Tag Archives: grammar

Authors Answer 133 – The Passive Voice

The passive voice is something authors are often told not to use. But what exactly is the passive voice? Here’s a simple example.

Passive voice: The door was opened by John.

Active voice: John opened the door.

When you look at the two sentences, the active voice seems more dynamic. There’s actual movement. The passive voice is talking more about the door rather than John. In active, someone does something. For passive, something is done to something by someone or something. But is it something we should avoid using? Obviously, it shouldn’t be used when action is the focus of a scene. This week, we talk about the passive voice.

Question 133 – Do you find it difficult not to use passive voice? What advice would you give to writers who have this difficulty?

Elizabeth Rhodes

I do slip into it sometimes for reasons I can’t explain. I suppose for advice, I’d tell an author to write each sentence so that the action feels right in your face, as opposed to a distant event to witness. A tree was growing on the hill? Meh. A tree grew on the hill? Better.

H. Anthe Davis

Passive voice isn’t a 100% no-no; it has its uses here and there, mostly in formal conversation/dialogue.  I think the best way to handle it is just to study it, learn to recognize it in your writing, consider other options — and don’t press too hard if the passive way seems the only/best way to say what you want.  The English language is flexible.

Jean Davis

Over the years I’ve been trying hard to stomp out passive voice. I wouldn’t say it’s difficult not to use, but it can slip back in if you’re not watching for it. Always try to keep action and description in the present, making the character do things rather than things happening to or around them.

Paul B. Spence

Passive voice is sometimes needed. My advice is to try to not overuse it. All writers use it. Learn the true definition first, then worry if you do it too much. Sorry, the passive voice thing drives me nuts.

Eric Wood

I don’t really think about passive and active voices. Or at least not until I got this question. Now I will. I think I use an active voice. In my writing, I want to make the main character the focus of my sentences so I try to place them in the position of honor – as the subject of the sentence. For writers who have this difficulty I would tell them what I tell myself. As your story has a main character, so, too, do your sentences so keep your focus on keeping them the subject.

D. T. Nova

I don’t think I have a tendency to use it in situations where it should be avoided.

Gregory S. Close

When writing, using the passive voice is not a problem for me…

Crap!

Writing in the passive voice is less a problem than identifying later that you’ve written in the passive voice.  Sometimes, passive fits the need of the sentence.  Knowing when it doesn’t and editing it the heck out of there is the real trick.  Rules should never hinder writing.  Rules should polish it.

Tracey Lynn Tobin

I do find it difficult not to use passive voice, and am often accused of “telling” instead of “showing”. The best advice I can give for writers with this problem is simply to have good beta-readers. A good beta-reader will notice such things and be able to point them out so that you can correct them and (hopefully) be more likely to notice them in the future.

C E Aylett

I use passive voice but I don’t overuse it. I don’t believe it should be avoided, if it is what’s required at the time. Passive voice has its place in many instances and to create certain effects. Of course, it’s always worth questioning where you have used it so you can double check it makes more sense in passive rather than turning it into a more active sentence Coincidentally, I am currently composing a whole article on the subject of when it’s better to use passive voice  for my own blog (www.thestorysmith.com), which I plan to post Sunday 19th May.

Beth Aman

Sometimes!  I used to struggle with this a lot more, and then someone on Critique Circle pointed it to me, and I suddenly understood what I was doing wrong!  Advice to writers who need to work on this: do some research, get your work critiqued, and learn from there.

Jay Dee Archer

In the beginning, I found it difficult to avoid the passive. After teaching English for 11 years, I’ve become extremely conscious of the grammar I use while writing. I don’t have much of a problem with it anymore. But that doesn’t mean using the passive is bad. There are cases when it may be the only type of sentence that makes sense.

But to avoid the passive, you first need to recognise the passive for what it is. Once you do, you’ll notice it a lot more in your writing. While you’re writing, try to think about what the character is doing. If you write through the eyes of the character, even if it is third person, you’ll write in a more active way. Focus on the character’s movements, thoughts, and their senses. This should help a lot.

How about you?

Do you have problems using the passive voice when you should be using the active? What advice would you give? Let us know in the comments section below.

Authors Answer 132 – The Oxford Comma

What is the Oxford comma? I found this definition:

a comma used after the penultimate item in a list of three or more items, before ‘and’ or ‘or’ (e.g. an Italian painter, sculptor, and architect ).

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But why is it such a controversial topic? Is it important to use the Oxford comma? Is it even needed? In many cases, it’s absolutely required to avoid confusion. It’s not always needed in every list, but should we be using it? We talk about that this week.

Question 132 – Do you use the Oxford comma? Why or why not? Give your own example where you would need to use the Oxford comma.

Tracey Lynn Tobin

I do use the Oxford comma, and I personally think everyone should. For one thing, we really should have a set rule so that it stops being such a constant debate. For another, there are just too many sentences that can be turned into nonsense if you neglect to use the Oxford comma. For instance, “Let me introduce you to my boyfriend, my doctor and a rock star” describes one guy with an impressive resume, whereas, “Let me introduce you to my boyfriend, my doctor, and a rock star,” describes an introduction to three separate people.

Gregory S. Close

I think I prefer the Oxford comma.  It just makes sense to me.  There is and should be a difference between: “My heroes are my parents, Aragorn and Arwen. “ and  “My heroes are my parents, Aragorn, and Arwen.”  Unless, you know, your parents are actually Aragorn and Arwen, which is theoretically possible, I guess.

D. T. Nova

I use it most of the time. I would avoid it in the rare situation where it would increase ambiguity rather than decrease it.
“Universal Studios has rides featuring the Men in Black, Jimmy Fallon and Harry Potter.”

Eric Wood

I do use the Oxford Comma. I was taught that it was required and old habits die hard. “I have to thank my parents, Einstein and Beyonce.” It should read, “I have to thank my parents, Einstein, and Beyonce.” My parents are NOT Einstein and Beyonce and that’s how it reads without that Oxford.

Paul B. Spence

Yes, yes I do. I use it because it is the only way to write clearly and be understood. Those who do not use it will be misunderstood, misread, and the subject of schadenfreude. Note the use in the previous sentence.

Jean Davis

I do prefer the Oxford comma, however, I seem to find myself not automatically using it as often as I used to. There are so many good meme examples of why the comma is important, I think I’ll leave it at use the comma anywhere you don’t want to completely change the meaning of your sentence, like eating grandma or turning Hitler and Stalin into strippers.

H. Anthe Davis

I use it where necessary for the sense of the sentence, but I don’t use it religiously.  I actually find the typical construction pretty crude/boring; if I’m going to talk about a collection of things, it’s either going to be two for swiftness or a larger handful for variety.  Three drags on just a little too long for the first and isn’t complex enough for the second.  I wish I could search my documents for Oxford commas to give real examples, but I would use them for listing something that could be skimmed over and become confusing without a comma — say ‘She gathered red beets, greens, and white beans’ so that someone reading quickly wouldn’t think it was ‘she gathered red beets, green and white beans’.  The Oxford comma definitely has its use as a pause/break-up mechanism, but unless there’s a clarity-related reason for it, I don’t usually bother.

Elizabeth Rhodes

Yes, I use it whenever necessary. I have been told by some beta readers that it’s unnecessary, but I feel it’s a small gesture to make the writing as clear as possible. My favorite example to illustrate this is “We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin” vs “We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.”

Jay Dee Archer

I always use it. I’m in a habit to insert that comma before the “and” to avoid confusion. It makes it easier, really. If I’m always checking my list to see if there would be any confusion, it takes more time. The Oxford comma makes lists clearer.

When I was teaching English, I made up a few examples of where the Oxford comma was required and how it changed the meaning if I excluded it. I wish I could remember some of the sentences. But here’s one I thought of involving food: “For lunch, I had my favourite pie, calamari and coffee.” Sounds disgusting. Calamari and coffee pie? Or how about this one: “I enjoy taxidermy, animals and children.” Basically, I said that I enjoy doing taxidermy on both animals and children. Add the Oxford comma, then it becomes clear.

How about you?

Join the debate! Do you use the Oxford comma? What are your favourite examples where the Oxford comma would be required? Let us know in the comments section below.

Authors Answer 131 – Grammatically Difficult

English is not an easy language. It’s said to be one of the more difficult languages because of inconsistent spelling/pronunciation rules, irregular verbs, articles, and so on. But do authors find English grammar difficult? Let’s find out!

Question 131 – Which rule(s) of English grammar do you find most difficult?

H. Anthe Davis

I had a rather substandard English grammar education — I never diagrammed sentences and I didn’t know what a gerund was until I learned about it in Spanish class.  I think it was because I went to a weird little private middle school…  But anyway, since I never got rigid training in English grammar, I really just do whatever I want, and damn the rules.  Sure, I tried reading Strunk & White and other such writing advisories back when I was still honing my craft and uncertain of my voice, but adhering to strictures just got in the way for me.  I’m much happier not caring.

Jean Davis

For the life of me, I always seem to get lay and lie wrong. I blame my elementary teachers for not thoroughly drilling that into our young brains.

Paul B. Spence

English was not the first language I learned, and so I sometimes have some trouble with word order. As a follower of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, I am a living example of how language shapes the brain. My first language was ASL (American Sign Language) and so I think kinetically.

Eric Wood

Pretty much all of them. I need to make a conscious effort to make sure my tenses agree. I often have to look up which affect/effect I should use. And if it weren’t for spell check I’d never know what was spelled write or wrong. (see what I did there?)

D. T. Nova

Subjunctive mood. The rules for it basically amount to breaking more common rules in nonsensical ways, and what’s technically “correct” invariably looks wrong.

Gregory S. Close

It’s probably better to ask this question of my editor.  I don’t have any problems with rules of English grammar.  I write what feels correct at the time and then adjust later in editing if needed, based on feedback from my editor.  He picks up on things and makes recommendations, sometimes stronger than others, based on “the rules.”  But as a fiction writer, the story is ultimately more important to me.  I want to stay within the rules so that I don’t confuse the reader, and so that my language is clear and descriptive, not out of awareness of the rules in advance.

Tracey Lynn Tobin

I don’t know if there’s necessarily any specific grammar rules that I find difficult, but in general I find that I have a difficult time separating my everyday voice and my literary voice. That is to say, I come from a place where we have a lot slang and a very, shall we say…improper dialect. We do things like pluralize things that make no sense being pluralized (“I likes my coffee”) and purposely mispronounce words for no particular reason (“She’s my cousint” instead of “cousin”). While a lot of those little bits of local flavor are easy to dissect and remove from my vocabulary when I’m writing, some things tend to sneak in and are only noticed when my beta readers (who aren’t necessarily from around here) contact me to ask what on Earth a certain word or line is supposed to mean.

Jay Dee Archer

I was an English teacher for eleven years up until about a year ago. English grammar was my life. I taught it. I thought about it. I read about it. I had to know everything. What I thought I had difficulty with was conditionals, especially explaining them. But I found that I enjoyed them. I enjoyed teaching passive versus active. I was also always good at spelling, but there was one word that always gave me trouble no matter how many times I reminded myself of the spelling, and that’s embarass. Or is that embarrass? I’m so embarrassed!

How about you?

Is there an aspect of English grammar that you find difficult? Let us know in the comments section below.

Authors Answer 126 – Is It Really Possible to Stop Using Adverbs?

Adverbs are something that people love to use in everyday speech. It’s very popular. But what about in writing? Do we really need to avoid using adverbs? Honestly?

Question 126 – Never use adverbs. Do you agree or disagree, and why?

Tracey Lynn Tobin

Disagree. I will concur that many writers these days rely far too heavily on adverbs, leaning on them instead of putting the effort into creating more descriptive prose. That said, every form of word has it’s place, and you can’t just discount adverbs all together. “Show, don’t tell,” is what’s often said, and I agree with that for the most part, but sometimes what is necessary for a scene is for the author to tell the reader exactly what’s happening. For example, if the narrating character has been struck blind for some reason, they’re not going to be able to describe the facial expressions or body language of whomever they’re talking to, so saying that someone said something “sadly” is a perfectly reasonable way to go about the scene. As with any writing method, we simply have to avoid abusing adverbs and use them only when they are necessary or work better with a particular sentence.

Gregory S. Close

Never use an adverb stupidly.  (I could not resist).

I don’t believe in absolute rules of writing like “never use an adverb.” However, I do believe that any time you use an adverb you should consider whether you’re expressing what you want in the best way possible.  Adverbs can be a short cut, and short cuts can be awesome in telling your story.  But if you use too many short cuts, it’s a little less awesome.  So, consider adverbs like seasoning – a little can go a long way, if you’re using the correct spice.

Jean Davis

Disagree. Adverbs add flavor when used sparingly.

C E Aylett

Oh dear, not that question again. Why doesn’t anyone ask about the use of adjectives? (Don’t over use them; don’t overstuff a sentence with them before a noun. Certainly don’t list them. That is how pedestrian description comes about.)

Don’t use weak adverbs (really/actually). Use adverbs when they make an impact on the meaning of the verb and twist it into something special/memorable. Make a list of unusual and strong adverbs (unequivocally/knavishly)  and keep them nearby. Slam unusual combinations together (he spoke haphazardly) When revising a piece, think about whether you need the adverbs you have and where you can either delete them or swap a weak one for one of the  more unusual ones on your list to make interesting contrasts.

In saying that, there will always be some adverbs that slip in through the net. As long as they are not overdone, why stress it?

Beth Aman

I would say use adverbs sparingly.  Adverbs tend to slow down the story, and often times they’re redundant.  It’s often better to use a strong verb instead of a weak verb with an adverb.  But there are times adverbs are useful; it’s your job to take them out when they’re not.

Eric Wood

I wouldn’t say “never”. However, I would say use them with care and caution. Be sure the adverb you’re using isn’t redundant. If the verb already states or implies the action then there’s no need to say how it was done. When you start using too many adverbs you get into telling the reader instead of showing the reader.
He ran quickly. The adverb, quickly, is lazy and simply restating what was already said. If the character is running, we already know he’s moving quickly. Instead, you should show how quickly. His legs pumped like the pistons of a racecar as he ran. Sometimes an adverb will be helpful. He lovingly whispered, “Take your clothes off.” This gives us an understanding how he did it. If you substitute the word “menacingly” for “lovingly” you get a completely different scene. There’s a reason a picture is worth a thousands words. It takes more words to show instead of tell, but it will be well worth it.

D. T. Nova

Never is such a strong word. It is good advice to avoid adverbs with vague verbs when a more specific verb would be understood, but that doesn’t mean that averbs are never the best choice.

Cyrus Keith

Never say never. But limit, limit, LIMIT!!! -Ly adverbs can often be a trap leading to lazy, sluggish writing. Why us “walk quickly” when “march” or “pace” not only save space but portray an attitude as well? I try to not use them, but occasionally a need arises where to not use one only leads to verbal acrobatics that scream, “HEY, everybody! He’s trying not to use an -ly adverb here!” But let’s just look at an absurd example.

Mark walked quickly to the dresser. He quickly took the gun and raised it. He pointed it at Steve. “Stop,” he said loudly.

Compare that to
“Mark charged for the dresser. The gun seemed to leap into his hand. Pointing it at Steve, he roared, “Stop!”

H. Anthe Davis

Why do we have adverbs if we’re not allowed to use them?  Use whatever kinds of words you want, however much you want.  Maybe some people will judge you for them, but writing is an artistic pursuit.  Absolutely listen to constructive criticism, but if you can’t abide by the changes suggested, just shrug them off.  There is no roadmap to the perfect story, no bullet-pointed outline that can make something automatically good or bad.  You’re the writer.  Do what feels right to you.

Paul B. Spence

Since it is impossible, I disagree. Everything in moderation is a much better approach.

Elizabeth Rhodes

I totally disagree. See what I did there? Every word in our language has a place, and the same goes for parts of speech. Now, there are plenty of occasions where the adverb/verb combination can be replaced with a more concise verb, but that doesn’t mean that’s the rule all the time.

Jay Dee Archer

I disagree. Adverbs can be incredibly useful when used correctly. As you can see, I already used some adverbs. There are times when adverbs are the most appropriate words to use. Rules like this are heard many times, but you shouldn’t say never. Of course, there are many times when you can use a better verb than a simple verb and modifying adverb. But not always. This would be better advice: It doesn’t matter what part of language it is, use it when appropriate, but don’t avoid it completely.

How about you?

How do you feel about this rule? Is it necessary to avoid anything in writing? Let us know in the comments section below.

You’re Probably Using Too Much Space After a Period

periodspacingI’ve been doing it wrong. Actually, I know I’ve been doing it wrong for a long time. You see the space after the period in these sentences? Double spaced. It used to be pretty standard. It was used to make sentences appear more separated. I was taught to do it that way.

You see, I was taught to type on a typewriter. When I started typing in school, we didn’t use computers with word processors. We used electric typewriters. And since their wasn’t variable spacing for the letters, and we only had one font, we used a double space after the periods. I got used to doing that.

These days, word processing software has made this obsolete. In fact, using a single space has been standard for many years. There was no need for me to learn to use a double space. But over the years, I was using a double space because that’s what I was taught and I was used to. Out of habit, I’d been using double spaces while knowing it was wrong.

Now, I’m typing with single spaces after the period. What about you? Do you use single or double spaces?

The Teaching Urge – English Lesson Videos

As you probably know, I taught English for eleven years in Japan. It still feels strange that I’m not doing it anymore. I spent more than a quarter of my life doing it. But I have that urge to do something, and I want to make sure I don’t forget grammar rules. I’ve been thinking about what to do, and then it came to me a couple weeks ago: easy one-point lesson videos!

There are English lesson videos on YouTube, of course. But I’m planning on doing something that I haven’t seen (although may exist). I’m going to be doing simple lessons that tackle common problems that people have with English. But the thing is, this won’t only be for English learners, it’ll also be for those who are fluent in English. You see, this is where the writing and editing part comes in. There are many problems that English speakers have with their own language, especially in writing.

This is where you come in. A lot of you are readers and writers. What are some English grammar problems you have? Let me know in the comments below. Your idea will likely become a lesson video!

What Grammar Problems Do You Have When Writing?

English has some of the most difficult grammar of any language. There are so many rules, yet many exceptions to those rules. English breaks the rules often. Although it may not be the most difficult language, it is one of the most unusual languages. Why? Because it’s had influences from several languages and is more like the Frankenstein’s monster of languages.

Writers have to deal with English grammar when writing. Some are not experts at grammar, while others seem to have a wonderful way with the language. But what do you have difficulty with in writing?

In my case, I find that I use the passive voice too much. I use it correctly, but it’s not effective when writing fiction. It doesn’t have the feeling of action. The narrative must be active so the reader feels like they’re in the story along with the characters. I don’t have this problem as much now, but sometimes it creeps in.

What about you? When you write, what kind of grammar issues do you have? Let me know in the comments below.