Break the Rules!

Three pieces of grammar advice you often hear are three don’ts:

  • Don’t begin a sentence with a conjunction.
  • Don’t split infinitives.
  • Don’t end a sentence with a preposition.

But how hard and fast are these rules? And do these so-called grammar experts know what they’re talking about? ☺

Writers, especially fiction writers, break rules for effect or clarity. I do, and I’m The Grammar Cop!

The argument for avoiding conjunctions at the beginning of a sentence is that it creates a fragment. Hello? We use fragments all the time for effect. As long as it’s done well, and it is clear, a fragment is legal.

And that was that. Finished. Over. She handed him the engagement ring then stomped away.

Ending a sentence with a preposition isn’t illegal, either. In fact, it often makes more sense.

That is behavior up which I will not put is awkward and distancing to the reader. That is behavior I won’t put up with works better.

Split infinitives should usually be avoided. Would this sentence have worked better as split infitives should be avoided usually? Not for me. That isn’t how most of us speak, and our writing should be in our voice. After all, we writers are telling a story.

Remember, make your language readable. Anything that pulls the reader into your story is acceptable; anything that jars the reader from your story is not. Happy writing!

Me, Myself, and I–Don’t Overthink It.

Avoid confusing the subjective and objective pronouns by breaking down your sentence to the subject-verb basics. For instance, which of the following is correct:

He scooted into the booth and crowded Elaine and I against the wall.

He scooted into the booth and crowded Elaine and me against the wall.

If you chose the first example, you’d be wrong. Many writers overthink the I versus me. I suspect it’s from stern parents or teachers who correct children using “me” as the subject. “Can Andrew and me watch TV?” is often answered by “Andrew and I.” If you suffered a childhood of this, you may be afraid to use “me” at all!

In the above example, however, the pronoun is the object of the action, not the subject, and “me” is correct.  Isolate the pronoun to its basic construction and you have He crowded me. When in doubt, deconstruct the sentence.

That covers me and I, but what about myself? Myself usually is a superfluous pronoun. I could go the rest of my life without using myself in a sentence. That’s not to say it’s wrong, but use it with care. 

Entitled and Titled

I saw this on TV. I’m not making it up. A headline read “Casey Antony’s attorney pens book entitled Presumed Guilty, Casey Anthony: The Inside Story.”

Why do people confuse title and entitle? Entitled means deserved or earned. Although the author may have earned the right to write the book, he didn’t entitle it. He titled it. He gave it a title.

If entitle and title trip you up, remember it this way: If you write a book, you’re entitled to title it. (Of course, the publisher is entitled to re-title the book after you sign the contract).

You’re entitled to leave a comment. Happy writing.

Active vs. Passive

How often does an editor or critique partner mark your work “Show don’t tell!”? Passive writing is partly a style issue and partly a grammar one. If you understand the grammatical difference in passive and active writing, you’ll be equipped to correct your passive writing passages.

The active versus passive voice is simple to explain. Active: The subject performs the action. Passive: The subject receives the action. Here are some examples of good writing that are, unfortunately, passive.

Beth felt saddened by the loss of her beloved cat.

After Mrs. Jones was sure all her belongings were safely aboard the train, she found her seat.

He was paid a pitiful salary for the hours required of the job.

To turn these sentences into active writing, search for tell-tale passive words like “was” and “felt.” Then reword. Here are some suggestions for turning the sentences into active writing:

The loss of Beth’s beloved cat saddened her.

After Mrs. Jones verified the staff had loaded all her belongings aboard the train, she found her seat.

He earned a pitiful salary for the hours his job required.

The show-don’t-tell advice goes beyond passive voice. Overuse of adverbs and “felt” are indicators of what some editors call lazy writing. Don’t spoonfeed your readers with sentences like these:

She felt embarrassed that he’d seen her staring at him.

“Where have you been?” he asked angrily.

She was distracted with thoughts of his kiss.

Instead, stretch your writing muscles and craft stronger sentences like these:

Warmth flushed her skin. How embarrasing! He’d caught her staring at him.

“Where have you been?” He glared, his jaw rigid. Then he stomped from the room without awaiting her answer.

Her boss reviewed the quarterly goals, but she couldn’t focus. Memories of last night’s kiss monopolized her every thought.

As an exercise, go though your current writing project and search out passive sentences. Sometimes the passive voice works better and you should keep those sentences. But if they can be reworded, revise each one into an active sentence. Stretch yourself!