Monthly Archives: May 2015

Expletive Deleted: On Grammatical Fluff

Eradicating expletives from your writing style is one of the simplest ways to improve and strengthen your writing. Doing so not only helps your readers, but also clarifies and focuses your thoughts.

Now, I don’t mean the four-letter words. While “expletive” usually refers to the coarser type of language, it also refers to the words here, there, and it. When used as expletives, these indefinite pronouns take the place of a word or phrase that is never actually stated and that are followed by a form of the verb “to be.”

How do writers commonly use these expletives? Let’s see.

It was likely that through Godfrey’s secret experiments, the lab rat Aylsworth had grown as intelligent as a human – and just as devious. There was no reason for Godfrey to think that Aylsworth meant him any harm, but whenever Dr. Sedgequick entered the lab, the rat’s eyes grew dark and cunning, and he’d rub his paws together as if plotting.

Here is the crux of it, Godfrey thought – Aylsworth resents Sedgequick for grafting those bat wings onto him.

In the above sentences, it, there, and here stand in for subjects. While of course all English speakers understand what you mean when you use these words in the above way, their use just weakens a sentence. In fact, the word expletive actually derives from the Latin for “to fill.” And they are just that – fillers! Why not state the subject? Your writing only becomes clearer and more muscular when you do so.

Furthermore, if a reader is not a native English speaker, their use can cause comprehension problems, and if you expect your work to be translated, these sentences will have to be rewritten anyway. So now is a good time to get out of the habit of using this grammatical fluff!

Let’s see those three sentences I used above with the expletives deleted and the sentences rewritten.

Godfrey suspected that his secret experiments had resulted in the lab rat Aylsworth’s growing as intelligent as a human – and just as devious. Though he had no reason to think that the rat mean him any harm, whenever Dr. Sedgequick entered the lab, Aylsworth’s eyes grew dark and cunning, and he’d rub his paws together as if plotting.

Aylsworth resents Sedgequick for grafting those bat wings onto him, Godfrey thought.

Once you get into the habit of noticing expletives in your writing, you’ll see them everywhere – and your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to search, destroy, and blast them away.

What’s In a Name? By Any Other Name, That Rose Might Not Smell As Sweet

Naming a character well is utterly essential to creating him or her. You should never just slap a name onto a character simply because that name is the only one that comes to mind. A name can describe family background, age, historical era, and personality. As an example, let’s take a character: a rough, angry man of 40 who holds a grudge.

How would I find an appropriate name for this characters? Resources, research, and intuition.

Every era has its own set of “Most Popular Names,” so a good starting point is to look at names popular in the decade in which your character was born. For popular name lists, I like Babycenter.com — you can find lists hundreds-deep of the top names for both boys and girls for every year going back to 1800. Though of course a person can have a name considered low in popularity in the year he or she was born, knowing if your character’s name fits the era is crucial. These days, of course, you can name a baby whatever you like, but in times past, people were not always so non-conformist. You would never, for example, name a child born in the Puritan era Delilah –- unless you plan to make her an outsider!

Take the character I suggested at the beginning of this article. Top names for boy babies born in 1975 include Clint, Aaron, Michael, Carl, Donald, and Frank. Scan the list for names that jump out at you – it is often simply a matter of intuition. Does a certain name suggest one of your character’s traits to you? Do you associate it with your character? Will others associate it with your character as well?

Personally, I associate one-syllable, “hard” –sounding names with characters who are rough and angry. So for this character, I might pick a name such as Frank, Carl, or Clint.

I don’t stop there – the next thing I do is check out the meaning of the name. For this, I use the excellent The Name Book, by Pierre Le Rouzic. (Note that another Name Book, by Dorothy Astoria, exists – I have no experience with this one.) The Name Book is not organized in typical baby-name book fashion, as an alphabetical dictionary. Instead, it contains two massive lists, one of boys’ names and one of girls’ names.  Each name belongs with a certain “group,” each with what Le Rouzic calls a “pilot name.” These groups of names are organized according to the personality type that they describe.

Now, Le Rouzic’s system may or may not be accurate, but I do find it helpful for really fitting a name to a character, finding an alternate name that I had not thought of -– and even thinking up additional character traits to round my character out.

For example, let’s say I decide on the name Frank for my character. Looking up the name Frank, I see that the name can describe a person with a great temper and inner conflict. Additionally, however, I see that the name is associated with an intuitive, analytical mind, as well as with superior stamina. This does describe my idea of my character, and it also gives me additional ideas for rounding him out. What if he embarks on revenge – will his superior stamina hold out? Did he intuit the occasion that resulted in his grudge, or did he analyze the situation?

In choosing the name Frank, I made use first of all of resources. I intuitively picked a name that seemed right, and then I researched my choices to see if they fit. Of course, the most important factor here really is intuition. For that, you are your most important resource.

On Properly Narrating an Incipient Execution: Varying Sentence Lengths

In my last article, I talked about the four basic types of sentences in the English language: the simple sentence, the compound sentence, the complex sentence, and the compound-complex sentence. Now that you know what to use, let’s talk about how to use them.

The basic tenet that you should remember about sentences of any kind is that you must vary them. Let’s take an example.

As Gudrun approached Fokker Castle, she saw the soldiers forming a long, black-coated guard line, and knowing a frontal attack would fail, she wondered if the cunning woman, Ursula, had given her enough poppy essence put them all to sleep, for she knew it would be necessary to break through the line in order to reach the evil Baroness von Fokker, who had depleted the entire countryside of young virgins in order to bathe in their blood, thinking it would preserve her youthful features.

Technically, there’s nothing wrong with that sentence, but who wants to have to read long-winded sentences like that? Let’s try varying it.

As Gudrun approached Fokker Castle, she saw the soldiers forming a long, black-coated guard line. A frontal attack would fail. She wondered if the cunning woman, Ursula, had given her enough poppy essence to put them all to sleep. Once inside the castle, she must kill the evil Baroness von Fokker, who had depleted the countryside of young virgins in order to bathe in their blood, and then, she must cut the noblewoman’s heart out.

Shuddering, the young warrior woman recalled that the baroness believed bathing in virgin blood would preserve her youthful features. For Gudrun, too, was young, and she had kept her vow of chastity.

In the above example, I turned the first passage into six sentences. I included a complex sentence, a simple sentence, a compound-complex sentence, and a compound sentence. I also broke the single paragraph into two paragraphs. All of the sentences are 36 words or fewer, which is about the right length for the average sentence. And the result is much easier to read.

That’s all fine for those of you who like long sentences (disclosure: I am among you), but what about really short sentences? Should you vary those too?

Yes, you should. A series of really short sentences is good for effect, but only sparingly. For the most part, using really short sentences results in your writing having a staccato effect. Not even Hemingway, the master of the short, simple sentence, wrote this way all of the time.

Let’s take an example of a series of short sentences.

Gudrun entered Fokker Castle by the servants’ gate. She crossed the courtyard. She saw no one in the courtyard. Nevertheless, she drew her cloak over her head. She did not want anyone to recognize her as out of place. Recognition meant that she would become the baroness’ next victim.

Then she entered the great hallway. There she paused and studied her map. She had drawn the map based on information from an escaped servant. The servant had instructed her to take the far right door. That door led to the kitchen. A dumbwaiter inside the kitchen would take her to Baroness von Fokker’s sitting chambers. The trick lay in getting into the dumbwaiter. She did not want the kitchen maids to catch her.

Honestly, this is just too monotonous to work as a narrative of a warrior woman about to kill a foul murderer! Most of the sentences are simple sentences, and they come one right after another with no variation. Let’s see what we can do.

Gudrun entered Fokker Castle by the servants’ gate and crossed the courtyard. Though she saw no one in the courtyard, nevertheless she drew her cloak over her head; she could not risk anyone recognizing her as out of place. If anyone did recognize her, she would be taken to the baroness, and Gudrun would become her next victim.

She entered the great hallway, and then she paused to study her map. Gudrun had drawn the map based on information from a servant who had escaped with her life. The servant girl had instructed her to take the far right door. That door led to the kitchen. And inside of the kitchen, a dumbwaiter could take her straight to Baroness von Fokker’s sitting chambers.

The trick lay in getting into the dumbwaiter without the kitchen maids catching her.

In the above example, I used a simple sentence, a complex sentence, a compound sentence, and a compound-complex sentence. All of the sentences are relatively short, under 30 words each. This sort of variation adds interest to the paragraphs and prevents them from becoming monotonous.

Complicated? Not really. You already talk in this way – and with practice, you can write as naturally as you can speak.

From Laboratories to Bourbon: The Four Basic Sentence Types

An important aspect of the craft of writing is your ability to vary your sentence lengths. In this two-part article, I’ll first go over the four basic sentence types. Then in the second part of this article, I’ll go over how to vary them in your writing to make your writing more interesting.

Four basic sentence types exist. These are as follows:

Simple sentences. Simple sentences consist of one verb and one noun. A single noun and verb together form an independent clause.

Dr. Gimcrack exerted himself in his laboratory.

In that sentence, “Dr. Gimcrack” is the noun, and “exerted” is the verb. No other nouns or verbs exist in the sentence.

Compound sentences. Compound sentences consist of two independent clauses joined by or, and, or but. Again, an independent clause consists of one noun and one verb.

Dr. Gimcrack exerted himself in his laboratory, and every night he drank a half-liter of bourbon.

In the above sentence, one noun and one verb make up the first clause: Dr. Gimcrack and exerted. The second clause is recognizable by its own noun and verb pair: he and drank. The two halves of the sentences are joined by and.

Complex sentences. These consist of an independent clause as well as at least one dependent clause. You know what an independent clause is now, but what’s a dependent clause? A dependent clause is a part of a sentence that cannot stand on its own. It depends on the rest of the sentence. Think of it as an incomplete thought.

Every night, Dr. Gimcrack drank a half-liter of bourbon, which he bought from One-Eyed Jack down by the docks.

In this sentence, the dependent clause is introduced by the word which. You might think that this clause is a complete sentence because it has a noun and a verb, but that one word “which” disqualifies it. When a clause, even one with a noun and verb, starts with words such as which, that, because, since, and so on, then you can identify it as a dependent clause that cannot stand on its own as a sentence.

Compound-complex sentences. These consist of two independent clauses (each having a noun and a verb) as well as a dependent clause.

Don’t panic! You know what an independent clause is: a noun and verb pair that stands on its own. You know what a dependent clause is: a part of a sentence that cannot stand on its own. So, all a compound-complex sentence consists of is a couple of short sentences joined together, along with the incomplete thought that is a dependent clause. Here’s an example.

Dr. Gimcrack exerted himself in the laboratory, and every night he drank a half-liter of bourbon, which he bought from One-Eyed Jack down by the docks.

See? Not that scary of a proposition! By this point, I’d bet that you can easily identify all the clauses in the above sentence.

That’s really all there is to the four basic sentences. The key, though, is varying them in writing, which I’ll write about in the second part of this article.

To Go Boldly: On Splitting the Infinitive (Yes, Captain Picard, You Can Do It)

An infinitive, if you’ve forgotten, is the pure form of a verb: to swordfight, to fly, to escape. And Mrs. Grundy, your sixth-grade English teacher, probably lectured you time and again on not splitting those infinitives, that is, on not separating the “to” from the verb.

The result may have been more than one unnatural-sounding sentence, and Captain Picard may have said something like this: “To go boldly where no one has gone before!”

This not only sounds forced, but it’s unnecessary. It is actually perfectly fine to split an infinitive if the sentence sounds better by doing so.

So who came up with this idea? Apparently, a man named Henry Alford is to blame. In his 1866 book A Plea for the Queen’s English, he wrote,

A correspondent states as his own usage, and defends, the insertion of an adverb between the sign of the infinitive mood and the verb. He gives as an instance, “to scientifically illustrate.” But surely this is a practice entirely unknown to English speakers and writers. It seems to me, that we ever regard the to of the infinitive as inseparable from its verb. And when we have already a choice between two forms of expression, “scientifically to illustrate,” and “to illustrate scientifically,” there seems no good reason for flying in the face of common usage.

And that’s it – the entirety of his argument. He was wrong: splitting the infinitive is and has always been entirely common usage in English. Somehow, though, this got picked up and taught, and yet obeying it results in foolish turns of phrase, such as in the following example:

The wandering preacher taught the townsfolk to love unconditionally their neighbors.

Frankly, that’s just silly and pedantic. Your goal in writing is to sound natural, and attempting to split an infinitive this way only causes the reader to stumble and wonder what you actually meant.

My advice is the same as every other self-respecting grammarian’s: Save the meaning and sound of a sentence before hewing to a rule that no writer actually follows.