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

Sunday, July 5, 2015

“Began to” and “started to”

I find sentences like the following one in most novels written by novice writers.

She started to run across the street.

Writers should avoid saying that someone “began” or “started” to do something or that something began or started to happen. People either do something or they don’t, and an event either occurs or it doesn’t. In the example sentence you should write, “She ran across the street.”

You wouldn’t say, “The bomb started to explode,” would you? I certainly hope not. You’d say, “The bomb exploded.”

Paul Thayer
My website