Risks in Writing

My response to Fandango’s prompt for today: DANGER

Writing, as we all know can be fraught with hazards.
There are PLOT HOLES and SAGGING MIDDLES.
Our CHARACTERS may lack depth or interest.
The editor may say, “TOO MUCH LIKE one we just published.”
A reader may give us a BAD REVIEW even when we’ve done our best.

And there are editorial errors like
MUDDLED PHRASES and WANDERING MODIFIERS
that keep us from getting our message across.

I just finished a series of three cozy mystery books, written by A.G. Barnett. The series is subtitled, “A Brock & Poole Mystery.” Books in this series are:
#1. An Occupied Grave
#2. A Staged Death
#3. When the Party Died

These are police procedural mysteries, not so much danger and high tension like writer Charles Todd’s books, but quite satisfying in regard to plot and likable, believable characters. However, the editing in the first two books leaves something to be desired now and then. For example:
“He stood, looking down at the man that was waving his arms theatrically about him, arms folded.”

Edit #1: a person man is always a who.
Edit #2: Move that wandering modifier back where it belongs and snip a bit:
“He stood, arms folded, looking down (he was really tall) at the man who was waving his arms theatrically.”

The writer was quite inclined to switch to pronouns, so there were times during the first two books where I had to stop and think, “Who does he refer to?”

I’ve written an example to illustrate what I mean:
Roddy has a little monkey and he loves to climb trees. He calls him Timbucktu but he has a bad habit: he never comes when he’s called. When he’s being really stubborn he offers him a banana and he usually comes right away and grabs it.

I was happy to see that by the third book Mr Barnett, or his editor, had caught on to this problem and cleared up most of the confusion.

More Examples of Wandering Modifiers

We watched the avocets poking around in the pond with their long beaks through our binoculars.

Driving by in the car, the falling snow sifted down onto the shrubs around the abandoned house.

And one of my all-time favorites in the Muddled + Mystified Dept:
A social assistance recipient, providing information to her case worker about her two newest dependents, wrote, “According to your instructions, I have given birth to twins in the enclosed envelope.”

WHAT BRINGS THIS TOPIC TO MIND?

In the course of emptying book cases and moving books around, I came across a thin paperback written by Saskatoon columnist Bill Cameron. The title of this sort-of-memoir:
A Way With Words: A Light-hearted Look at the Agony of Writing.
©1979 by Bill Cameron
Published by Western Producer Prairie Books, Saskatoon, SK
I really enjoyed reading it, though it may be out of print and unavailable now.

Mr Cameron points out to wannabe writers that the biggest danger is not saying what you mean. He gives a number of humorous examples showing how reporters and others have strayed from Say-what-you-mean clarity. (To keep things straight, I’ll post his comments in green.)

This snippet from a tourist brochure gives visitors to SK a curious picture of travel here:
“If you pull off the highway…and the first car to pass waves and the next one along stops and chats, you’re in Saskatchewan.”

“Cars that wave? Cars that stop and chat! And all this time, I thought it was the people of SK, not the automobiles, who are friendly.”

According to Cameron, this once-upon-a-time General Motors press release “set off chuckles and cackles all over the newsroom.”
“Some 800 employees…were furloughed for a short re-tooling period.”

“I presume furloughed is a weasel word for laid off. More important, I hope it was the factory which was re-tooled, not the workers.”

Even the universe is somewhat amiss, according to one news item:
“Ranging in size from dust particles to giant comets, interplanetary space is full of debris.”

“Nonsense. If space was full of debris there wouldn’t be any space, and Armstrong and Aldrin could have walked to the moon.”

An editor must read the news article carefully before committing it to the printer. As this Canadian Press headline from the 60s demonstrates:
“Alberta Catholic Women’s League delegates passed resolutions calling for tighter legislation against abortion and pornography at the group’s annual convention.”

“To suggest, as this does, that abortion and pornography go on at the annual convention…not only doesn’t say what the writer meant; it’s close to slander.”

Then there’s the famous one about Yogi Berra…a line that has been picked up by more than one gag writer since its original appearance.
“After he was hit on the head by the pitched ball, Berra was taken to hospital for X-rays, which showed nothing.”

I understand there are grammar checker programmes available now that will go over our writing and zero in on these zingers. Have any of you others bought one already? I’ll think I will be ordering one shortly. 🙂

Getting a Handle on Better English

Verbs and Objects, Active and Passive Voice

I wrote these examples in connection with a writing class I took in 2010. I decided to post the lesson here, hoping it might help will someone who’s learning to write English.

As we learned back in school days, there are two types of verbs:
Transitive – verbs that transfer action:
Bess ate the cake; The child spilled his drink; Tom punched the pillow.

–Intransitive – verbs that cannot transfer action
To be is an intransitive verb–it cannot transfer any action.
You can be grouchy (adjective modifying you);
you can be in a hurry (preposition modifying you);
you can be a sweetheart; you can be on the ball,
but you can’t be (as in transfer action to) the ball.

Other verbs are seldom used in a transitive form:
She yelled at her sister; the babies cried for their milk;
the leopard leaped on the deer; the deer ran from the leopard
Take the sentence, He walked on the grass.
On the grass is a prepositional phrase used to modify the verb walked.

To have is a transitive verb, as are most others;
you can have the ball; you can toss the ball; you can bat the ball;
the leopard can chase the deer; Dad can mow the grass, etc.

To complete their meaning, transitive verbs must have an object:
The boy kicked the fence because he was angry.
But…
The child kicked and screamed. This is an intransitive use of the verb.
To be transitive, he must have kicked something: the floor; his mother.
But he couldn’t scream the floor, or scream his mother.
You can scream nasty words to somebody, but it wouldn’t be the clearest phrase to use.
You can toss or hurl nasty words at somebody and be grammatically correct — but very wrong socially. and dangerous if the somebody is bigger than you.

The passive voice is formed by turning the sentence around.
You start with a transitive verb and a direct object:
He hit the ball; she knocked the glass off the counter;
Tom slapped his sister; Mother kissed the cut on the child’s arm.

And you turn it around. To put the object first you would say:
The ball was hit by him;
The glass was knocked off the counter by her;
His sister was slapped by Tom;
The cut on the child’s arm was kissed by its mother.
But I will warn you that editors do not like passive voice.

There are also indirect objects, the to whom or to what:
He hit the ball to his sister; she lent the book to her friend;
the teacher handed the papers to the students;
Mother took the children to the zoo.

It’s harder to form passive voice with all these objects in the way:
The ball was hit to his sister by Tom;
the book was lent to her friend by her;
the papers were handed to the students by the teacher;
the children were taken to the zoo by Mother.

So the “by who”–the actual subject–tends to get dropped altogether.
The papers were handed to the students.
The children were taken to the zoo.

Adding another clause may confuse things even more:
While we were playing ball, Mother took the children to the zoo. Active voice, very clear.

Passive voice: confusing:
The children were taken to the zoo while we were playing ball by Mother.
(You were standing beside Mother while playing ball and someone else took the children to the zoo?)

While playing ball, the children were taken to the zoo by Mother.
(Now the original ball players are lost from view and the children seem to have been doing that.)

While playing ball, Mother took the children to the zoo.
(In the middle of her ball game, Mom left for the zoo?)

This is why editors don’t like passive voice and writers will mostly avoid it. There’s just too much potential for confusion. The time passive voice comes in handy is when you don’t know who did the action or it doesn’t matter.

A parrot was spotted in the park. (No one cares who saw it; it’s the parrot that’s important, though you could say “Someone saw a parrot in the park.”)

The bank doors were locked every day at 5pm. (It doesn’t matter who locked them.)

While the employees were on lunch break, the store was robbed. (No one saw who did it.)