Monday, September 13, 2010
Grammar Divas in the House Today- Top Three Questions Asked
Today, I have a special treat in store. As most of you know from my blog after Nationals, I attended very few workshops. One of the ones I did make was given by the Grammar Divas, and I thought it was excellent. So, I asked them if they'd come and share some of their wisdom with you. They'll answer any grammar question you might have. So ask away.
Good morning, everyone. We’re the Grammar Divas! Two fiction writers with a grammar fetish.
As a former English teacher (Darlene Buchholz) and a professional copywriter (Annie Oortman), we get a lot of questions about grammar, especially issues unique to commercial fiction writing. When Liz invited us to guest blog here, we decided to share the top 3 questions most writers asked us.
#1. What’s passive voice and why is it such a commercial fiction no-no?
The voice of a verb shows the strength of the subject of the sentence. Not physical strength, perception strength. In English, we have two voices: active and passive. In active voice, the subject of the sentence takes the action of the verb, i.e., it is the actual “doer” of the action.
John threw the ball across the road. [John = subject of sentence, the “doer”; threw = verb]
In passive voice, the subject of the sentence is acted upon.
The ball was thrown by John across the road. [John = subject of sentence; was thrown = verb]
Passive voice is not any use of “to be” (in any form). (Raise your hand if you’ve had an editor, contest judge, or critique partner circle every was in your manuscript and mark it “passive.” Yeah, us, too.) For a sentence to be officially written in passive voice it:
MUST Have: A form of “to be” + a past participle. (Think a verb form ending in –ed that expresses completed action. Exceptions? Paid, thrown, bitten, and driven.)
The ball was thrown by John across the road. [was = form of “to be”; thrown = past participle]
And MUST Have: A receiver of the action that is the subject of the sentence.
The ball was thrown by John across the road. [John = receiver of the action and subject of the sentence]
And MAY Have: The doer of the action is in a prepositional phrase that begins with by or sometimes for. (Not all passive voice sentences contain by or for.)
The ball was thrown by John across the road. [by John = prepositional phrase that begins with by]
Passive voice is a no-no in commercial fiction because editors feel active voice is more direct, dynamic, and—literally and figuratively—active because attention is directed at the “doer” of the action. Editors see passive voice as passive writing bleeding onto the page. They see a writer writing in passive voice is unwilling to grab hold of his or her prose and commit to producing strong, aggressive writing.
(For more information on passive voice and sentences to practice on fixing passive voice, please visit our website at www.grammardivas.com.)
#2. It’s “which” or “that” for things and “who” for people, right?
Many writers get confused over relative pronouns, i.e., pronouns that relate one part of a sentence to another part of the same sentence. Think who, whom, which, that, whose.
Katie nodded at the barely living man that lay crumpled against the wall. [that = relative pronoun that connects specific information—lay crumpled against the wall—to the main part of the sentence—Katie nodded at the barely living man.]
Some of you are probably saying, “That is wrong. It should be who. Everybody knows who is used for people and which and that are used for things.”
Who is correct; however that is also correct. As a relative pronoun, that is defined in all modern grammar books and all dictionaries as referring to either the person or thing mentioned or understood. Modern grammarians agree it’s a matter of choice by the writer.
You may consider that used with people as informal. It may sound informal to your ear, especially if you learned it that way in school. But, you’ll find the word that in formal writing—correctly—on many an occasion, from magazine articles to lessons in textbooks to formally written speeches.
If you choose not to use that for formal expository writing, you would be reflecting your author voice. But don’t forget to allow your characters to think and speak informally in your fiction writing.
#3. When do I use a comma and when don’t I?
Here’s the quick answer: If you think a comma belongs in a sentence, but can’t justify it with a comma usage rule, leave it out.
If that didn’t thrill you, maybe this will: Of the hundreds of rules about correct comma usage, you only need to know six of them for 99% of commercial fiction writing purposes.
Rule #1: Use a comma with an introductory element, i.e., a word, phrase, or clause before the main part of the sentence. The element usually tells something about the main clause.
When the waltz was over, Ewan released his partner.
Rule #2: Use a comma to set up a strong contrast. Key words to look for include but, yet, not, or never.
Carmen, never the subtle flower, forced Lord Sagemore to her.
Rule #3: Use a comma before a coordinating conjunction (and, but, for, nor, yet, or, so) that joins two independent clauses.
Anne wants a life of freedom, but her father wants to use her as a pawn in marriage.
Rule #4: Use a comma to separate consecutive adjectives.
He was one hot, sexy man.
Rule #5: Use a comma around nonessential elements that could be removed without changing the meaning of the rest of the sentence.
Carmen, twice Argon’s age, refused a divorce.
Rule #6: Use a comma to set off dialogue tags such as “she said” or “he explained.”
“Thomas confessed to the crime,” Roman said.
Wondering about the serial comma before the word ‘and’ in a series of three? Some editors want them; others, don’t. It’s up to you. However, if not using the serial comma would create confusion, use it.
Desiring dinner on the train to London, Cecily noted all meals came with salad, soup, entrée, two vegetables, bread, ice cream and cake, and coffee. [Ice cream and cake are one dessert].
(For more information on commas and other punctuation issues, please visit our website at www.grammardivas.com.)
Do you have a question about grammar? Darlene and I would like to answer it today. We’re here to help.
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