Archive for the ‘Grammar’ Category

Passive Voice

Friday, June 12th, 2009

Writers often complain that their work lacks the sparkle or sense of urgency they would like it to have. Their characters seem languorous and unassertive, they say; their non-fiction feels timid. The solution to their problems is often fairly simple—a verb shift from passive to active voice. With this relatively minor change, characters take ownership over their actions, and ideas emerge from solid sources.

The following is an unedited passage in which the passive voice dominates. Below the unedited version is my edit of the same text. My editorial comments are at the bottom of this post.

The envelope had been left on Celeste’s table, and she was mocked by its silent presence. Little things had been left out of place all over her apartment for the past few days, and Celeste had the feeling of being watched. Celeste thought the mysterious occurrences had something to do with the explosion at her office, but her theory hadn’t been confirmed by the police. In fact, Celeste was just told that the explosion had been an accident and that the mysterious occurrences in her apartment were all in her imagination. But now, Celeste noticed the envelope on the table again. She wondered if these actions had all been taken by the same mysterious person.

The final story reads something like the following:

The envelope stood on Celeste’s table, and its silent presence mocked her. For the past few days, Celeste had noticed little things out of place all over her apartment, and she thought somebody might be watching her. Celeste suspected that the mysterious occurrences were somehow related to the explosion at her office, but the police hadn’t confirmed her theory. In fact, the police called the explosion an accident and said that she had merely imagined the mysterious occurrences in her apartment. Celeste noticed the envelope on the table again. She wondered if the same unknown person had left it there.

Below is the text with my editing marks. My comments to the author are in brackets and italicized. The portions I cut appear with a strike-through, and the portions I added are underlined. (In a normal Word document with “Track Changes,” my editing marks are in red, and my comments are in their own separate section, not inserted into the text.):

The envelope had been left stood on Celeste’s table [With this revision, the envelope becomes the agent of the action, setting up your later idea that the envelope seems to mock Celeste. You could also say, “Someone had left the/an envelope on Celeste’s table,” emphasizing the unknown identity of the person who left the envelope.], and she was mocked by its silent [Do you really need “silent”? Can an envelope ever not be silent?] presence mocked her. For the past few days, Celeste had noticed Llittle things had been leftout of place all over her apartment for the past few days, and Celeste had the feeling of being watchedshe thought somebody might be watching her. [You could make “She thought…” a separate sentence to increase its impact.] Celeste thought suspected that [I changed “thought” to “suspected that” to avoid using “thought” in two consecutive sentences.] the mysterious occurrences had something to do withwere somehow related to [“had something to do with” feels needlessly wordy.] the explosion at her office, but her theory hadn’t been confirmed bythe police hadn’t confirmed her theory. In fact, Celeste was just told the police called the explosion an accident and said that she had merely imagined the mysterious occurrences [Could you replace “mysterious occurrences” with another term, so you don’t reuse it so often?] in her apartment were all in her imagination. But now,Celeste noticed the envelope on the table again. [“But now” is unnecessary. The reader will know that you have shifted back to the present moment.] She wondered if these actions had all been taken bythe same mysterious unknown person had left it there. [I replaced “mysterious” with “unknown” to avoid reusing this adjective. Making this unknown person the agent of the action adds to the menace of the final sentence.]

[Please post your comments about this Sample Edit. To submit your own work for a free edit–and inclusion in a posting on this blog–please write to me at jane@beaumonthardy.com.]

Misplaced and Dangling Modifiers

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2009

Misplaced and dangling modifiers are common writing mistakes, and they usually manifest themselves when writers use a string of prepositional or participial phrases. The writer intends for the modifier to describe a particular word, but the modifier floats free of its intended object, muddying the meaning of the sentence. As a result, misplaced and dangling modifiers often suggest mistaken—and sometimes, inadvertently humorous—meanings for the sentences in which they exist.

A misplaced modifier, as its name suggests, finds itself in the wrong position in a sentence, perhaps modifying the wrong word. The following sentences have misplaced modifiers, which I have italicized:

The naughty boy in the hallway with the red hair is in trouble.
I never knew I had an aunt in the city named Sánchez.
The man in the river with the red striped bathing suit has a handlebar moustache.
Clenching his teeth on a cigarette, the baby cried as the evil man snatched him from his crib.

In each case, the modifier’s misplacement confuses the meaning of the sentence. The first sentence seems to describe a hirsute hallway, the second refers to a city named Sánchez, the third suggests that the river sports a jaunty pair of swim trunks, and the fourth that an infant has a nasty smoking habit.

A misplaced modifier problem is usually easy to solve. Merely switching the word order of the sentence will usually render its meaning clear, although some reworking of the sentence might be necessary.

The naughty red-headed boy in the hallway is in trouble. (While “The naughty boy with the red hair in the hallway is in trouble.” might work, it still seems to suggest a hallway with a hair problem.)
I never knew I had an aunt named Sánchez in the city.
The man with the red striped bathing suit has handlebar moustache. (Depending on the context, “in the river” might already be understood and might be unnecessary to the sentence. If “in the river” is an integral part of the sentence, some more significant rewriting might be necessary.)
Clenching his teeth on a cigarette, the evil man snatched the crying baby from his crib.

A dangling modifier is one that seems to modify a word that is not in the sentence at all. The reader is left to wonder what or whom the writer means to modify. The following sentences each have dangling modifiers, which I have italicized:

Wearing bright orange sandals, the dress looked very stylish.
Blowing out the candle, it was suddenly very dark.
Unable to solve the difficult problems, the test was impossible to do.
Driving a flashy sports car, we stood on the sidewalk in amazement.

In each of the first three sentences above, the dangling modifier begins with a participle. In all four cases, the dangling modifiers confuse the meanings of the sentences, because the words they are meant to modify do not appear. As the sentences now read, it seems as though the dress is wearing orange sandals, the candle has been blown out by some unidentified entity, the test itself is having trouble with its own problems, and the gawkers are simultaneously on the sidewalk and behind the wheel of a flashy car.

Correcting a dangling modifier sometimes requires completely rewriting the sentence. The writer usually needs to determine and express the word being modified. When rewritten in the most basic way, the above four sentences read as follows:

Wearing bright orange sandals, she looked very stylish in the dress.
Blowing out the candle, he left the room in sudden darkness.
Unable to solve the difficult problems, we found the test impossible to do.
When he drove the sports car, we stood on the sidewalk in amazement.

Of course, all of the above sentences can be reworked with more panache and linguistic style, but at the very least, their modifiers now have words to modify.

Please send me your thoughts and comments about misplaced and dangling modifiers.

The Who/That Distinction

Monday, April 20th, 2009

peoniesSome editorial fixes are quick but can make an enormous difference in writing quality. For example, writers can immediately improve their work by maintaining the distinction between “who” and “that.” The distinction is really very straightforward: use “who” when describing a person, and use “that” when describing an object or a place.

Here are some examples:

She’s the girl who lent me her biology book.

I don’t know anyone who liked that movie.

Aren’t you the one who told us to come here?

I’d like to interview a woman who has climbed Mount Everest.

This is a story that I think you’ll like.

It’s an club that I would rather not join.

San Francisco is a city that most people love.

Cauliflower is a vegetable that I eat all the time.

He’s the boy who brought the toy that squeaks.

[Please post your thoughts or comments about “who” and “that.” To submit your own work for a free edit–and inclusion in a posting on this blog–please write to me at jane@beaumonthardy.com.]