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
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