Monthly Archives: June 2015

If He Had Only Wanted to Fight: The If-Then Clause

Here’s a common grammatical mistake I see: the use of the verb phrase “would have” after an “if” clause. For example, try this: “If Sigwald would have paid more attention to his martial arts training, then we wouldn’t have lost.”

The use of “would have” in a clause introduced by “if” is always, always wrong. Technically speaking, “would have” is a conditional perfect construction, and it just doesn’t belong after an if. Because “would have” expresses a conditional mood, it is used only for hypothetical situations – such as in clauses introduced by “then.”

For example, you would say, “If Sigwald had wanted to fight the invading army, then he would have joined the other men as they swarmed the town walls to pour hot tar on the enemy.”

In that sentence, I am expressing a hypothetical: Sigwald did not fight because he didn’t want to, but hypothetically, if he’d wanted to, then we’d have found him among the ranks.

Notice that in my example sentence, the “would have” applies not to what Sigwald actually did, but to what he might have done, had the situation been different. What he actually did was not want to fight. What he might have done was join the other townsfolk. That’s why I did not use “would have” in conjunction with the “if”: we know already that Sigwald didn’t want to fight. It isn’t conditional at all.

What was conditional in my sentence was the hypothetical outcome of a desire Sigwald clearly did not possess. And since it is hypothetical, I therefore did use the conditional “would have” with the “then” clause.

If this seems confusing, remember that when you are stating in an if clause what a character actually did or did not do – break the alien’s telepathic hold, create a monstrous chimera, or fail to make it to the wormhole in time to get back to the Alpha Quadrant – do not use “would have.” On the other hand, when you are stating the outcome that then did not happen, it is proper to use “would have.”


We Don’t Want None of Your High-Falutin’ Kind Around Here: Abusing the Thesaurus

Ah, the thesaurus. Have you ever taken the time to just page through a copy? So many beautiful words! Roget’s 21st Century Thesaurus has fifty-one synonyms for the word “write” alone – such gems as “chalk,” “transcribe,” and “formulate.” The same thesaurus lists twenty-three ways to describe “controversy.” Forty-four terms exist for “literature.” And a whopping fifteen separate entries describe every permutation of the word “take,” each with its own set of synonyms.

The nobility gossiping about Abel.If, like most writers, you love words, then a book or website full of synonyms can make you a bit heady. Why say, “The nobility did not accept Abel as a member because of his boasting,” when you can say “The patricians considered Abel a parvenu because of his rodomontade”? Why say, “Barnum tended to laziness and considered deserting his post,” when you can say, “Barnum tended to faineance and considered tergiversation”?

Why shouldn’t you? Well, honestly, because doing so makes you sound pretentious and leads to what is known as “purple” prose.

Wikipedia defines purple prose as “prose text that is so extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw excessive attention to itself.”

As I’ve said before, your number one goal in writing words is to sound natural. You essentially want readers to become so immersed in your words that they forget that they’re reading at all. To that end, any words or turns of speech that you use that fit the definition of purple prose sound contrived and unnatural.

More to the point, they annoy the reader. When you write such productions as “The caliginous water reflected the assassin’s lugubrious visage back to him,” you give the impression that you’re really, really impressed with your own vocabulary and want to show it off.

In some writing classes, such as media writing, you learn that you should write for an audience of about an eighth-grade reading level. If you pay attention to the average news story, you’ll notice that most of them do this. This advice is, however, controversial, with others believing that you should not talk down to your readers.

I personally think that you can use everyday words without “talking down” to readers. As I wrote in my last article, you should always use the most precise word – but never use a word simply for the sake of how impressive-sounding it is. Does “saturnine” really exactly describe Detective Barebones or would “gloomy” convey the same impression? Do you really need to say that Hiberna “circumambulated” or would “wandered” mean the same thing?

Use a thesaurus, whether a book or a website, but don’t abuse it. A good rule of thumb: if you’re grinning to yourself over how smart your sentence sounds, then you probably overdid it. Pare that same sentence back to simple (but exact) words, and if the “smart” sentence is bad in comparison – kill it, even if it kills you.

“As Old As Methuselah”: Avoiding Overused Words In Writing

When writers are drafting a work, they often use the first word that comes to mind to describe a reaction, situation, person’s appearance, and so forth. This is natural and is actually helpful for your creative flow, for when drafting, you should never stop writing just to to look up more fitting words. Methusaleh

Unfortunately, the first word that usually comes to mind is often the easiest and most overused word. Thus, in first drafts, a lot of overused phrases and worn-out, inexact words show up.

Why is this a problem? Familiar, common words and phrases don’t strike the reader as anything to pay attention to, and so they don’t paint a picture. And in writing, your word usage should aim to create a clear, specific image for your reader to hang the scene on. A word should be, as one writer put it, “as precise as a telephone number.”

Take a look at this passage.

Under the watchful eye of Edric’s sorcerer, all outside magic was forbidden. But Winifred knew she must seek out the witch who lived alone in a hut at the edge of the dark forest. To get to the witch, she had to follow the old deer trail that led to the forbidden brook. Then she must follow the babbling brook through the dark forest until she reached the clearing. The witch’s hut had withstood time there, and the witch herself was as old as Methuselah.

Personally, I don’t think that this is very descriptive. I used some colorless words, such as dark and clearing. Some overused phrases, such as watchful eye and babbling brook, show up. And my description of the witch’s age isn’t that inspired.

In a draft, of course, I’d want to leave all of this alone and just write. But when I come to the editing stage, I’d want to change this description.

Let’s see what I can do with that paragraph.

Under the tyrannical scrutiny of Edric’s sorcerer, all unapproved magic was forbidden. But Winifred knew that she must seek the help of the witch who lived in exile with only her owls and rabbits in a crumbling hut at the edge of the gloomy forest.

The way to the witch lay along the almost-overgrown deer trail made in the last age, which then led down to the brook. Edric had long forbidden his subjects to cross the brook, which bordered his rival Lyall’s lands. Winifred would then follow this brook, with its white eddies breaking against limestone outcroppings, through the twilight woods until she reached the fire-razed clearing.

The witch’s hut had occupied that clearing since the last age, since even Winifred’s grandmother was a child. And the witch herself had been born before even the memory of magic.

This is better and more descriptive. The overused phrases have been replaced with specific descriptions, and I’ve described the witch’s age in a way that lets the reader know that she’s ready for Medicare.

Again, invention in the drafting stage should be left to the plot. But in the editing stage, writers should always seek to use their imaginations to choose the clearest, most precise words possible. However, just because you have a thesaurus doesn’t mean you should overuse it – and in my next article, I’ll discuss just that kind of abuse of the thesaurus.