LET’S TALK ABOUT YOU AND ME (and other pronouns)

By Eileen Register, English teacher and author of Adrianna and the Grisholm County Chronicles series.

 

Pronouns are handy little words. They keep our writing from being too repetitious. Here’s a quick example:

Eileen thinks she should pay more attention to her grammar.

Now let’s try that without using pronouns:

Eileen thinks Eileen should pay more attention to Eileen’s grammar.

Obviously, the second example is too repetitious, using the proper noun, Eileen, three times in a ten-word sentence. It would be too much even in a longer sentence. The first sentence uses a subjective pronoun to indicate “Eileen” and then an objective pronoun to indicate “Eileen”, and in both instances, the reader understands what word is being substituted. If we want to make absolutely sure about the “her” in the sentence, we could add another word to clarify it: …to her own grammar.

Now let’s play with that sentence a bit. Look what happens if we do this:

She thinks she should pay more attention to Eileen’s grammar.

Who is the “she” in this sentence? I can’t tell who should be paying more attention to Eileen’s grammar. Can you? This is called an unclear antecedent (even when the pronoun precedes the noun it is replacing).

Here’s another one:

Eileen thinks Mary should pay more attention to her grammar.

Should Mary pay more attention to her OWN grammar or to Eileen’s grammar? We would probably assume Eileen is telling Mary to pay more attention to Mary’s grammar, but it isn’t really clear, is it?

Things get even more complicated in paragraphs. For example:

Eileen and her sister, Carol, often argue about grammar. She thinks she should take another English class or two so that her writing has less errors. However, she thinks her grammar is just fine and doesn’t think she needs any help with it. She can argue all she wants, but she will never convince her to take those classes.

Oh my goodness! Which “she” is “she”? Which one thinks the other one needs classes? This is an extreme example, of course, but it brings home the fact that having clear antecedents for pronouns is very important. This paragraph can have four totally different meanings, depending on which pronouns are replaced by which nouns:

Eileen and her sister, Carol, often argue about grammar. Eileen thinks Carol should take another English class or two so that her writing has less errors. However, Carol thinks her writing is just fine and doesn’t think she needs any help with it. She can argue all she wants, but she will never convince her that she needs to take those classes.

 

In this sentence, it is clear that Eileen thinks Carol has the writing problems. The fact that it is Carol who should take more English classes makes the rest of the pronouns clearly refer to Carol. Because of the first two sentences, we can assume that in the third sentence, Eileen is the one who can argue, and Carol is the one who can never be convinced. However, you know what they say about that word “assume” – it can make an ASS of U and ME. The sentence would be much clearer if some of the pronouns were changed to nouns:

Eileen can argue all she wants, but she will never convince Carol that she needs to take those classes.

If we switch Eileen and Carol beginning with the second sentence, then it becomes Eileen who has the writing problem and Carol who thinks Eileen needs to take some English classes:

Eileen and her sister, Carol, often argue about grammar. Carol thinks Eileen should take another English class or two so that her writing has less errors. However, Eileen thinks her grammar is just fine and doesn’t think she needs any help with it. Carol can argue all she wants, but she will never convince Eileen that she needs to take those classes.

Have I lost you yet? Well, let’s take another look at that paragraph, replacing the pronouns in yet another way:

Eileen and her sister, Carol, often argue about grammar. Eileen thinks she should take another English class or two so that her writing has less errors. However, Carol thinks Eileen’s grammar is just fine and doesn’t think she needs any help with it. Carol can argue all she wants, but she will never convince Eileen that she doesn’t need to take those classes.

Although we had to change “needs” to “doesn’t need” in the paragraph this time, the principle is the same as far as pronouns are concerned. We can switch Eileen and Carol in this one, too, and have the opposite meaning. (If I worked at it a bit more, I could probably come up with several other ways to change the pronouns and give different meanings to the paragraph. However, I’m tired of typing the same paragraph over and over, and I’m sure you’re tired of reading it, so I’ll stop here.)

This has been a study in unclear antecedents (and a repetitive BLOG entry, one might add), but I hope it has helped to clear up this particular problem with pronouns and nouns. Pronouns are great for reducing redundancy in our writing, but if the reader may be confused by the use of pronouns, it’s important to use their antecedents often enough to clarify who or what we are talking about.

One last point: When writing several paragraphs that have the same two antecedents, and one antecedent is a “she” and one is a “he”, it is possible to argue that the reader won’t become confused if the second paragraph and those following it contain only the pronouns. I’ve made it my personal policy not to do that because I feel that it makes for a better understanding regardless of gender (especially if the two characters are Tracy and Terry!). Readers may tend to forget which characters are being talked about if the names are left out for several paragraphs since there are usually more than one “he” and one “she” in the book. Going back and rereading to see which characters are doing what can be irritating to the reader. We want them to read our entire novel over and over, not parts of it, but if they have to go back and reread stuff to keep track of things, they are less likely to give the book a second reading.

Okay, now that I have beaten that horse to death, I’ll see youz guyz next time! Perhaps I’ll talk about using too many euphemisms and colloquialisms and too much regional slang. (GRIN)

Tritely yours,

Eileen

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WHO CARES ABOUT GRAMMAR? (Readers do!)

By Eileen Register,  English teacher and author of Adrianna and the Grisholm County Chronicles series.

Sometimes I really hate being an English teacher! Before I went to college and earned my BA in English Education, I enjoyed reading much more than I do now. Why? It’s because I wasn’t as concerned with how the author of a book wrote as I was about what they wrote. I could delve into the story and never give a second thought to whatever grammar and punctuation errors there might be in the book. Of course, I’d notice gross errors, but the little things didn’t bother me. Now they do.

When I was in elementary school, we studied verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and all that kind of stuff, and it wasn’t all that painful, as far as I can remember. (Let’s face it, though…at my age, I don’t remember all that much about elementary school, except for the popsicles we could buy for a nickel or dime while waiting for the afternoon bus ride home. Oh, and I DO remember that really cool sixth grade teacher I had – very tall, very handsome, and a very good teacher – that sums up Mr. Rose.)

 

As the years passed, I remember writing, lots of writing, and I loved it. I think the mechanics of writing were instilled in us back then by rote memory as well as a stern hand on the blackboard and a lot of red ink on our assignments. Most of it came naturally, though, for me. I loved reading, so the rules of grammar seemed to grow with me as my repertoire of books grew. I even delved into Shakespeare in eighth grade, reading “Romeo and Juliet” and doing a report on it that earned me an A- for grammar (I had a few misplaced modifiers, which we hadn’t even studied about yet.) and an A for content – the teacher said I did a better job on it than her students in the senior class who were studying Shakespeare. That’s when I knew I wanted to be a writer (and a brain surgeon, but I soon found out that Science and Math were not my fortes, so that dream never came to fruition).

 

In the next few weeks, I’m going to write a few BLOG entries about proper grammar and writing mechanics. I’ll discuss such things as subject/verb agreement, adverbs (don’t forget the –ly), unclear antecedents (too many pronouns, not enough nouns), sentence structures, split infinitives (how to not do that), proper word usage, and punctuation. I’m sure that as I write the entries, I’ll come up with a few other errors writers are guilty of (including me – even an English teacher screws up sometimes). Let’s try that last sentence again since I ended with a preposition: I’m sure that as I write, I’ll come up with a few other errors of which writers are guilty. (Gosh, that sounds awkward!)

 

One advantage authors of fiction have is that we can get away with a lot more improper grammar than those who write non-fiction, especially essayists and writers of text books. I use a lot of dialogue in my writing, so I get to break all the rules – nobody talks the same in casual conversation as we are taught to write in formal essays and such.

 

So here I go…I’ll try not to make grammar too boring, and I hope my efforts will help authors write better books. If you’re like me, you don’t have a lot of trouble figuring out the story you want to tell, the characters you want to create, and the scenes where things happen. That’s why we are writers. Polishing our words is a bit more challenging. Let’s meet that challenge together.

 

(By the way, if you noticed that I incorrectly use only one space after the periods at the ends of sentences, you’ve got a sharp eye. You’re also totally correct about that. In the day of electronic books, though, using double spaces at the end of sentences messes with the programming that converts our manuscripts into E-books. Because of this, I have noticed that paperbacks and hardcover books often skip that second space, too. I guess this is one punctuation rule that is changing, and I, for one, don’t give a rat’s patoot about it anymore. After having to go through entire books removing those extra spaces before publishing them as E-books, I’ve decided to take the easy road. The one suggestion I have regarding the two-space rule is: Be consistent. Don’t switch from the two-space side of the argument to the one-space side in the same piece of writing. If you choose to do it one way, stick with it.)

 

C U L8r! (Oh, I hate all the abbreviations we use in texting! How will our books and other writing look in ten years if today’s kids never learn how to write a proper sentence?)

 

~Eileen~

Midnight in Paris, A Morning in Rome? by Eileen Register

I’d love to write a romantic story that features the exotic ambiance of Paris or Rome.  It would be fun to write about traveling across the savannahs and through the jungles of Africa.  Rio would be so exciting!

So why do I use my home state of Florida as the backdrop for my novels? Is it because I’m lazy and don’t want to do research? Eh, maybe a tiny bit. For the most part, though, I want to concentrate on my characters and storyline. By writing about a setting with which I am very familiar, I am able to put most of my effort into creating realistic characters and dialogue with which to develop a story that is colorful and interesting.

One prime example of this is the setting for Book II of my Grisholm County Series, Sylvan Creek. My hometown of Sebring, Florida was originally designed with a circular park at its core and streets branching out in all directions from that circle. Sylvan Creek follows the same pattern except that the park is much bigger and there’s a creek running through it.  I enhanced the fond memories I have of my hometown and made the setting for the story even more interesting and much better as a backdrop for the murder that takes place.

I’m very visual and find that writing about things I’ve seen and persons I’ve met is a more comfortable way for me to develop stories. I’m sure I could read a few National Geographic magazines and learn what I need to know to write a story set in some exotic place. There are plenty of pictures available online and in books that would give me the visual boost I need in order to be able to write about such places. However, nothing would be as real to me through research as it is through my own experiences.

As an English teacher, I always encouraged my students to “write what you know” when they were doing creative writing assignments. Instead of reaching to write about something they had little knowledge about, they would start out by thinking about a place, person, thing, or event in their own lives. From that origin, they could spring forth into a fantasy, a true story, a poem, or even a play. The result might end up having a setting nothing like their own lives, but it would be grounded in what they knew.

I’m not saying everyone should write only about places they’ve been, people they’ve met, or things they’ve experienced – far from it! What I am saying is that it works for me. If a writer is having trouble getting the story rolling, perhaps simplifying its development will help. Choose two most important aspects of the story – which, for me are plot and characterization – and concentrate on them. Selecting a setting that takes less time to develop because it resembles a real place the writer has experienced will free his/her mind to concentrate on other things.

“They said WHAT?” by Eileen Register

When I’m creating a story, I strive to develop each character’s personality to the point that the character becomes a person, not just physically but psychologically, for the reader. In order to create that well-rounded character, I use a combination of devices: exposition, omniscience, and dialogue.

When we first meet someone, we depend on our eyes to help us decide whether or not it’s someone we want to get to know. Then we listen to what the person says, and that influences us further. How the person says it gives us more to go on. When we can see the person and hear what he or she says, we also have non-verbal cues to go on – body language and facial expressions. I try to give all of the same things to my reader that they would get IRL (in real life). Here’s an example – the first time Kendra and Daniel see each other after ten years, each has a different view of what happened to break up their teenage love affair, and their attitudes reflect that.

Exposition

When I am talking directly to the reader, telling him about what is happening, what a place or character looks like, or what he might expect to happen next, I am “exposing” facts that help the reader form a clearer picture in his mind about the plot, setting, and/or characters.

Example:
The sound of the dented old cowbell that hung from the front door of Kendra’s shop dragged her attention away from the web site she was working on. It was lunch hour, and her employee wasn’t due back yet. Darn, she hated interruptions when she was in the middle of a web design project. Hitting the save button automatically, she rose from her chair, rubbed her tired back and then turned and walked around the acoustical office divider into the main part of the store.[Chap.1, Roller Coaster Ride]

In this opening paragraph of the novel, the reader learns about the setting and the main character through my direct descriptions. The juxtaposition of the “old cowbell” with her web site work hints that Kendra may be a twenty-first century woman but she’s still has an old-fashioned girl hidden inside.

Omniscience

Using an omniscient or “god-like” point of view allows the reader to see inside the minds of all of the characters. Thus the reader knows what each character is thinking about himself and others. It also gives the reader an inside track to what each character is going to do based on the way he or she sees the situation at hand. In addition to pushing the plot along, this device is a great way to “flesh out” or make another character “rounder” beyond what is described in exposition.

Example:
His slow, observant gaze noted the perfect fit of her sweater, its opalescent shimmer accenting and repeating the gleam of her gorgeous hair, and the trim, sophisticated man-cut trousers that skimmed her slender hips and ended just above chunky-soled, strappy sandals that echoed the dark pink of the trousers. Delicately painted toenails peeked from the sandals, and the irreverent thought floated through his mind that she had never liked pantyhose and obviously wore none now. Judging from the smooth fit of her trousers, she wore nothing underneath them, and he felt the resurgence of a long-ago throbbing that he had thought never to find again, an aching in his manly parts that he suspected only she could engender, even after all these years. [Chap.1, Roller Coaster Ride]

In this paragraph, the reader enters the mind of the character, Daniel, and through his eyes Kendra is described both physically and personality-wise. It is also clear that Daniel and Kendra had been close enough at one time for him to know first hand that she didn’t wear pantyhose under her pants. Earlier in the chapter, the reader learns that Daniel is using a manual wheelchair, and in this paragraph a question that is often thought but rarely asked directly to a disabled man – whether or not he can still perform in the bedroom – is answered. Daniel is happy to see that, because of his memories about Kendra and how beautiful she looks to him now, he is reacting in a normal way that he may not have been doing since his injury. He’s thinking that Kendra is the only woman he’s reacted that way around. This builds on the idea that he and Kendra were lovers in the past and that he still has deep feelings for her.

Dialogue

What characters say to one another often tells the reader a lot about the speaker as well as the one he or she is speaking to. It can also be a subtle or even not-so-subtle way of hinting at what is to come (foreshadowing).

Example:
“What’s wrong, Daniel? Are you, like everyone else in this town, having problems believing that the poor little daughter of Sally the town strumpet could ever amount to anything?” Biting her tongue to still the angry words that threatened to continue, she stared him down.
“No! That’s not what I meant at all!” Daniel protested, knowing full well that she had hit the nail on the proverbial head, and hating his own small-mindedness. “I just didn’t know you had come back to Mayfield.”… he kept his eyes pinned to hers. “I’m – uh – glad to see you.”
“Oh come on Daniel. Let’s not start the lies again. You had no idea you would ever see me again and that was how you wanted it. You made that painfully clear ten years ago when you left.” Kendra’s color was high now, as was her anger at his deception as well as the long ago abandonment that had scarred her young heart so deeply.[Chap.1, Roller Coaster Ride]

This dialogue is loaded with information for the reader:
*Kendra has returned to a town where her mother had a really bad reputation, and she knows or feels that nobody expects her to be a success.
*Daniel realizes that he is guilty of thinking like the rest of the town and is at a loss for words.
*Kendra feels like Daniel is looking down his nose at her like the rest of the town.
*She believes he left her and had no intentions of ever seeing her again. In view of that perceived abandonment, anything he says to her right now will be a seen as a lie.
*There is a lot of unfinished business here for both Daniel and Kendra that still hurts deeply after ten years.

There are many ways to develop a character. Exposition is the most direct way for the writer to make sure the reader has a clear idea of the physical attributes and/or deficits and the personality of those who “people” a novel. Allowing the reader an omniscient view increases the opportunities for the writer to explain and describe characters through the thoughts and attitudes of those around him or her. Dialogue, which is my favorite device for characterization , makes for a more interesting read as the reader isn’t bored by paragraph after paragraph of indirect interaction. One of my readers told me that she felt like she was right there in the story with the characters. That’s what I strive for – making it real for the reader.

I’d love to hear how other authors develop their characters, so please feel free to post comments. It’s how I learn!

TTFN ~Eileen~

[Exerpt is from Grisholm County Chronicles series Book I, Roller Coaster Ride, which is available in Kindle ebook edition at Amazon.com