “there are a lot more reasons to NOT use a prologue than there are to employ one.” She calls prologues a big “fish head” that, in many cases, should be “cut off and thrown away.” But she also acknowledges that “prologues, when done properly, can be excellent literary devices. Yet, with a clear reader propensity to skip them, then that might at least make us pause before we decide our novel must have one.”

She identifies “The 7 Deadly Sins of Prologues,” as follows:

• The prologue is really just a vehicle for a massive information dump.

•  The prologue really has nothing to do with the main story.

• The prologue’s sole purpose is to “hook” the reader.

• The prologue is overly long.

• The prologue is written in a totally different style and voice that is never tied back into the main story.

• The prologue is condensed world-building (especially in science fiction).

• The prologue is there solely to “set the mood.”

As you can see, she’s one pro who thinks a prologue is no place for reader-hooking and mood-setting, while others think this is okay.

So when can you use a prologue? Ms. Lamb says:

• Prologues can be used to resolve a time gap with information critical to the story.

• Prologues can be used if there is a critical element in the back story relevant to the plot.

To all this I’d like to emphasize these points:

1. A prologue is not a side or back story. The best ones, IMHO, are a pivotal event that leads up to Chapter One.

2. Literary agents usually read only the first three to five pages, so if you have filled those pages with prologue material, many agents will reject (or set fire to) your manuscript without going any farther.

3. Readers tend to skip a prologue.

I have made my own admittedly unscientific survey of e-novels self-published on Amazon. After reading many samples from these books, I saw how popular prologues are with this legion of writers. I’d say that about 80 percent of these novels start with a prologue.

We probably shouldn’t rush to a judgment based on this observation, but I think it indicates something for us to ponder. Most of these prologues break one or more of the rules already mentioned. Some of the ones I’ve read should be labeled “Chapter One.” Almost all the others are info dumps of back story and biography used to set up the main story. Too many of them were so long that I couldn’t bear to read the whole thing. Will other readers feel the same way? I’m going with a yes.

So before you write a prologue, consider what I and others have said here. I also urge you to go to a library or a bookstore and analyze prologues in many published novels and see what works and what doesn’t and why. Take notes. Then reread the prologue you’ve written and decide whether to keep it or cut it. 

Like a fish’s head.

Paul Thayer
Your Book Editor

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Verbs with auxiliaries

Consider this sentence: She was leaning to the left, favoring her right leg, which was hurting now.

Here we have a verb, leaning, preceded by an auxiliary verb, was. Verbs with auxiliaries are never as sharply focused as verbs without them, because the former indicate indefinite time, whereas the latter suggest a given instant. The novelist’s goal is to let the story unfold as it happens, to keep the reader in the moment—the “ongoing present.” One thing that will help you do that is to use verbs that tell readers what’s happening right now.

The example sentence, therefore, would be more focused if you dropped the was and said “She leaned. . . .” 

Paul Thayer
Your book editor

Sunday, August 2, 2015

The perils of "-ing disease"

Many writers often construct sentences like these:
Putting down his red pen and swiveling his chair around before settling back into his seat, Max said, “Blah blah blah.”

Grabbing my arm, he dragged me into the bedroom, pinning me to the wall with his body.

Such sentences are the result of the writer’s attempt to add variety in sentence structure. That’s an admirable goal, but writing sentences with introductory verbal phrases results in shifts in temporal focus or to plain illogic by implying that more than one action occurred at the same time. In the examples above, Max did not put down his pen, swivel his chair around and settle back into his seat and say, “Blah blah blah” all at the same time. Likewise, the man didn’t grab somebody’s arm, drag that person into the bedroom and pin that person to the wall with his body. These actions were sequential events.

Another example:

Firing the hired man and burning down his shack, John drove into town.

Same error. The sentence implies that the action of firing the hired man and burning down his shack and the action of driving into town are simultaneous events. Ditto with this sentence:

Running up the stairs, he opened the bathroom door.

No one can open an upstairs door as they run upstairs, unless their arms are forty feet long.    
Notice that these sentences use an introductory participial (verbal) phrase that begins with a gerund, a verb formed by adding –ing. Beginning many sentences with a gerund used in this way is a symptom of what I call “-ing disease.”

Sentences that defy logic and time restrictions are one of the most common narrative grammatical mistakes. Don’t catch -ing disease.

Paul Thayer
My website

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Beware the run-on sentence

Any native English speaker who writes a run-on sentence is either (1) someone who was raised by wolves, (2) a tadpole in disguise, (3) a Scientologist, (4) a communist, or (5) an exiled member of an alien species. So beware. If you are any of these things, you don’t want your family to know about it.

A run-on sentence, also known as a fused sentence or a run-together sentence, contains two or more independent clauses not connected by the correct punctuation or conjunction. (An independent clause has a subject and a verb, expresses a complete thought, and can stand alone.)

Example of a run-on sentence:

Kelly likes to cook she makes something different every day.

This sentence contains two independent clauses. It expresses two ideas:

1. Kelly likes to cook
2. she makes something different every day

Writers can fix a run-on sentence in three ways:

Put a period between the two independent clauses: Kelly likes to cook. She makes something different every day.

Put a semicolon between the two independent clauses: Kelly likes to cook; she makes something different every day.

Put a conjunction between the two independent clauses: Kelly likes to cook, and she makes something different every day.

Any editor who finds more than ten run-on sentences in a manuscript will either self-implode or quit the profession and become an insurance agent.

Paul Thayer
My website

Monday, July 20, 2015

Using the semicolon

When you place a semicolon in a sentence, remember that you must have an independent clause both before and after the semicolon and that the ideas expressed in both main clauses should be closely related. Example:

I like you; you’re nice.

Also remember that the semicolon is always used before a conjunctive adverb that introduces a second independent clause. Example:

Her arguments sounded convincing; therefore, the majority voted for her.

The word therefore is a conjunctive adverb. Note that a comma always follows the conjunctive adverb.

Conjunctive adverbs include accordingly, also, anyhow, as a result, besides, consequently, furthermore, henceforth, however, indeed, instead, likewise, meanwhile, moreover, nevertheless, otherwise, then, thus, and therefore.

Most editors agree that the use of semicolons should be kept to a minimum in fiction. I wouldn’t use them at all in dialogue. The University of Chicago Manual of Style, the bible of the publishing industry, says, “Semicolons tend to be frowned upon in fiction. An editor who doesn’t allow them at all is overly rigid, however, since they are sometimes useful and even necessary.”

Paul Thayer
My website

Sunday, July 12, 2015

He spewed?

One of my clients asked me this question:

Q. Using the word said after a line of dialogue all the time seems boring. Why can’t I use more descriptive verbs?

A. Using attribution verbs like gasped, laughed, spat, croaked, rasped, barked, and even (oh God please no) ejaculated and many others of their ilk is unnecessary and redolent of the work of amateurs and writers of pulp fiction. Speakers don’t gasp or spit or laugh a line, they say it.

Stephen King agrees, calling the use of these words “shooting the attribution verb full of steroids” (page 126 in On Writing). He admits to committing that sin in the past, but declares now that “the best form of dialogue attribution is said.” Dean Koontz declares that he never uses any attribution but said, although he may have done so in the early days, as King did. Other writers and teachers, including Elmore Leonard, have also sung the praises of the simple word said.

One of Leonard’s ten rules of writing is “Never use a verb other than said to carry dialogue.” He says: “The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.”

You can use some attribution verbs other than said as long as they aren’t of the steroid-injected kind. For instance, you can use words such as shouted, cried, called, whispered, murmured, mumbled, and a few others occasionally. If writers go beyond that by using goofy steroid words or verbs followed by adverbs, they’re intruding in the story by explaining too much. As King says (page 128, On Writing) if your context is constructed correctly, “when you use he said, the reader will know how he said it—fast or slowly, happily or sadly.” So don’t write something like this: “Go to hell!,” he said angrily. Don’t add the adverb angrily. Anyone who says that is obviously pissed off.

Paul Thayer
My website