Sunday 23 October 2022

Writing Tips: Subject, Verb, Object

There is more to writing well than learning the difference between "your" and "you're". 

Should you vary your sentence structure? Yes, but not by using a long, long “that clause” as a subject, or any long, long string of words. Subjects should be short and concrete. 

The Penwith Moors’ proposed designation as a site of special scientific interest by Natural England is to protect the ancient landscape and ensure its rare habitats, flora and fauna can thrive in partnership with local farmers. (15-word subject. Are the “habitats, flora and fauna” in partnership with local farmers? Or is Natural England in partnership... etc? How about “intended to protect”? And who is doing the proposing? The Penwith Moors or Natural England? West Penwith is pictured.)

Natural England's proposed designation of the Penwith Moors as a site of special scientific interest is intended to protect the ancient landscape and ensure its rare habitats, flora and fauna can thrive, in partnership with local farmers. (Still a 15-word subject, but we have Natural England proposing to designate the Moors.) 

Hiring as few people as you can get away with, and spending the bare minimum on them, is counterproductive. (17 words.)

Sometimes it's better to make your subject "it": It’s counterproductive to hire as few people as you can get away with, and spend the bare minimum on them.

It's better than using gerunds as subjects, anyway (hiring, spending).

This isn't a howler, but I'm tired of paragraphs that start: Part of the reason for [X phenomenon] is blah blah… “Part of the reason” is a weak subject, and doesn’t invite you to read on. Better to start with X phenomenon. 

But sometimes a long subject works:

A convicted housebreaker and killer turned soldier, courtier and magnate in the North of England can be identified as the author of the 14thC masterpiece Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a philologist says. (@history1st)

This is the Time magazine technique of “backward ran the sentences until reeled the mind”.

Use a noun as your subject.
Not "why" but "the reason",  not "that" but "the fact that", not "how" but "the way".

Why the instrument, known as the Antikythera Mechanism, was aboard a vessel increasingly believed to be a merchant ship travelling from the eastern Mediterranean to Rome remains unknown. (Guardian June 2022. 26 words.) 

You may have been told not to use "the reason why" because it's a tautology, but we need a noun here and "reason" will do. But weren't you told to prefer the active to the passive? "We still don't know why... etc." Then we peak on "Rome". If you feel "we" is too vague, how about "Archaeologists still don't know..." (An editor told me never to use "we" or "you" because it's not clear who's being talked about – and he had a point.)

How physical places can enhance or damage our health may sound unscientific, but Esther Sternberg constructs a convincing argument in this book. (What sounds unscientific? How about: The idea that physical places...? And hang on, aren't all places physical?)

Was there a more exciting time to be in science than as the 18th century melted into the 19th? (New Scientist, 2009. Was there a more exciting time to be in science than the period when the 18th century melted into the 19th?)

Making the hoax more credible was that, during the previous year, hundreds of homes in the region had been damaged for real when the Ochoco creek flooded. ( Make it "the fact that".)

Coronavirus has brutally reinforced that it pays to be privileged. (...the fact that...)

You cannot play online multiplayer because of how your Microsoft account is set up. (Make it: “because of the way...”.

That he survived was partly due to his charm and wit. (Your subject is “that”, your verb is “to be”. Dull! "But he couldn't have survived without his charm and wit.")

That relatively few now claim asylum is because the vast bulk of the persecuted are ignorant of their right to it. (Relatively few now claim asylum – because most of the persecuted are ignorant of their right to it.)

That she survived with little apparent damage and went on to achieve literary renown – along with editing two editions of the Oxford Companion to English Literature, she has published a number of respected novels and a biography of Arnold Bennett – gives us some reason to hope for the future of Emma Evans, her narrator in this early novel. (Goodreads review of The Garrick Year, Margaret Drabble (A 40-word subject, containing a parenthesis. And you mean “the fact that”. Or how about "Her survival with little apparent damage and later literary renown..." Now we have two nouns as a subject: survival and renown.)

That the Denisovans were discovered in southern Siberia but contributed genetic material to modern humans in SE Asia suggests that their population may have been widespread. (Times 2010. The fact that...)

That seas marbled by oil slicks make breathtakingly beautiful images doesn’t neutralize them as records of devastation. (The fact that...)

That the rules of grammar were ignored by the Barbarians was not entirely unsuspected. (The fact that... Unfortunately, "The Barbarians's ignorance..." doesn't have the same shade of meaning, and despite the old Punch joke there's no such word as "ignoral".)

More here, and links to the rest.

Sunday 9 October 2022

Writing Tips: Show and Tell 2

Should you follow the advice to "show, don't tell"?

Characters are constantly grimacing and gesturing with their fists to express emotion, because the author has apparently been told it’s not writerly to merely tell the reader what’s happening. But what that emotion is precisely is not clear, and so everyone strides around like a bunch of demented mimes, making no sense. (Noah Stuart)

When I presented myself to the written test, the subject of Italian, I didn’t even remember who Dante Alighieri was. My feet were icy, contracting stomach sent back the taste of eggplant that mom ordered to "pull me up", anguish choked me. But then they communicated to us the topic: “the concept of homeland from the Greek police to today”. And it was worse than setting fire to the powders of my childish revolts, of my childish utopia. The cold disappeared, along with the taste of zabaglione, the anguish disappeared. Brandishing the pen, you threw me like a raging wolf on the protocol sheet, and this (kind of) is the summary of what I wrote for eight full columns. (Oriana Fallaci)

Presumably she’s talking about setting a match to gunpowder (it will then explode). Zabaglione is not made of aubergines (eggplant) but eggs, cream, sugar and sherry. Perhaps she meant "eggnog". This isn’t just too much “show don’t tell”, it is hyperbole – it is even over-writing. (More of this later.) And I’d rather have “I felt sick” than “my stomach contracted”. You don’t want to nauseate your readers. And what have the Greek police to do with the concept of homeland? I think she meant "polis", or city-state. And after all that, "brandishing the pen" is a dangling modifier.

Everything in her relaxed – the tight straining muscles, the tight straining thoughts. A kind of happy weakness came over her. She leaned back as far as she could against the chromium tubes and shut her eyes. Warm drops welled up behind her lashes and rolled down slowly one by one until her face was wet. She let them fall, it didn't matter at all – nothing mattered. (Patricia Wentworth. Her heroine is relaxing on a modernist chromium-plated bed.)

As Flaubert's friends advised: If you want to say it was raining, say "It was raining".

Punshon’s characters are emotionally incontinent: none of them ever seems to be a bit cross, or slightly worried, or mildly surprised, they all go straight for furious rage, abject terror, total shock or utter despair – it's exhausting. (Amazon review. E.R. Punshon started his writing career with successful melodramas.)

The endless descriptions of William drinking whisky to drown his guilt, his heart constantly thudding, pounding, racing, poor Annie’s repeated descent into sobbing for one reason or another, all became so repetitive that they lost any impact after a while. (Goodreads on C.S. Forrester’s Payment Deferred)

In novels of the earlier 20th century characters constantly turn pale or red. This is described in great detail (her lips had blanched, two bright spots of colour burned in her cheeks, a burning flush spread over her face, he turned a dusky red, the colour in his face darkened even further etc etc). What’s more, other characters notice the flushing, blanching etc. Characters “frown” a lot, too, especially in Mickey Spillane.

Her face was drained of all colour. Beneath the heavy tan his face had blanched. (The Mystery of Dr Fu-Manchu, Sax Rohmer) People constantly “blanch beneath their tan” in adventure stories from the 1880s on. Women blanch so that their rouge stands out on red patches on their cheeks.

A dusky flush spread over his face – his square jaw became more set – a small muscle twitched at the corner of his nose and a vein throbbed in his forehead. (Margery Allingham, paraphrase. But she's such a good writer that we forgive her.)

Even E.M. ForsterHer husband worked his jaw severely. Little lumps appeared in front of either ear — a symptom that she had not yet learnt to respect.

Nervous people “pull at” their bottom lip. When they’re not doing this they’re biting their lip (gives you a chance to describe their teeth).

Plus “Beads of sweat appeared on his forehead, he mopped his brow”. Influenced by films/TV of the 50s and 60s? They loved spraying a man’s face to show that a) we are in a jungle or b) this person is upset, afraid or guilty.

Agatha Christie mainly avoids this kind of thing which is one of the reasons why I like her. 

More here, and links to the rest.

Grammar: Mixed Metaphors 17

A spark is being set to the cornerstone of civilisation which will shake it to the roots like a chilling breath.
 (Evelyn Waugh, Scoop) And y
ou’ve got to put your toe in the water to get a slice of the pie. It’s a house of cards built on sand. Are these malaphors?

It must be difficult to keep your "fingers crossed" while "holding all the cards". (@BestForBritain)

"Nuanced" may be a red flag as too many of the wrong people use it as a fig leaf. (LF)

Writers get very confused by paths...

Arlene Foster and her party had the chance to lead and make solid the shallow path forged by Protestant Irish-language activist, Linda Ervine. (If something is too shallow, you need to deepen it, not solidify it. But paths aren’t shallow or deep – metaphorical paths are usually wide or narrow. So she could widen the path. But paths aren’t forged – chains, links and agreements are forged. (Also swords, ploughshares and horseshoes.) How do you create a path? If you build a better mousetrap, people will beat a path to your door. If you stray, you leave the beaten track. So how about “Arlene Foster and her party had the chance to lead, and widen the narrow path beaten by Protestant Irish-language activist, Linda Ervine… Comma necessary because Arlene is not leading the path.

In many ways her radio station laid the way for America's modern televangelists. ( Paved the way, laid the foundations, blazed a trail.)

You may be “American” by citizenship, but you are a bite from a melting pot. (Sarah Parcak) 

Since Kim Jong-il's death, the shutters have been drawn even tighter in N. Korea. (Globe and Mail) A shutter is either open or closed, if it’s shut it can’t be any more shut than it is.

Lots of burbling about “sunny uplands” Sept 2018. Churchill talked about “broad, sunlit uplands”. 

She left the genre in a different place from where she found it and she cracked open a series of doors for others to walk through. (Val McDermid. You crack a bottle – not literally, you draw the cork or unscrew the top. You crack open an egg – perhaps that’s where this one started. You crack the case. You crack a code. But you don’t crack open a door. Unlocked a series of doors?) 

This was the final nail in the gibbet post and two years later the practice was officially banned. (Atlas Obscura, article about gibbets. The final nail in a coffin closes the lid. Nails in gibbets stopped people climbing up the post to rescue the body.)

The manti – a kind of ravioli-type parcel pasta – were squeaky fresh and filled with beef and sour cherry. (Giles Coren. Hair becomes squeaky clean if you wash it in old-fashioned Vosene - it literally squeaks when wet as you run your hands through it. "Squeaky fresh" is meaningless.)

Tasmania has long been the butt of Australian jokes... But the island is spinning a new tale as foreign investment and an influx of mainlanders have led to a population and property boom to rival any big city. (Times Oct 2018 You tell a tale, you spin a yarn. Yarn, spin – get it?)

It would help further calcify the steep levels of segregation seen across the region. ( They mean high levels, but how can you calcify a level? How about “preserve” or “maintain”? I get the meaning “make segregation harder to shift”. So why not say that? "It would make the high levels of segregation seen across the region even harder to shift.")

A hell of a lot of good people worked themselves to the bone in hugely uphill battles. (Twitter) (You work your fingers to the bone cleaning and scrubbing. It’s hard to fight when your enemy is further up the hill than you are.)

The Enlightenment turned us away from truth and toward a darkling weakening horizon, sad and grey to see. The afterglow of Christianity is near gone now, and a Stygian silence lurks in wait. (@normmacdonald. He was doing OK with a darkling horizon where the afterglow is fading, but “weakening” weakens the idea. Once the afterglow is gone, we shall be in Stygian darkness – as dark as the River Styx which the Greeks passed over to the afterlife. But Stygian “silence”?)

A wreck has been found “blanketed with gold, ceramics and other valuable items”. (These objects can hardly cover the wreck like a blanket, though the sea-floor could be carpeted with them.)

America’s cheese hoard continues to balloon to unprecedented levels, as producers fear the mountain could grow further(A ballooning mountain – made of cheese! It's a disgrace!)

Stephen Fry gives a nicely judged performance as the Earl's butler; he speaks to his employer and the house guests with great formality and gravitas in an inch-perfect upper-class accent, but when speaking to his fellow servants reverts to his native Estuary English. (Imdb on Relative Values. "Estuary English" is the name given to the dialect of Kent, where the film is set, and Essex – counties immediately to the east of London. Inch-perfect? Lear claimed to be “every inch a king”, and “pitch-perfect” is the usual cliché. Musicians who can tell you the name of any note you play have “perfect pitch”. Nobody worries about “Estuary English” any more, but 20 years ago they moaned that the London accent (Cockney) was spreading out along the Thames Estuary to Kent and over-writing the local rustic speech.) 

The police who, sometime after 4:30 a.m., clutched their loins and went digging through the overgrown roadside grass for the missing member. (NYT re the Bobbit case You gird up your loins before doing something difficult. It means “tighten your belt so that you can hitch up your kaftan”. The writer means something like “gritted their teeth”, but they wanted to get in a reference to “loins”.)

We've had 900 years of paddling our own canoe, and we can do that again, but there will be bumps in the road. (Writes a Brexiteer. Good luck paddling that canoe up the M1.)

If any incident ignited the cauldron of Northern Ireland this was it. (Nick Ross, Guardian, 2019. You light a fire under a cauldron, you don’t ignite the contents.)

Jordan Peterson has a weathered, gaunt face and big furrowed eyebrows. (NYT. He has thick eyebrows and a furrowed brow.)

International experts will call for African leaders to “leapfrog the shackles of convention” at a major education conference next month. ( It's hard to play leapfrog when your legs are shackled.)

The BBC were really dredging the bottom of the barrel.
(We dredge up detritus from the seabed; we scrape the bottom of the barrel to get out the last spoonful of treacle.)

Sajid Javid has set out his pitch. (Set out his stall/made his pitch.)

Second series have a fat albatross riding on their backs. (Times on Killing Eve II. The Ancient Mariner shot a friendly albatross, and his fellow sailors forced him to wear the bird’s corpse on a string round his neck. Perhaps the writer is thinking of the story about Sinbad and the Old Man of the Sea.)

Maybe my golden egg is bigger than your golden egg, and I’ll just wait it out and it’ll all run in my direction. (BBC) 

Grace, stamina, talent – Coco is popping all the bubbles! (BBC Wimbledon commentator. Ticking all the boxes?)

The crowd that waits outside, itching for blood. ( Crowds usually bay for blood, while you itch for a lecture to come to an end.)

John Mann no longer darkens the doorstep of the Labour Party. (It’s “darkens the door” – think of someone standing in a doorway. Or as Groucho Marx once said, "Go – and never darken my towels again!")

I saw the situation as both the camel that would break my back and as the perfect lightning rod for my fury. I felt so angry that I realized I was a hair trigger from violence. ( It’s the last straw of a huge load that breaks the camel’s back; he was a hair’s breadth away from violence; a gun with a hair trigger may go off at the slightest movement.) 

Carrots are healthy food, but carrying a stick can save lives. (Someone misunderstands "carrot and stick", a way of motivating a donkey by dangling a carrot in front of its nose while beating it with a stick.) 

I opened a Pandora box and released a Frankenstein monster. (Wally Conron, creator of the labradoodle, on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's podcast Sum of All Parts. Pandora's box contained all the evils of the world.) 

The Obscene Publications Act of 1857 led to a maelstrom, with reverberations lasting to our day. (A maelstrom is a whirlpool.)

Brexit has given the dregs of the backbenchers a soapbox to peer over. (You stand on a soapbox – a wooden crate – to address a crowd. "Be a proud dreg!" Stagecoach)

Anti-Semitism has been a stain on our party. I will tear out this poison by its roots. (Keir Starmer,  inspired by the MP who once said “I smell a rat. I see it floating in the air! But I shall nip it in the bud.”)

Surely there’s nothing rotten in the woodshed, is there? (@rosina_farley. There was something nasty in the woodshed at Cold Comfort Farm, and there was something rotten in the state of Denmark when Hamlet was a Danish prince.)

Back to drawing on the board! (Sarah Moore. That’s “back to the drawing board” to design a new plan/house/aeroplane.)

PG Wodehouse: Why India still holds a flame for the English author. (You can’t hold a flame – you’d burn your hands. That’s “carries a torch”.)

It was a massive red flag that was swept under the carpet. (Smithsonian Channel)

Storms can ignite in minutes. (Smithsonian channel. Storms may blow up, but not catch fire.)

The flames are fanning bitter debate. (Times headline 2020. Flames can’t fan anything – you fan a glowing coal to make it flame. Think of blowing on a fire, or using bellows. “Fan” doesn’t just mean “provoke”. And what about “bitter”? Fanning your soup will cool it – it won't affect the taste. How about “Flames provoke burning debate”?)

Hancock’s star could crash and burn if he doesn’t toe party line. (2021, Times. A rocket might crash and burn, but falling stars are meteorites and usually burn up in the earth’s atmosphere before they crash. And all this is too near “toe the line”.)

It seems to me many theists operate a one-way ratchet. Observations can raise but never lower the probability of God existing. (@stephenlaw60. There are no two-way ratchets. You can ratchet up, but not down – that's the point of a ratchet.)

He’s a small cog in a big wheel. (Timeslip. Wheels are not made of cogs. You may find small cogwheels in machinery.)

Who is creating this pile of hoops you are expected to jump through? (Facebook. If the hoops are in a pile, you can’t jump through them. Series of hoops? Succession of hoops?)

Churchill’s conflicting instincts left him playing an elaborate game of political Twister with a foot simultaneously in every political camp. (Churchill was a millipede? OE.)

The anchor that drove him for so many years has gone. (History’s Greatest Mysteries. Anchors tether a ship to the seabed.)

Brexit onslaught deepens as a third of all UK exporters to EU simply vanish due to red tape knockout. ( Perhaps you mean: "Brexit fallout worsens as a third of all UK exporters to EU simply vanish due to red tape.")

The thousands of Muslim asylum seekers pouring into Denmark have spawned a backlash. (NYT)

Since The Handmaid’s Tale hit TV screens in 2017, Margaret Atwood’s already-prominent profile as a feminist has blazed ever brighter. ( Risen ever higher? Could we make her profile a reputation?)

A study of the factors behind economic growth attempts to reveal the ‘great cogs’ that drive development(Guardian 2022. Cogs don’t drive anything – you need motive power eg wind, water, electricity, steam.) 

Whilst Fear of the unknown and refusal to accept Death as the end of life keep fuelling the quagmire of Abrahamic gibberish, humanity will needlessly suffer! (@NoHolyScripture)

There are moments when those on the right and the left realise they're arguing about the same coin. (@jonokli. They are two sides of the same coin.)

They’re going to have to paint themselves out of the corner they’ve painted themselves into, writes someone with no visual imagination who has never painted a floor. It’s impossible, like “ratchet down”.

More here, and links to the rest.