Category Archives: Grammar

Dangling Participles.

I don’t want to get too personal, but how do you feel about your dangling participles? Do you reel back in horror at the sight of them? Feel there’s a time and place for them if used wisely? Or wonder what on earth I am talking about?

If you are in the last group, a dangling participle occurs when a clause in a sentence relates not to the noun or pronoun that follows it, but to one in a previous clause. As in:

‘Mary thought Mr Brown was a misogynist and she vowed she would never work for him; then again, being a woman, he probably wouldn’t employ her anyway.’

Sometimes a dangling participle will cause confusion, but few readers of the above sentence would assume that Mr Brown is female. Being a woman obviously refers to Mary.

Many style guides disapprove of the use of dangling participles. John Humphreys, in Lost for Words calls their use a ‘hanging offence’ (pun, presumably, intended) because they are ugly and can mislead the reader.

Hamllet ghostBut who could improve on Shakespeare’s phrasing when the ghost in Hamlet tells his son that:

“Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard, a serpent stung me”?

No words are wasted, and everybody knows it is Hamlet senior who was sleeping in the orchard, not the serpent.

Dangling participles are not necessarily good or bad. The only test for their use is that, when the reader comes to the end of the sentence, is the meaning clear? On the evidence above, I would say that Shakespeare definitely passes.

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Did she go up or down the aisle?

A break from blogging for a short holiday turned into something rather longer as my 95 year old mother became very ill following a stroke.

She died on Saturday 19th May, so I missed the televising of that ‘wedding of the year’ between an American actress and an English prince. Being otherwise occupied beforehand I also largely missed the controversy over who would walk Meghan down the aisle. But I subsequently heard about the debate over whether she should be ‘walked up’ or ‘walked down’ the aisle.

The London Times referred to her being ‘walked down the aisle’ to the altar, only to have several readers argue that she would have to be ‘walked up’ the aisle to her fiancé and would then ‘walk down’ it on the arm of her new husband. The topic was then aired on the BBC with, I understand, general agreement with this up and down symmetry.

Should writers of romantic fiction take note?

Well maybe not. Debrett’s, the go-to guide for etiquette, says the father of the bride should ‘walk her down the aisle on his right arm.’ And the Church of England website, in its guidance on giving the bride away, has a section headed ‘Walking Down the Aisle.’

As it happened, being a modern young woman, the bride on this occasion decided to walk most of the way towards the altar unaided. Whether she thought she was going up or down the aisle at the time has not been recorded. Meghan

 

Tags and #Tags

Most people who use social media, know what tags are on Twitter etc. and use them to attract more followers. I will, no doubt, add a few tags to this post to advertise it and maybe encourage a few more readers to follow my blog.

Tags, when you are writing away from social media, are a bit different. These are short, questioning phrases, at the end of an affirmative or negative statement. Such as the cheery – “It’s cold today, isn’t it?”  as you hurry pass a neighbour in the street. Or the more hectoring – “You won’t do anything silly whilst I’m away, will you?” from a busy mother to a recalcitrant teenager.

Tags are regularly used in dialogue. Their aim is for the speaker to confirm that the person they are speaking to is listening to them and has understood what’s been said. They do not appear much in formal / literary prose. But they can be found in more informal prose, such as a newspaper article, where the writer wants to grab the reader’s attention, maybe with their opening sentence.

Even if they are mainly used informally, tags have their own grammatical ‘rules.’ They almost invariably use an auxiliary verb – to be, which is usually followed by a personal pronoun – it, you, I, we etc. Sometimes they us irregular verbs – “I’m a clever boy, aren’t I ?” (not amn’t I). I suppose you could say ‘am I not?’ but that sounds a bit pompous. And the perfectly correct, but archaic, contraction – ‘ain’t I?’ seems, to have gone out of fashion, doesn’t it?

As you can see from the above, the most used tags are in the negative, aren’t they? But they don’t have to be – and you don’t have to be a born again optimist to use a positive one occasionally, do you?

tag

Children playing tag – not a very relevant caption for this blog, is it?

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 I am taking a short break now – back the end of April.

More About Meaning.

So many words mean more than one thing. This can come as a surprise – we get used to using a word in a particular way, and feel different usage is wrong. Often the more of an ‘expert’ you are with words (an unkind person might call you a pedant) the more likely you are to feel that other people have used a word wrongly – or, as George W Bush might say – miss-spoke – only to find if you look it up in a dictionary, that the alleged miss-use has a long and honorable tradition.

Thomas MoreTake the word refute. For some, the word only means ‘to disprove by argument or tangible evidence.’ This was my belief too until recently, though I haven’t taken to twitter to denounce the tweeters who use it to mean deny or rebut. After all, in the context the word was used, it was perfectly clear what was meant. However, the Oxford English Dictionary shows that the use of refute to mean repudiate or deny has been around since atwilliam-tyndale2-300 least the 1880s, and possibly goes back to the sixteenth century when Sir Thomas More in a dispute with William Tyndale wrote: ‘If Tyndale wold now refute myne objection ….’

I have problems with other words too, believing that ‘educated’ people like me should only use infer, for example, to mean something you deduce from what has been said, or you can see, and should not to be used instead of imply. Only people who don’t know any better muddle the two up. But, having just checked in my Collins dictionary, I find infer can also legitimately mean to hint at (or imply) from the Latin inferreto bring into.

All this means I need to be a lot more careful now-a-days in ‘correcting’ people’s spelling and grammar. They might challenge me to look in a dictionary and – horror – find it was me (I?) in the wrong.

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Musing About Meaning.

Meaning, my Collins dictionary tells me, is ‘the sense or significance of a word, sentence, symbol etc.’ It can mean a few other things as well – as in well-meaning, but today I am concentrating on the above definition.

Ever keen on a spot of self-improvement I am currently reading a book by Timothy Gowers that describes itself as ‘a very short introduction to mathematics.’ Re-assured by his preface in which he states that he would not assume by the end of the book that his readers would have understood and remembered everything that he’d written earlier, I was tempted to skip right to the last chapter, and just pretend I’d read it. But I’m not sure that is quite what he meant, so I have dutifully started with chapter one and am now on chapter 2.

Two pages into the first chapter on numbers and abstraction, the author starts talking Wittgenstienabout the philosophy of language and meaning – with not a number in sight. He quotes Wittgenstein – the meaning of a word is its use in the language – and the school of logical positivists – the meaning of a statement is its method of verification. Neither quotation deepened my understanding of mathematics (that started to kick in half way through chapter two – honestly). But they put me in mind of advice given to me when I was training to be a social worker – meaning is what your client thinks you told them, not what you know you said to them.

Does this help when writing? Certainly guidance manuals and legal documents are better if their meaning is crystal clear to the reader. But what about fiction? No fiction writer wants to get into the kind of detail that avoids all ambiguity, but bores a reader rigid. But you do want to be clear enough in your prose for your readers to react to situations the way you intended: if there is an emotional death-bed scene, you want them to cry with sorrow, not with laughter (Charles Dickens, who could be very sentimental, sometimes got this wrong!)

PopeShowing, not telling, creates particular demands on a writer to convey meaning without spelling it out, whilst moving the plot forward. There is always the need to bring your work to life – not always with original thinking (boy meets girl etc. are well used and popular themes) but certainly with original expression. Or as the poet Alexander Pope put it – what oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.

Meaning does not have to be immediately obvious – readers often like a challenge and, in regard to poetry especially, sometimes a piece has to be read more than once for its meaning to become clear. In complex work, different readers can take away different meanings from the same piece. Or you can find a different meaning on re-reading something. And that is fine – and hopefully just what the writer had intended.

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Who says ‘whom’ these days?

I was brought up to use the word whom when writing ‘correct’ English prose. Whom isHemingway the accusative form of who, as in the title of Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), or in the phrase – I didn’t realise to whom I was talking.

The first phrase is a truly memorable title for a book (and is taken from an equally evocative sermon by the poet John Donne, when he was the Dean of St Paul’s, London – never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee But the latter comes across as clumsy and old fashioned. Wouldn’t it sound better to write: I didn’t realise who I john-donne-1-638was talking to (complete with stranded preposition – but that’s for another blog)?

The fact is, whom is used less and less these days, and almost never in conversation. Publishing houses and newspapers will have their preferred style guide, which it is wise to follow if you want them to publish your work, but otherwise it seems that it is perfectly OK to use who, and perfectly OK to use whom. You choose.

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Grammar query – Is it I, or me, that’s wrong?

When to use ‘I’ or ‘me’ in a piece of writing can cause arguments, confusion, and – if you pen to paperthink you’re in the right – a severe dose of smugness about other people’s ignorance. But the correct usage is not always straightforward. Some years ago, in The State of the Language, Philip Howard wrote: “Already, even educated users of English, such as journalists, suffer from chronic uncertainty about the use of ‘I’ and ‘me’ and the other cases of pronouns.”

Old school grammarians, like Sir Ernest Gowers in Plain Words, have been quite clear about what they think is right: if the first pronoun is in the object case then the pronoun following ‘and’ must also be in the object case, as in ‘between him and me,’ or ‘he decided to let her go, but not me.’ Moreover in educated society, I was brought up to believe, the subject case should be used with the verb ‘to be.’

I tend to the old school usage, and sometimes have to stop myself jumping in with a correction when I hear people say things like ‘between you and I’ instead of my preferred ‘between you and me.’ But more modern grammarians, such as Oliver Kamm, have said there is no rule for or against using ‘I’ or ‘me’ in such a phrase. It’s just a question of what you are used to – although publishers and newspapers will have their house style rules, and writers will be expected to conform with these, whatever they personally prefer. pen and paper

You can’t blame modern teaching methods, or the vogue for more informal speech, as the quandary over which is correct goes back hundreds of years. After all, the greatest writer of them all, William Shakespeare, has written ‘All debts are cleared between you and I’ (Merchant of Venice) or ‘… Cassio and she together,’ (Othello), so if it is OK by him ….

No doubt I will continue to say and write ‘between you and me’ etc. because that is what I am comfortable with. But I should accept that it is a convention I am comfortable with pen and paper 2not a grammatical rule, and that to use ‘I’ instead of ‘me’ is not a blunder (even if my computer’s spell checker agrees with me!)

Anyway, I too am inconsistent. I have never answered the question ‘who is that?’ with the phrase ‘It is I.‘  To me ‘I’ sounds pretentious and ‘me’ sounds much more natural – even if it is not strictly grammatical for those who take their subject case pronouns very seriously!

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