Monthly Archives: April 2015

When You Just Can’t Take This Any Longer

When your plot just won’t come together, when your characters insist on doing things their way, and when every last line of dialogue you write has been cribbed from Buffy, then you might think of imploring the creative Powers That Be to lend you a helping hand.

But how would you properly address them? You might think you would start off with this sentence:

“I can’t take this any more!”

Properly, though, your howl should have come out as so:

“I can’t take this any longer!”

What’s the difference? Why would you say any longer where you’ve always ended your desperate wails with “any more”?

The difference is that the phrase any more refers to amount. You might not be able to take any more (amounts of) chocolate berry blast Cheerios. You might not be able to take any more (amount) of your dog’s enthusiastic kisses. And you might not want to take any more (amount of) days getting up at dawn. All of these are amounts: any more Cheerios, any more kisses, any more days.

But any longer refers to time. If the Bradford pears have bloomed one day too many, then you can’t take the pollen any longer (in time): you’ll allot not one more day to suffering with allergies. If you’re at dinner with your parents and your father makes yet another crack about your lack of fiscal responsibility, then you can’t take his rudeness any longer (in time): you’ll never again put up with his criticism. And if you’ve been at your writing desk for nine hours, then you can’t hammer away at it any longer (in time): you’ll spend not one more minute trying to order your characters to behave.

What about your howl to the Powers That Be? Weren’t you saying that you couldn’t take one more minute of creative disorder? No: you were stating that you couldn’t take any more (amount) of your plot not coming together. You couldn’t take any more (amount of) disrespect from your main character. And you couldn’t take any more (amount) of uninspired dialogue. And when you can’t take any more (amounts) of that, then you can’t take it any longer (in time).

How Many Pod People Are There? None of Us Know!

None is a noun that gives writers no end of trouble. Is none a singular noun or a plural noun? Does it take a plural verb or a singular verb?

Take these sentences, for example:

None of the pod people knows we have a plan to blast them all back to Titan.
None of the pod people know we have a plan to blast them all back to Titan.

Which of these sentences is correct? The subject in each sentence is none, so the verb know must agree with it. You know that, of course.

What you may not know is that both are correct. Yes, this is actually one of those few times when there really is no hard and fast grammar rule!

Some sticklers will argue with me, of course, but the fact is, none can be either singular or plural – depending on how the writer thinks of it! Even Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary bears this out, defining none as either singular or plural in construction.

That is to say, if you, the writer, think of none as really meaning “not one,” then none should take a singular verb. If, on the other hand, you think of the word as representing a plural, then you can give it a plural verb.

Personally, I would say, None of the pod people know that we have a plan to blast them all back to Titan. You might choose the second sentence, though. We’d both be correct – and as your editor, I’d defer to you on that one.

Words, Words, Words Only An English Teacher Could Love

Back when I was a liberal arts major, I had to write papers. A lot of papers. All of these papers had a page count that we students had to meet. And every night before a paper was due, I’d usually end up anywhere from two to five pages shy of the length requirement.

What did I do? I padded, of course. Twice became on two separate occasions. If a case was because of another factor, then it became so due to the fact that. And if many scholars agreed with my viewpoint, then a large number of scholars saw it my way. With a little creative rewording, I could even stretch a paper beyond its length requirement – just to show that I really had a whizbang argument to make.

I’m sure I’m not the only one. Any writer who really learned to write through papers in college probably did this, and I even had a professor who admitted to my class that she’d done the same just to meet the length requirements of her doctoral thesis. But in the world outside of college, that sort of writing is wordy and unnecessary.

Many writers worry that if they don’t “puff up” their writing with academic flourishes such as the ones I mentioned above, their writing will sound thin and mediocre. But that’s not the case. Wordiness only annoys the reader; instead, write in language that readers are used to hearing (only, of course, with better grammar). You want to be precise, natural, and to the point.

Be merciless when you self-edit: Is it really necessary to write in the near future when soon gets the point across with just one word? At this point in time, isn’t today better?

Wordiness neither adds value to your writing nor makes you seem smarter. It just makes the writing seem forced and academic, as if you have so little to say that you have to streeeetch out the sentences (just as I did in college). Direct language is far more readable and accessible.

After all, you can’t get even the best ideas out to the world if they’re couched in language only an English teacher could love.

And Then the Werewolf Bursts In, Yada Yada Yada

Do you remember that Seinfeld episode in which George’s girlfriend constantly tells stories interpolated with “yada, yada, yada”? George feels as if he’s missing something in her stories because she resorts to this interjection without filling in the details.

In the same way, some Latin terms (such as e.g.) have become so common in English writing that we throw them in prose without really stopping to think about what they actually mean, and we assume that our readers know, too.

So, for example, you might write,

The monstrous, green octopus stretched out its tentacles and encircled the Mary Celeste, etc.

What the heck! The octopus encircled the ship and then what? Sucked the crew dry of protoplasm? Squeezed the ship into toothpicks? Gave the gang a group hug? What happened?

In writing, it is never a good idea to resort to Latin terms such as etc., et al, and Q.E.D. You may know what these mean, as well as what unimportant details you’re skipping over, but your readers won’t, and they will consider you unimaginative for resorting to these terms. Okay, so you can continue reading about the Mary Celeste’s encounter with the radioactive octopus and see that all does not end well for the crew, but why did you skip the details? Why not fill them in for the reader? Isn’t drawing the whole gory picture half the fun?

Not only that, how many people actually know what some of those Latin terms stand for? You may spend your days immersed in 18th-century philosophical tracts and can pronounce quad erat demonstrandum*, but unless the genre that you write in calls for such archaisms, your 21st-century reader (especially one for whom English is not a first language) may be confused. That precious Latin term you’ve just used may trip your reader up, waking her from the spell of your story and sending her to the computer to look up N.B.**, at which point she’ll get distracted by cat videos.

So, yada yada yada, the upshot is to always do the legwork for your reader. Skipping details or using unfamiliar Latin phrases annoys and frustrates your reader, and personally, I would rather look at cat videos than be frustrated, viz.*** by fussy language.

*”Which was to be demonstrated,” or Q.E.D.

** “Note well,” or nota bene.

*** “Namely,” or videlicet.

Whose Secret Lair Is It? Indicating Joint Possession

Imagine that I want to write a sentence indicating that a secret lair belonging to my co-conspirator Nemo and myself has been discovered. How would I indicate joint possession of the lair? Mine and Nemo’s secret lair? I and Nemo’s secret lair? Nemo’s and I secret lair? Nemo’s and my secret lair?

Correctly, I should write Nemo’s and my secret lair.

Joint possession is a construction that a lot of writers struggle with, however. But unlike the combination key on the secret lair, the construction isn’t difficult to decode.

To indicate joint possession of an object or place, first, determine who the subjects are by breaking them apart. The first subject is Nemo – that’s easy enough. The second subject is I.

This is where it gets tricky. You then replace each subject – Nemo and I — with the possessive form of each: Nemo’s and my.

The first subject, Nemo, shouldn’t be too hard to make possessive – an “s” is all that is needed. (Please don’t forget the apostrophe!) The second subject is I. You might think, then, that the possessive pronoun would then just be I, but because I am speaking of something (the secret lair) that I possess, I’ll want to make this pronoun a possessive pronoun: my.

It’s easy enough to figure out if you break up the subject as I did a few moments ago. You would never say, “I secret lair” in order to indicate that the lair is yours. Neither would you say, “Mine secret lair.” No, you would say “my secret lair.”

Thus, once I’ve broken apart the subject, I can join the two possessive forms: Nemo’s and my secret lair.

And now, I had better get cracking on moving the lair before the good guys show up.