Friday, August 24, 2012

Some Common Grammar Gaffes, Part III – Lay vs. Lie; I vs. me

by Jodie Renner, editor & author 

Here are a few more examples of common confusions in English, and a few tricks to help you remember which is which.

Lay vs. lie:

This one stumps a lot of people, even a bestselling author I know, who has emailed me a few times for a reminder of when to use “lie” and when to use “lay.” It’s very common to mix up these two, especially with their weird past tenses, which just complicate the issue.

Basically, you lay something down, but you lie down. So “lay” takes an object – a thing after it that you’re putting down. Not counting ourselves, so a person just lies down. And even if it’s a thing, if it’s already there and nobody’s in the act of putting it there, it’s lying there, not laying there.

Correct usages:

Present tense:

Lie: I like to lie in the hammock. Mom often lies down for a nap in the afternoon. Ricky is lying down on the grass.

Lay: She lays the baby in the bassinette every night. She is laying the baby down right now.

So far so good. But here’s where it gets weird: The past tense of “lay” is “laid,” as in “I laid the book on the table.” But the past tense of “lie” is “lay” as “She lay down on the couch for a nap yesterday.” Huh?! Just another of the many ways that English is weird and often illogical.

So to reiterate:

Lay requires a direct object: You lay something down. 

Lie does not require a direct object: You lie down.

The verb tenses of lay: 

Present: lay, is laying.  Lay the report on my desk.

Past: laid, has laid, was laying.  She laid the ring on the table and walked out; she had laid it there before.

The verb tenses of lie: 

Present: lie, is lying: Why don’t you lie down for a while? The book is lying on the table.

Past: lay, has lain, was lying. The little boy lay in the shade, fast asleep. He has lain there many times, in fact yesterday he was lying in that exact spot.

So: He laid (past tense of lay) the wreath on the grave, where it lay (past tense of lie) for a month.

If you think you'll forget all this stuff, especially the past tenses, just copy and paste this somewhere to help you remember. That’s what I did before I finally got it into my head! 

I or me or what?

Is it “my brother and me” or “my brother and I”? That depends. 

Is it “Give the books to Jane and I,” or “Give the books to Jane and me.”?

Is it “Carol and me went with them,” or “Carol and I went with them.”?

Is it “She and Brad are coming, too,” or “Her and Brad are coming, too.”?

Here's a simple little trick to know whether to use “I” or “me”; “he” or“him”; “she” or “her” etc.:

Just take out the “and” and the other person’s name or pronoun. What are you left with? Does it make sense?

For example, which is it? “Him and his buddy are going fishing,” or “He and his buddy are going fishing.”

Take out “and his buddy.” Would you say “Him is going fishing” or “He is going fishing.”? 

Since you’d use “he” when it’s alone in the sentence, then you’d say, “He and his buddy are going fishing.”

Or is it “Leave your sister and I alone for a few minutes,” or “Leave your sister and me alone for a few minutes”?

To figure this out, take out "your sister and" and think of whether you’d say, “Leave I alone” or “Leave me alone.”

Since you’d say “Leave me alone,” then it has to be “Leave your sister and me alone.”

Apply this little trick to the first two examples above, and you’ll know it has to be “Give the books to Jane and me,” and “Carol and I went with them.”

And by the way, "between you and me" is correct.

I could get into a lengthy explanation about subject (nominative) pronouns and object (objective) pronouns, but if you just use that little gimmick, it works every time.

Do you have any other grammar points that you'd like explained? Or any great little tricks for
remembering them? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

See also Some Common Grammar Gaffes, Part I (that vs. which, who vs that, caps) and Common Grammar Gaffes, Part II (past perfect, misplaced modifiers)

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: FIRE UP YOUR FICTION,  CAPTIVATE YOUR READERS, and WRITING A KILLER THRILLER, as well as two clickable time-saving e-resources, QUICK CLICKS: Spelling List and QUICK CLICKS: Word Usage. She has also organized two anthologies for charity: VOICES FROM THE VALLEYS – Stories and Poems about Life in BC’s Interior, and CHILDHOOD REGAINED – Stories of Hope for Asian Child Workers Website:; Facebook. Amazon Author Page.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Some Common Grammar Gaffes, Part II - Past Perfect & Misplaced Modifiers

by Jodie Renner, editor, author, speaker 

In Part I, I discussed the differences between that and who, and which and that, as well as some common capitalization quandaries, all per Chicago Manual of Style. Here are some more grammar tips, mostly pertaining to fiction writing.

Use past perfect tense for mentioning prior events and introducing flashbacks:
Most novels are written in the past tense They were, She said, he went, they walked, I talked, we saw, the dog ate, the kids ran, etc. She picked up the phone. He drove around the block, and so on. So if you’re suddenly referring to something that happened before what’s going on “now”, it’s best to use the past perfect or “past past” tense: she had said, he had gone (or he’d gone), they had walked, we had seen (or we’d seen), etc. This avoids confusion for the reader, who otherwise may wonder whether we’re still in the same time frame we were or we’ve jumped back in time to an earlier incident.
In these examples, we start in the normal past tense, then, to indicate events that either just occurred or are going back in time, we switch to the past perfect, using “had” or just “he’d” “she’d” plus the past participle of the verb: “By the time we arrived at the station, all the passengers had gotten off the train.”  “She remembered that day. She had just picked up the phone when the doorbell rang.” Or “That morning, he had driven around the block several times before finding a parking spot.” Or “He recalled the night they’d discovered the body.” Not using the past perfect to indicate a shift further into the past can cause confusion with the readers as to when something actually happened or whether it’s occurring right now.
Examples from novels:  “She was still wearing her party dress. It was wrinkled. He figured she’d slept in it. He wondered where.” (Smoke Screen by Sandra Brown)

"If I had known he was going to walk, I would have just put a bullet in him and been done with it." (Murder One, by Robert Dugoni)
But if you’re switching to a fairly lengthy flashback or other backstory, it flows better if you just mark the transition further into the past by using the past perfect (had or ’d plus verb) for the first sentence or two, then switch to normal past for the rest of the flashback, except for the last sentence or two, where you again use past perfect to signal to the reader that we were in a kind of “past past” and are now going back to the normal “real time” past. If the flashback is only a few sentences or a paragraph long, stay in the past perfect, or “past past” the whole time.”
“Her thoughts drifted back to the night that had changed her life forever. She’d just been drifting off to sleep that summer night when she heard a motorcycle approaching. It stopped outside her window and went silent….” [Several more sentences in normal past tense.] … [Then, coming back to the “present” we use a sentence or two of past perfect, then switch to normal past.]
“That had been one of the most terrifying nights of her life. Now she shook off the frightening memories and forced herself back to the present.” 

Watch for those dangling participles:
Participles are verb forms that end in –ing or –ed, like “buzzing” or “roaring”, or “satisfied” or “soaked.” A participial phrase modifies a noun, like “Climbing the mountain, the hikers soon grew tired.” The phrase is talking about the activity of the person or thing closest to it, in this case, the hikers. Here’s an example of a dangling participle: “Climbing the mountain, the birds chirped merrily.” It’s not the birds that are climbing the mountain, so it needs to be changed to something like “Climbing the mountain, the hikers heard birds chirping around them.”
Here are some other examples:
“Gazing out the window, the willow tree swayed in the breeze.” This sentence implies it’s the willow tree that is gazing out the window. It would need to be changed to something like “Gazing out the window, she saw the willow tree swaying in the breeze.”
Or: “Slathered in chocolate icing and filled with cream, the customers bought boxes of the sweet, decadent donuts.”
It’s not the customers who are slathered in icing and filled with cream! This should be changed to something like, “The customers bought boxes of the sweet, decadent donuts slathered in chocolate icing and filled with cream.”
And misplaced modifiers are a mistake:
Watch where you put your descriptive phrases in sentences, as they modify the words closest to them. For example, “Tall and handsome, the teenage girl gazed at the basketball star in admiration.” As it is phrased here, the “tall and handsome” refers to the teenage girl, when it’s supposed to be describing the basketball star. It should be rephrased to something like “The teenage girl gazed at the tall, handsome basketball star in admiration.”
Similarly with: “Tired and dirty, the lady of the house watched the farm workers trudge past at the end of the long day.” As it’s written here, it’s the lady of the house who’s tired and dirty, not the farm workers. It could be rephrased to “The lady of the house watched the farm workers trudge past, tired and dirty, at the end of the long day." Similarly, you wouldn't want to write, “Exhausted from the grueling race, we cheered on the triathlon competitors as they jogged past.” (Unless watching them is exhausting for you!)
In Common Grammar Gaffes, Part III, I discuss lie vs. lay, and is it "and me" or "and I"?
See also my blog posts, “Style Blunders in Fiction” and “Hyphens, Dashes, Ellipses.”

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Some Common Grammar Gaffes, Part I - who, that, which, and caps

by Jodie Renner, editor and author   

I don’t want to come off as some kind of “grammar gestapo” here, as the English language is in a constant state of flux, and that’s a good thing. Our language is always evolving and changing along with technological changes, changes in attitude, the influence of other cultures, street language, slang expressions, etc. That means the English language is vibrant, not stagnant, just as is our society. Language needs to keep up with changes to facilitate communication.
But it’s probably a good thing to try to have some degree of consistency and standards, so we don’t all sink to the lowest common denominator of texting-style, “fast-food” language. Plus there are still lots of literate readers out there, so it’s best to err on the side of correct accepted language, to keep the respect of the readers.
So here are a few common grammar blunders I see in both my editing and general reading, and some areas where even good writers sometimes goof. (All rules are per Chicago Manual of Style.)
“that” for “who”
 –  “that” is for things; “who” is for people. I’m probably not the only one who winced a bit the first 100 times I heard Katy Perry’s great song, “The One That Got Away.” I even heard the radio announcer saying, “It should be ‘The One WHO Got Away,’ of course!”

Examples of correct usage:
The children who were playing ran in when it started to rain. The bikes and toys that were left outside got wet.
The boats that were in the harbor got tossed around in the storm.
The ladies who organized the church tea were surprised at the attendance.

“that” versus “which” 
(This one’s directed at North Americans, as Brits use “which” where we use “that,” so they have their own rules.)
A quick way to remember whether to use “which” or “that” is that “which” always follows a comma, while “that” almost never follows a comma.
Or think of it this way: If the sentence doesn’t need the clause/phrase that comes after the word to make sense, use “which.” If what comes after the word is essential to the sentence, use “that.” 
Here are a few examples to illustrate: 
The library, which is on Main Street, has about 30,000 books.
The library that is on Main Street has about 30,000 books.
In the first sentence, the one with “which,” we don’t need the extra information that it’s on Main Street for the sentence to make sense, as there’s only one library, and it’s on Main Street.
In the second sentence, we need the “that” part, as that tells us we’re talking about the library on Main Street, not some other library in town. So what follows “that” is essential to the sentence. 
Let’s look at another example:
The car, which was a Toyota, was badly crumpled in the accident.
The car that was a Toyota was badly crumpled in the accident. 
The first sentence implies that there was only one car in the accident, and by the way, it was a Toyota. That’s nonessential information, so it’s enclosed in commas and introduced by “which.”
The second sentence tells us there was more than one car involved in the accident, and that the Toyota, unlike the others, was badly crumpled. The “that” clause gives us essential information.
So another way to look at it is “which” introduces nonessential info, and “that” introduces essential info. 


Use caps for proper nouns but not for generic nouns: 
the doctor, but Doctor Wilson; the president, but President Obama; the general, but General Eisenhower; the judge, but Judge Judy; the sergeant, but Sergeant Wilson; the prince, but Prince Charles; the police department, but the Chicago Police Department; the library, but New York Public Library, the hospital, but Toronto General Hospital.  
But when you’re addressing the president, it’s “Mr. President,” and when you’re addressing anyone else with a title, you still use the capital, even if you don’t use their name, as in “Yes, Sergeant, I’ll do that right away.” Also, “Yes, Your Majesty.” And “No, Your Honor.” 
But sir, ma’am, my lord, my lady, milady, etc. are not capitalized.  

-          Don’t capitalize terms of endearment or pet names, like dear, honey, sweetie, son, buddy, etc.: “Yes, dear.” 

-          Family names: Capitalize family names like father, mother, etc. only when using them as a name, as in “Dad, can I borrow the car keys?” or “Where’s Mom?” or “Thanks, Grandma,” but no caps when just referring to family members, as in “my dad” or “your mother,” or “his grandmother.”

See also, Some Common Grammar Gaffes, Part II and Part III.

See also my blog posts, “Style Blunders in Fiction” and “Hyphens, Dashes,Ellipses.”

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Tone and Mood – Choose Your Words Carefully

by Jodie Renner, freelance editor

To bring your characters and scenes to life in a way readers can relate to, it’s critical to choose just the right nuance of meaning to fit the character, action and situation. And for help in zeroing in on the very best word to convey the tone and mood you’re after, it’s a good idea to use both a thesaurus and a dictionary (either online or print).
Verbs are especially important, as there are so many variations in the way someone can move or speak or eat or whatever, depending on their personality, mood, age, gender, size, weight, background, health, fitness level, and of course the circumstances. So it’s worth the effort to find just the right verb that nails the action and makes sense in the context of the scene. A verb that doesn’t quite fit can be jarring and turn a reader off, whereas finding a stronger, more specific verb can really strengthen a scene and resonate with the reader.

For example, here are just some of the many synonyms for the verb “run”: amble, barrel, bolt, bustle, dart, dash, escape, flee, hasten, hotfoot, hurry, hustle, jog, light out, make a break, make off, make tracks, pace, race, rush, scamper, scoot, scramble, scurry, skedaddle, skip, speed, sprint, take flight, take off, tear, tear out, travel, trot.
Obviously, if you’ve got someone running for their life, you wouldn’t use such light-hearted synonyms as “scamper” or “scoot” or “skip” or “trot” or “amble” or “skedaddle.”

And it’s also important to consider the overall voice of the scene and the inner thoughts of the viewpoint character. Are they the kind of person who would use “skedaddle” or “hotfoot it” in their personal vocabulary?

Here are some examples from my fiction editing of verbs that didn’t quite fit the situation. I’ve changed the names and altered the circumstances to protect the confidentiality of my clients. The comments after each example are from my notes in the margin of the manuscript.
A high-ranking Nazi officer is about to invade the home of a wealthy Jewish family during the Second World War. The author wrote:
“He giggled inwardly, thinking about the chaos he was about to bring to the Jews who lived here.”
My comment to the writer was:  The verb “giggled” fits a couple of schoolgirls, not a nasty Nazi. I suggest “smirked” or “gloated.”

Or, from another novel I edited:
“Joe stood up, shocked and numb, after his boss delivered the tragic news about the death of his friend. He dreaded his visit to Paul’s widow. He sauntered back to his office, his mind spinning.” 
Jodie’s comment: “sauntered” is way too relaxed and casual a word for the situation. The guy’s just been told his friend is dead. Maybe just “walked” or “went” or “trudged” or “dragged his feet” or “found his way” or even “stumbled” back to his office.

And another novel I edited years ago had military personnel repeatedly “strutting” across the room, compound or base, when the author meant “striding,” as in “he strode across the barracks,” instead of, as he had it, “he strutted across the barracks.” According to Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, “strut” means “to walk with a pompous and affected air,” or “to parade or show off.”

Similarly, don’t have healthy, active people “shuffling,” even for measured or slow walking, as “he shuffled over to the table” implies the movement of an old, ill, drugged, or exhausted person. Merriam-Webster describes shuffle as “to move the feet by sliding along without lifting the feet” or “to perform with a dragging, sliding step.”

And don’t use casual, relaxed language in a stressful situation. Choose words that reflect the urgency, tension and conflict.
Before: “David’s cell phone rang. It was his wife Carole, who was three blocks away in her office, babbling hysterically. He yelled for his colleague Todd, grabbed his jacket and headed for the elevator. When they got to street level, David jogged towards Carole’s office building. Todd ran comfortably by his side. When they got there, he found the area crawling with police.”
Jodie’s comment: Best to not use words like “comfortably” at a time of stress. Choose words that fit the mood and tone of the moment better. Even “jogging” could be replaced with a word that indicates more urgency.
One possibility: “When they got to street level, David took off running towards Carole’s office building. Todd raced to catch up.”

Also, there are a lot of nuances for showing a character looking at someone or something. The verbs “glare,” “glance,” “scan,” “peer,” “study,” and “gaze” have quite different meanings, for example.
“Brock glared at the intruder with the gun, eyes wide with fear. He shifted his stare to Gord, mouthing, ‘Help’.”
Jodie’s comment: “glared” doesn’t go with “eyes wide with fear.” Glared is for anger. Maybe “stared” here? And “shifted his gaze”? Or maybe: “Brock’s eyes widened with fear at the intruder with the gun. He shifted his gaze to Gord, mouthing, ‘Help’.”

“At the funeral, the widow caught Peter’s glance and squinted her eyes in accusation. She no doubt held him responsible for her husband’s death.”
Jodie’s comment: “squinted” is like against the bright sun. I’d say “narrowed her eyes” or “glared at him.”

Also, for maximum power, in most cases it’s best to choose the active form of verbs, like “chased” rather than “was chasing.”

If you haven't already, it's a good idea to start a new Word file and call it “Thesaurus” or “Synonyms,” then make lists for the verbs you use most in your writing, like walk, move, look, run, eat, drink, etc. That way you can quickly find lots of variations and try them on for size. It's definitely worth the bit of extra effort to capture just the right word for the situation.
See also my companion article, “TheThesaurus is Your Friend – Really!” over at Crime Fiction Collective.
Copyright © Jodie Renner, August 2012

Jodie Renner, a freelance fiction editor specializing in thrillers and other fast-paced fiction, has published two books to date in her series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: WRITING A KILLER THRILLER and STYLE THAT SIZZLES & PACING FOR POWER (Silver Medalist in the FAPA Book Awards, 2013). Both titles are available in e-book and paperback. For more info, please visit Jodie’s author website or editor website, or find her on Facebook or Twitter.