Monday, October 21, 2013

Present? Past? Make up your mind!

"With one hand she takes the ice cream cone, and with the other, she grabbed her purse."

What's wrong with this sentence?

If you say, "nothing," then I have a feeling you are not going to get the point of this blog post. If you say "present and past tense are both used in the same sentence for no apparent reason" -- BINGO! You got it.

"Take" is present tense; "grabbed" is past tense. I suppose it is possible that I am the only reader in the world who is confused/bothered/annoyed by this, but I doubt it. Even if you don't know the names of all the tenses and their uses in English, the above sentence very likely interrupts the flow for you, causing you to mentally stumble.

As a writer, you don't want your readers to stumble. If you are writing fiction, you don't want to interrupt the flow of your story or pull the reader out of the mood you're trying to create. Although there may be individuals who don't notice tense changes, you are really limiting your potential fan base if you play fast and loose with tense.

I am currently reading a sample from a self-published novel in which the writer jumps back and forth from present to past tense within scenes, within paragraphs, and even within sentences. I have whiplash by the time I get to the bottom of a page. There is a very good chance that I will not keep reading this book even though the story line and characters are compelling. It just isn't worth being jerked around like that.

There are reasons for using present tense and reasons for using past tense. In order to decide which is best for a particular piece you are writing, you can try both. But in the final product, please be consistent. Choose one and stick with it.

Oh -- and as Linda points out below in her Comment -- that second comma needs to go. I am usually much better these days about not overusing commas, but sometimes old habits are hard to break!

Saturday, July 27, 2013

About Those Sentence Fragments.

I am reading a novel by a best selling, agented, traditionally published author who shall remain nameless. This book -- along with two others I have read by this author -- has enough goofs to make me wonder whether a proofreader or copy editor ever went through it. Specifically, I am seeing too many instances where a sentence contains a word that doesn't belong there, possibly due to the author (or editor?) changing the way the sentence was phrased and forgetting to delete a word from the previous construction.

What bugs me even more about this author is the overuse of sentence fragments in the narrative sections of the book. Not sure what a sentence fragment is? Consult these web pages:

A strict grammarian might insist that one should NEVER use a sentence fragment in professional writing. In my opinion, this is a rule that can and should occasionally be broken as long as the writer is doing it deliberately to achieve a specific effect and as long as it is not done too often in a single piece of writing.

Ah ha. There we are. In the novel I am reading, the author clearly has the "chops" (if you will) to break rules as she sees fit. Unfortunately, by using so many sentence fragments, she destroys any effect she might have been trying to achieve with them. Her prose comes across as choppy. The frequent fragments are almost certain to distract educated readers from the fascinating story, compelling characters, and anything else the book has going for it.

Of course, there are readers who won't even notice. I understand that. Maybe this author (and/or her editor/publisher) is fine with appealing to that audience alone. However, those readers who do notice are likely to be turned off.

My advice to writers: Don't join the Frequent Fragments Club!

An important exception: Dialogue. A whole lot of people speak in sentence fragments. It sounds and is natural. In fact, you can make a character stand out by having him or her speak only in complete sentences!

Friday, June 14, 2013

Back to Square One: A Shape Poem

There's nothing like working (make that playing) with children to spark one's creativity. I am currently doing creative writing "enrichment" activities with two home-schooled children. Our focus right now is on poetry. We've been talking about shape poems (or "concrete poems" as they are also called). I have always enjoyed writing poems that have to fit a certain form or "shape" of one kind or another, and so I offer this little gem for your amusement. It's called Back to Square One.

"Back to Square One" by Scotti Cohn

I tried to walk to France today
I turned a corner along the way
I ambled and rambled and hippety-hopped
I hurried and scurried and bippety-bopped
I turned another corner then
And walked until I don't know when
I turned again and what a shock:
I'd only gone around the block!

Monday, April 22, 2013

Who? Whom? With Whom? Who With?

Lately I have been seeing a construction that really bugs me. It involves the use of "whom" and ending a sentence with the preposition "with."

Example: "Whom should we sit with?"

(1) I am well aware that language rules have changed since I was taught not to end a sentence with a preposition. It is now acceptable to do so whenever you want. This helps us avoid such peculiar constructions as those provided by Oxford Dictionaries. The statement above would become "With whom should we sit?" Oddly, that sounds better to me than "Whom should we sit with?"

(2) I am very well educated in the use of "who" vs "whom." In the above example, "whom" is correct.

So, why does this construction bother me so much? I think maybe it is such an awkward blend of "correct" and "formerly incorrect" usage. I liken it to wearing a tuxedo jacket and shirt (whom) with hiking shorts ("with" at the end of the sentence).

The fact is, "Whom should we sit with?" is correct usage.

My final answer: I will be quite pleased when we stop using "whom" altogether. It sounds stilted and people struggle way too much with trying to choose between "whom" and "who."

There. I feel much better. Now, whom should I have lunch with? (sigh)