Grammar: The subjunctive mood of verbs

Yes, verbs are moody little buggers, and one of their weirder moods is called the subjunctive. This form of the verb, which expresses an improbable condition, one contrary to fact, or a wish, command, or desire, is a booby trap for many writers. Its use in both spoken and written English is nearly extinct, but it survives in certain traditional phrases such as:

If I were you. . . . Wish you were here. . . . If I were a rich man. . . . Come what may. . . . Far be it from me. . . .

The condition contrary to fact is the construction that is the biggest bugaboo in the use of the subjunctive. Example:

If such a procedure as this were not used, many patients would not survive.

This example is correctly expressed. But many clauses introduced by if do not express a condition contrary to fact but merely a condition or contingency. In such cases, the subjunctive mood is incorrect. Clauses introduced by as if or as though, however, usually—repeat, usually—express an unreal condition (a condition contrary to fact). Therefore, you must use the subjunctive mood of the verb with them in most cases. Example:

She looked at me as if I were Vlad the Impaler.

Now look at this sentence:

If she were not on the scene, his chances would improve.

Is the subjunctive mood of the verb (were) correct in this case? Is the sentence expressing a condition contrary to fact or simply a contingency? It’s talking about a contingency—an event that may or may not happen. She may or may not be on the scene. So using the subjunctive mood is incorrect. The verb, therefore, should be was.

Now you can amaze your friends by explaining when to use was and when to use were.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
paulthayerbookeditor.com


Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

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Writing tip: Inanimate objects should not possess

One rule of grammar that is easily overlooked says that writers should not ascribe possession to inanimate things like buildings. Example: the hospital’s wide double doors. This example isn’t nearly as clumsy as one I caught in an unpublished short story once, where the writer used the phrase the chimney’s smoke, but it still breaks the rule that says inanimate objects cannot possess. Some phrases that form all or part of the subject or predicate are acceptable, however:

He spent a week’s salary on computer games.

Day’s end found the expedition at the river.

They discovered her body at the water’s edge.

Also, certain inanimate objects that have been personified may show possession:

The ship’s rudder was damaged when it ran aground.

The students made a model of the airplane’s fuselage.

Editors are generally more tolerant today about applying this rule, so few would cavil at innocuous expressions like the hospital’s wide double doors. Nevertheless, I would not push my luck by writing expressions such as the chimney’s smoke and the house’s roof, for instance.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
paulthayerbookeditor.com


Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

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Fiction writing tip: Using the “spring forward/fall back” method

Instead of opening your scenes with narration, use what I call (for want of a better term) the “spring forward/fall back” narrative device. A span of time usually passes between chapters and scenes. That’s the reason for those white-space breaks in the text. When you push the story forward to another point of action in a new chapter or scene, you should get the new scene going and then recap events that occurred in the interim, if you need to, quickly summarizing what happened since the end of the previous scene. In other words, you “spring forward,” then “fall back” briefly, and then pick up the action again. You do this to skip some boring stuff—or at least some less than compelling material that isn’t worth dramatizing. You’ll see professional novelists doing this all the time.

Note of caution: If your recap is long and detailed, then you shouldn’t have jumped so far ahead in story time. You should have just maintained the chronology of events and kept moving. A “fall back” recap that runs too long isn’t a recap anymore; it’s a flashback, which isn’t a device you want to use at or near the opening of a new chapter or scene.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
paulthayerbookeditor.com


Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

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Fiction writing tip: Don’t use “soap opera dialogue”

Providing readers with information they need to know is necessary, of course, and a great way to do that is by using dialogue. You have to make sure, however, to avoid what I call “soap-opera dialogue.” You shouldn’t have characters discussing things they already know just for the benefit of the reader. Chitchat like this is called soap-opera dialogue because it’s used in soaps frequently to help viewers who may have missed a few shows. Example:

Rick: “Jeff got here about ten minutes ago.”

Todd: “Jeff? That sleazy attorney who broke up with Natalie last week after Dr. Lebowitz told him she had a brain tumor?”
Rick: “Yep. He flew in this morning. I guess he figures that big murder trial of his in New Orleans can go on without him.”

In conversations like this you can almost see the characters winking at each other. Never use soap-opera dialogue in your novel.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
www.paulthayerbookeditor.com


Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

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Grammar tip: When to use “who” and “that”

The pronoun that may have a long history of referring to people as well as things, but using it can sound illiterate in some contexts where you’re obviously referring to humans—a habit that writers have picked up from spoken American English. Further, despite the long use (or misuse) of that in connection with people, current English textbooks maintain that who should be used to refer to people or to animals with names or special talents. That and which, they say, should be used to refer to animals, things, and sometimes to anonymous or collective groups of people.

A few exceptions exist, as usual. Using that instead of who can sometimes get you out of a tough situation, like this one:

“Did she say it was a man or a book that she curled up with last night?”

I could make an inappropriate comment about this sentence, but this time I’m gonna restrain myself.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
www.paulthayerbookeditor.com


Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

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Top 12 fiction writers’ mistakes

 1. Writing sentences in the passive voice—Watch out for excessive use of the passive voice of verbs. Replace was and were with verbs that show action:

Burglars stole a lot of jewelry.

instead of

A lot of jewelry was stolen by burglars.

2. Using the same words over and over—Watch out for pet words. Find good synonyms to bring variety and life to your writing.

3. Using too much punctuation—Avoid being showy or self-consciousness about punctuation. Save the semicolon for formal writing, and don’t use it in dialogue. For guidance, consult a good basic text like The Elements of Style.

4. Using too many contractions—Using many contractions in exposition (narration) signals an informal style that may not suit the target publisher or the audience. When in doubt, check the publisher’s style sheet or ask for advice.

5. Writing “purple prose”—A common affliction of new writers, who often use too many adjectives and too much description:

“The rich, red tropical sun rose brilliantly over the sparkling azure blue water, spreading its glorious warmth over the dewy dandelions, sensuous snapdragons, and sleepy morning glories, which opened their blue mouths wide to taste the delicious dawn.”

Arrgh! Gimme a break.

6. Overusing pairs of adjectives—Another way writers sometimes overdo it. Trim the fat. One good adjective almost always works better than two.

7. Using clichés—Writers should avoid clichés like (ahem) the plague. Find an original way to express your thought.

8. Overusing $10 words—Too many unfamiliar, highfalutin’ words will turn off most readers. You don’t want to sound as if you’re showing off or talking down to the reader. Academic and technical writing, however, allows more such terms.

9. Making all sentences the same length—Varied sentence length is one characteristic of good writing. The right combination of short, medium, and long sentences actually helps hold the attention of the reader and keeps things moving.

10. Adding information that’s off the subject—Is all your text relevant to the story? Do all the people mentioned add something to it? If not, determine where you have strayed, cut out the junk, and get the narrative back on track.

11. Using too many words (overwriting)—Some writers just go on and on, with no sense of getting to the point, piling on adjectives and adverbs, making vague or irrelevant statements, and using several words when one would do. Eliminate unnecessary words.

12. Being too general—Vague and general statements take the life out of your writing. Be specific. The best writing is packed with details that engage the senses and emotions, allowing your readers to participate in the scene being described. Fiction or nonfiction, the principle is the same: Give your readers details, details, details.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
www.paulthayerbookeditor.com


Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

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Fiction writing tip: When to use a scene break

You must indicate a scene break on your manuscript page when one scene ends and another one begins. To do this, just leave a blank, one-line, horizontal space on the page by hitting the “Return” key twice.

You must insert a scene break whenever:
• The narrative point of view shifts to a different character
• A significant amount of time passes between one scene and the next
• A different set of characters enters the story
• The characters move to a different location

No rules, dashes, or dingbats of any kind should be placed in the white space of a scene break unless the scene ends at the bottom of a page. When that happens insert three asterisks (*), centered on the page, with five spaces between each one, at the bottom of the page or at the top of the next one to alert readers to the break.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
www.paulthayerbookeditor.com


Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

Did you like this post? If so, please click Like and share it.