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

#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

Do you have a question about grammar? Darlene and I would like to answer it today. We’re here to help.
Images in this post


Taryn Kincaid said...

Excellent post!

Especially love the part about passive voice.

As for commas, serial and otherwise, that seems to depend on house style these days.

Clarissa Draper said...

I have a question: In dialogue, when making a direct address, is it a must to have a comma before the name or title?

For example:

(a) "Yes, Sir," he said.
(b) "I don't know, Marge," she replied, "it's unlikely."
(c) "Do you understand, Corporal?"

I think the answer is yes but I see it without so often I'm beginning to doubt myself.


Liz Lipperman said...

Good morning, Divas and early bird writers. It's my time for a question that has to do with Clarissa's example. I see it in contests a lot.

I don't know, Marge," she replied, "it's unlikely."

I thought since replied isn't a continuing kind of word for the dialogue that "It's unlikely" should start with a capital.


Anonymous said...

Hi Clarissa!

Your question comes up often. You are correct about your examples in A and C. However, in B, you've constructed 2 sentences of dialog.

"I don't know, Marge," she replied. "It's unlikely."

For the example of splitting those quote marks, you are referring to a converstation that continues past the dialog tag but not spoken as if it were a separate sentence.

"You went to the store," said Tanya, "but you forgot to get bread!"

If you wrote that out without the dialog tag, you'd view it as two thoughts joined by a coordinating conjunction.

Yours in grammar,

Anonymous said...

Hi Taryn! You are correct about "house style" to determine comma usage. We're providing enough basic info that a writer, especially a new writer, would feel she'd polished her manuscript in a professional way before presenting it to an editor.

Thanks for the lovely compliment!

Yours in grammar,

Anonymous said...

Hi Liz--

You are right about the use of quote marks in Clarissa's example. Thanks for the assist!

BTW--I'm not really trying to stay anonymous. I can't seem to get my internet server to recognize Google or some other technical issue. Annie assures me I'm not bereft of technilogical skills. :)
I'm just glad to be getting through, even as "Anonymous!"

Yours in grammar,

Wolfgang A. Mozart said...

Thanks so much, Liz, Darlene and Annie. Having forgotten the formal rules of grammar many years ago, I sometimes rely on "gut feel" until I get called out by a critique partner. I, too, was a copywriter and business communications writer, and I have often been accused of over-punctuating my fiction. Do you have any thoughts on this?
Also, is there a definitive guide to grammar that you would recommend for my bookshelf. I currently have Pinkerton's Practical Grammar and Grammatically Correct collecting dust.
Thanks again for a great article.
(From Mary Moreno writing as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart)

Mary Martinez said...

Hi Grammar Diva's thanks for visiting the M&M's. Liz thanks for inviting them. What a great post. I will probably print it out and put it with the handout I received when I took your workshop at Nationals in DC. And I'll add the handout's I receive when you come to Utah in February. I'm excited for your visit. The Grammar Diva's will be doing an all day workshop for our chapter. I believe it is February 5th at the Salt Lake City Library. Woohoo!

Cassy Pickard said...

This is GREAT! I pretend to know my grammar, but am often caught short. I love this topic. I'm now editing my post so that I don't trip over myself!

Ladies, could you talk more about "which" and "that?" I know you wrote about things versus people, but could you also speak to how they create a sense of relationship? Also, I have a tendency to cut "that" out of my writing as much as possible' it's a crutch word for me. Thoughts?

Thanks in advance.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mary/Wolfgang!

"Gut feel" is only going to get you so far in those ever-pesky grammar "rules." (I prefer to call them tools for communication.) Because you write--and read more than Facebook text, your gut feel is probably based on school knowledge and exposure to good reading. Most of us know more grammar than we think. We can't articulate a rule all the time, but we "know."

So go with those instincts! But for the times when you need a good reference, there are several online places to go.

You can always go to, of course. And if we don't have an article on your issue, ask us a question and we'll get back with you.

Other websites to check are:

Books I'd recommend are:
The Grammar Bible
Line by Line (self-editing)

Hope this helps.

Yours in grammar,
Darlene, still anonymous today

Anonymous said...

Hi Mary Martinez!

Thanks for the compliment and the great plug.

Yours in grammar,

Anonymous said...

Hi Cassy,

"Which" is used for things, but also collective nouns where we think of them as "things." Such as:

The audience, which seemed lethargic during the first act, started waking up in the second act of the play.

Collectively, we tend to view people in an audience as a single unit and not individual people. perhaps they lose a bit of humanity in a mass like that.

Likewise, when we use "who" for animals, note that it is not with all animals, only a beloved pet:

Tigger, who has been with me througout my divorce, still knows when I need the special attention only a dog can give.

Likewise with "that." We use the word for either people or things, but when we use it with people, we seem remote from the humanity of the person:

Did you see the man that was murdered?

He's human; he's dead. Maybe we don't want to go there! So we step back emotionally.

Now then, "that" as a word you can drop: Yes, many times we can--and should--drop it. It is often unnecessary. Now you couldn't drop it in the sentence above because the clause it introduces is restrictive--meaning necessary to the meaning of the sentence. But when the word "that" is used in clauses that are not necessary, then you can usually drop it.

I was so exasperated with her that I didn't speak all afternoon.

Take out "that" and you lose nothing.

"That" as adverb, however, is again when you need to keep it for the meaning:

Never before had I eaten that many fried shrimp.

I didn't know I was that hungry.

Does this help?

YOurs in grammar,

Anita Clenney said...

Great post. I'm so glad you're here. My TERRIBLE problem is "Then". I have a lot of "thens" and I think I'm using them incorrectly at times. How is then properly used to show sequence of events? For example.

She kissed his lips, then moved lower.

Okay, this is how I want to write it, but below is how I think I'm supposed to write it, using a comma and "and".

She kissed his lips, and then moved lower.

Is this correct? Please talk about "then"!

Lindsay said...

Great and very educational post ladies.
My question regards the word 'it'. Can you use the word to refer back to something earlier in the sentence or the preceeding sentence? I seem to use the word a lot and have to go back and rewrite the sentence to get rid of it.

Edie Ramer said...

Great post! I have a question. I'm not sure how to punctuate a sentence with an interruption, like this: "The green one--" he jabbed his index finger at the offending cake "--is filled with poison."

I used to see those kinds of sentences more often, but rarely do now.

Liz Lipperman said...

Ooh, good questions, guys, and great info, Darlene and Annie.

I have another question.

I get so confused about punctuation in parentheses. I've been told you should put a period or a comma inside the phrase or word but it looks sooooooooooo wrong.

Please help.

EX: She wanted me to go with her today (like I would even consider that.)

Also, could you touch on ellipses versus em dashes? I absolutely NEVER know which one to use.

Thanks, in advance.

Grammar Diva Annie said...

Hey, Anita. Annie, the other Grammar Diva, here.

Dar wants to answer your question, but she had to step out to Mass. She'll be back with us shortly.

Yours in grammar...


Grammar Diva Annie said...

Hey, Lindsay.

“It” is acceptable to use in a sentence provided the word has something to refer back to.

If Madelyn was going to pull this wedding off, she needed it to be well-planned.

Trouble arises when “it” doesn’t have something to refer back to or the reference is unclear.

Kathy couldn’t believe it was happening.

What was happening?

Kathy could believe her groom drove off with the maid of honor.

The jury reached an agreement on Don’s penalty. However, it took a long time.

What does “it” refer to? The jury, the penalty, or the process of decision-making?

So your choices are (1) be sure “it” has something to refer back to, or (2) rewrite the sentence. My personal preference? I usually rewrite the sentence.

Yours in grammar…


Lindsay said...

Thanks. I'll rewrite.
Now my next question-Actually Clarissa sort of mentioned the question in her first comment. 'Sir' vs 'sir'. Which is correct when writing dialogue and the speaker is talking to an Army officer? I feel the word should be capitalized 'Sir'.

Mary Marvella said...

I give you divas an A+. You know I can do it!
Good job Dar and Annie.

Grammar Diva Darlene said...

Hi Anita--

Sorry it took me awhile to get back to answer your question!

Here's the skinny on "then."

"Then" tells us a passage of time.

When "then" is used as a conjunctive adverb, joining two clauses of a compound sentence, "then" needs to be "and then" or you produce a comma splice:

Immediately after the explosion, we all stood still, and then we ran for cover.

If you state this sentence without the "and," you've run two independent clauses together with only a comma (comma splice), which is non-standard grammar.

Immediately after the explosion, we all stood stil, then we ran for cover.

Sometimes we fix this by just compounding the verb:

Immediately after the explosion, we stood still, then ran for cover.

But the thoughts are weak. A main verb without it's own subject is lacking. Plus "then" by itself is NOT a true conjunction.

Editors tend to correct this and ask you to use "and then," but by no means do all of them correct this. We see it in print all the time as only "then."

People who write "literary" fiction get to use semicolons more than those who write commercial fiction (at least in romance).

The easy fix for a conjunctive adverb would be to use the semicolon:

Immediately after the explosion, we stood still; then we ran for cover.

Remember that the job of "then" or "and then" is to tell passage of time. Do the grammatical thing and let an editor determine if she wants to let you relax the standard.

Sid filled the jars with chili sauce, and then he sealed them tightly.

If you just use "and" (hoping to ignore the problem of "then"), you would also be wrong. Sid can't fill the jars AND seal them at the same time, can he?

Sid filled the jars with chili sauce and he sealed them tightly.

Nope. Not even if you get rid of the subject of the second clause:

Sid filled the jars with chili sauce and sealed them tightly.

No, he did not. He did one thing and then the other.

We laughed and cried.

Well, maybe on this one you could do both at the same time...provided the crying was largely tears and not gulping sobs.

Hope this helps.

Yours in grammar,

Grammar Diva Annie said...

Hey, Lindsay.

Capitalize “sir” when:

(1) It’s the first word of a sentence.

“Sir, the men are ready for inspection,” Sargent Monroe said.

“The men are ready for inspection, sir,” Sargent Monroe said.

(2) It’s part of someone’s title, e.g., Sir Winston Churchill.

(3) It’s a term of endearment that has become a name. (This last one is a highly unlikely occurrence.)

Yours in grammar…


Grammar Diva Darlene said...

Hi Mary Marvella--

Thanks for the compliment. We'll take that A+ any day!

Grammar Diva Darlene said...

Hi Liz--

Punctuate parenthetical expression by keeping the period on the outside (in your example). And in most of the times any of us would use parentheses.

Most punctuation belongs to the entire sentence, not the parenthetical thought:

She wanted me to go with her (like I would eer consider that).

We saw Artie (my cousin not my brother) at the movies.

These examples show how most of the time, our parenthetical thoughts act like an "aside" to the reader.

However, put an end mark inside the parenthetical expression if you need a question mark or an exclamation mark:

Jasmine (how tired she was!) fell asleep on the sofa.

No capital for the "how" because this parenthetical expression is INSIDE the body of the sentence.

When you write an entire sentence parenthetically, then you capitalize it and put the period inside the parentheses:

Carla started her new job last week. (She's an education major at McNutt University.) Her salary won't be hight, but her chances of advancement after graduation are great.

Now, actually...when you get a whole sentence in parentheses in a fiction story, consider re-writing. You're interrupting the pace of the plot with jarring parenthetical thoughts. Are they necessary? Are they necessary as an "aside"?

Your first example works, Liz, becaue it's short and your character may think like that. But perhaps, you could write it like this:

She wanted me to go with her. Like I would ever consider that.

I can't make italics on this blog, but the second sentence would be in italics, showing the interruption you're looking for. And that it was someone's internal thought because the character goes into first person, I.

Most asides can be handled rather seamlessly as internal thoughts (italics) so long as you don't have it happen every other sentence. But you wouldln't want to do that with parentheses either.

Yours in grammar,

Wolfgang A. Mozart said...

One more question, if you please:

Can you comment on the difference between awhile and a while?

Thanks so much, ladies

Grammar Diva Annie said...

Hey Mary/Wolfgang,

Awhile is an adverb meaning for a period or interval of time. (Note: for is part of the meaning of awhile, so it is unnecessary to use for with awhile.) A is a definite article and while is a noun meaning a period of time.

Grandma Stubbs asked us to stay awhile and have a cup of tea.

“Stay for a while and have a cup of tea,” Grandma Stubbs asked.

Does that help?

Yours in grammar…


Wolfgang A. Mozart said...

Oh, and if you wouldn't mind...the difference between all right and alright?


Debby Giusti said...

Hi Darlene and Annie,
Great info! Love your list of comma uses. And the info using that.

Thanks, too, for the clarification on whether to cap sir. Just what I needed to read today.

Darlene, glad your computer is working, and you came out of anonymous mode.

Debby Giusti said...

Hi Darlene and Annie,
Great info! Love your list of comma uses. And the info using that.

Thanks, too, for the clarification on whether to cap sir. Just what I needed to read today.

Darlene, glad your computer is working, and you came out of anonymous mode.

Grammar Diva Annie said...

No problem, Mary/Wolfgang,

All right/Alright… All right is an affirmation, meaning certainly, yes, okay. Alright is widely used but it’s nonstandard English.

Fallon would be all right once the sheriff told her Cody escaped the fire.

It is never all right to use alright.

Here are a couple more often misused words:

Beside/Besides… Beside means next to. Besides means in addition to or apart from; as well or furthermore.

He rested beside the stream before heading out again.

“Who was at the party besides you and Frank,” Ann demanded.

Kent had more work to do. Besides, he wasn’t in the mood to party anyway.

Fewer/Less… Fewer is for items that can be counted—cooks, ideas, Reese’s Pieces. Less is for a mass of stuff that is measured, not counted—water, furniture, clutter.

Fewer than fifty people voted against her.

Ann would settle for nothing less than unconditional love.

Farther/Further… Farther refers to physical distance. Further means to a greater extent or degree.

“I can’t walk any farther in these heels!” Arianna groaned.

Without further proof, the DA had to dismiss the case.

FYI… irregardless isn’t a word either. Use regardless instead.

Yours in grammar…


Debby Giusti said...

YIKES! The message posted twice. Now I'm having blogger problems.

Hmmm? A mystery! :)

Liz, love your blog. I'll be back.

Grammar Diva Darlene said...

Hi Deb--

Thanks for stopping by with such kind comments. I have so much trouble I have getting on blogs, you'd think I lived in East Podunk, Romania.

I'm just grateful not to be "anonymous" any longer.

Glad we could help with the capitalization, too.

Yours in grammar,

Grammar Diva Darlene said...

Oops! Parden my bad proofreading!

I meant to say on the lat post to Deb Giusti:

I have so much trouble getting on blogs...

Take this as a lesson as to why you proofread anything that goes public really, really well.

A humbled grammar diva,

Cassy Pickard said...

This is truly great. I propose, if you ladies agree, that we have a regular session with the Divas a few times a year.

Back to my question about "that" and "which," I understand the things versus people point. But I also thought the choice had to do which relationships. Meaning, "which dress do you want to wear?" "I want that one." Meaning "which meant there was choice or comparison involved, while "that" meant it was definitive. Am I messed up here?

Anita Clenney said...

Okay, I'm laughing with joy. I'm weeping with joy. You've EXPLAINED the solution to my problem, and a lot of the other questions are ones I had as well. This is a most excellent post, ladies. Thank you Grammar Divas and Mysteries and Margaritas!!!!!

Grammar Diva Darlene said...

Hi Cassy--

Sorry I din't quite get your question earlier. You are not messed up! You've listed correctly the difference in the use of which or that as pertains to your question:

Which dress do you want to wear? I want that one.

A couple other examples for you:

1)Choice, comparison or even number with "which":

Which book do I need to buy for my calculus class?

Claire didn't know which way to turn.

2)Definitive of the item with "that":

That pie tastes good.

I can see the medical clinic more clearly than that house across the street.

These differences are subtle. And most of us will use the words correctly in the above-mentioned context because we have grown up hearing English syntax. It never hurts to know why we know what we know, however! Thanks for the in-put.

Yours in grammar,

Grammar Diva Darlene said...

Hi Anita--

Grammar Divas have never brought anyone to tears before! This is a first. :)

Seriously, we're happy to have helped.

Yours in grammar,

Lindsay said...

Thank you Grammer Divas for sharing your knowledge. I wish now I was going to New Jersey next month so I could take your workshop

Grammar Diva Darlene said...


You're too kind. Thank you.

Yours in grammar,

Wolfgang A. Mozart said...

Grammar Divas rock! We'll be stopping by your Web site often.

Mary and Mozart

Grammar Diva Darlene said...

We look forward to hearing from Mary and Mozart! Thank you.

Yours in grammar,

Lindsay said...

I've already bookmarked the website on my computer and might even mark the site on my phone

Grammar Diva Annie said...

Thanks for having us, Liz. We really enjoyed it.

Join us at our come join us on Facebook--!/pages/Grammar-Divas/224477588891?ref=ts--where we offer daily grammar tidbits, fun, and more.

Yours in grammar...


Kari Lee Townsend said...

Love this post, Liz! Great as always, and now I wish I HAD gone to the Grammar Divas workshop!

Grammar Diva Darlene said...

Thanks for having us, Liz.

We've had such a warm reception at Mysteries and Margaritas. Being here has been our pleasure!

Thank you Lindsey and Kari Lee.

Yours in grammar,

Liz Lipperman said...

Wow! I leave to babysit my granddaughter for a few hours and you guys, blow up our stat counter. You have gotten a lot of hits today.

Seriously, the way you explain some of thee grammar rules makes it sound so easy.

We talked about having you back frequently. I would love it if you would do that. I think our Followers would, too.

Lindsay, I went to their workshop. It as awesome, which is why I asked them to guest blog here. (Did I use which the right way?)LOL

Getting an A+ from Mary Marvella is huge, as she is an English teacher, too.

And Debby, we're so glad you found us. We always have a lively discussion going on here, and we love new blood. Keep coming back.

Annie and Darlene, I can't tell you how much fun this was. I predict I will be referring back to this blog entry numerous times to check out grammar rules. Say the word when you want to return.

Lindsay said...

Who cares which which is which and if you used which right. As long as you didn't use witch. This was a superduper blog today. One of the best you ladies have had to date.