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Leonard’s Ten Commandments

The writer Elmore Leonard, who died last week at 87, was the master of hard-bitten prose. He started out as a pulp novelist, and went on to transcend the genre. Since the mid-1950s, more than forty of his works have been adapted for movies and TV, many of them featuring such A-listers as Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood, Robert De Niro, and George Clooney. In his obituary, the Associated Press called the longtime Michigan resident “the Dickens of Detroit, the Chaucer of crime,” and said, “Few writers so memorably traveled the low road.”

The author’s seemingly effortless low-key, economical technique, with its affably nasty edge, has been the envy of many an aspiring novelist. In 2001, he wrote an article for the New York Times that contained ten rules for fiction writers. Anyone interested in the art and craft of writing is urged to seek out this compelling document online. Today we’ll deal with a couple of Leonard’s precepts.

Rule Three: “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.” This is good advice for essayists and journalists, too. Many writers worry that repeating “said” will make them look bad. So they start substituting words like “grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied” before reaching the end of the line (and of Leonard’s patience) with eyesores like “asseverated.”

Leonard is stressing that the quote is what matters, and “the verb is the writer sticking his nose in.” As William Zinsser says in his fine guide On Writing Well, “The reader’s eye skips over ‘he said’ anyway, so it’s not worth a lot of fuss.”

Which leads to Rule Four: “Never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said’…To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin.” Many great writers have a similar disdain for adverbs. Mark Twain said, “Adverbs are the tool of the lazy writer.” Stephen King, another novelist who has achieved beyond his pulp pedigree, once wrote: “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

Some will be puzzled by this. But how is The town was completely destroyed or basically destroyed an improvement on The town was destroyed? When you become aware that in most cases, the likes of basically, completely, actually, definitely, and very are unnecessary, you start to understand adverb abhorrence.

One note about very: the distinguished journalist and author William Allen White (1868-1944) once called it “the weakest word in the English language.”

 

Pop Quiz

Despite Elmore Leonard’s commandments, some writers may prefer variations on “said” at appropriate times. There are no right answers to this quiz, but with Mr. Leonard in mind, rewrite any sentence below as you wish, and see if your instincts for staying out of the way of a good story are akin to ours.

1. Bob turned to Mary and offered, “You are the loveliest woman at the party.”

2. “I came here today and saw a whale,” she explained.

3. “Why are you here?” he asked.

“To see you,” I replied.

4. “Why, what a jolly surprise,” he smiled.

5. “Who is equivalent to he, and whom is equivalent to him,” I explained.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. Bob turned to Mary and said, “You are the loveliest woman at the party.”

2. “I came here today and saw a whale,” she said. (Be careful with explained. In this sentence, nothing is “explained”; it’s just a statement of fact.)

3. “Why are you here?” he asked.

“To see you,” I replied. CORRECT

4. “Why, what a jolly surprise,” he said. (Have you ever heard anyone smile?)

5. “Who is equivalent to he, and whom is equivalent to him,” I explained. CORRECT

 

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Posted on Monday, August 26, 2013, at 2:22 pm


Basically, Why Your Cohort Isn’t Your Buddy

I received an e-mail from a fellow fussbudget deploring “basically.” He considers it meaningless and useless, and if you think about it, he has a point. Say any sentence with it and without it, and basically there’s no change in meaning (see?).

Perhaps the most basic use of basically is as a promise to cut the nonsense and get down to business: “This plan is basically unworkable.” Fundamentally, essentially, and the bottom line is…are similar expressions.

Some people use basically as a sort of curtain-raiser, to give their remarks a smooth opening, like “I’d just like to say…” The trouble starts when it’s overused, and becomes a verbal crutch, alongside “um,” “like,” and “y’know.”

Sometimes basically can reflect a goal or a wish, like theoretically or in an ideal world. “Basically, I’m trying to work out four times a week.” Other times, we use it to temper our statements so that they don’t seem aggressive or bombastic. “I just basically feel that the country’s headed in the wrong direction.” We don’t want to come off as overbearing, and this use of basically is a way of backing off a bit, conveying what the user hopes is some measure of humility and humanity.

So, yes, basically is extraneous—but at least it’s innocuous if used sparingly. The question my correspondent raised is if it ever adds anything meaningful to a sentence. A whole lot of smart, articulate people use it; you really do hear it everywhere. It must fill some arcane need.

Maybe it’s because on its best day, basically can be used in all the senses discussed above: “I’d just generally like to say in all humility that essentially, in an ideal world, the bottom line is…” If you can express all that in one word, go ahead and use it.

As for me, though, here’s a sentence I have no problem with: Basically, avoid using basically.

On to this week’s nominees for the Hall of Shame:
Cohort Your friend is a crony, confidant, or collaborator, but not a cohort. In ancient Rome, a cohort was a division of 300-600 soldiers. So careful speakers and writers avoid cohort when referring to one person. Your cohort is not your comrade, ally, teammate, or assistant. It’s a whole group, gang, team, posse: “A cohort of laborers went on strike.”

Nauseous Once upon a time, if you said “I’m nauseous,” it meant you were disgusting. Yes, it’s true, nauseous and nauseating once were synonymous. Years of carelessness shifted the focus of the adjective from the cause of the nausea to the person affected. Still, word nerds get a secret chuckle from hearing an obnoxious person say he was “nauseous” last night.

Blond, blonde A blonde is a woman with blond hair. Note the different spellings. The e at the end applies exclusively to women, except when the word’s an adjective. According to the Associated Press Stylebook, both men and women have blond hair—no e in either case. (For the record, a man is a blond.)

Prone, supine “The victim was found lying prone, her eyes gazing sightlessly at a full moon.” Sorry, but this is a maneuver only the swivel-headed girl from The Exorcist could pull off, because when you’re prone, you’re lying on your stomach. Make that supine, which means “lying on one’s back.”

Indicated that “A full 72 percent of respondents indicated that they have a room in their home devoted to entertainment.” Indicated? How, by charades? Smoke signals? Some writers will do anything to avoid said. Don’t fuss up your writing with indicated, stated, asserted, uttered, averred, etc. I’m obviously not vetoing words like replied, added, declared, explained, which have valid shades of meaning. But when reporting simple speech, just go generic with sweet little ol’ said, over and over again. No one will notice and no one will mind.

This grammar tip was contributed by veteran copy editor and word nerd Tom Stern.

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Posted on Saturday, June 15, 2013, at 12:38 pm


This/That/These/Those: Demonstrative Adjectives and Pronouns

The demonstrative adjectives this/that/these/those, which may also be pronouns, tell us where an object is located and how many objects there are.

This and that are used to point to one object. This points to something nearby, while that points to something “over there.”
Examples: This dog is mine.
This is mine.
That dog is hers.
That is hers.
These and those refer to more than one object. These points to things nearby, while those points to things “over there.”
Examples: These babies have been smiling for a while.
These are mine.
Those babies in the nursery have been crying for hours.
Those are yours.

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Posted on Tuesday, March 23, 2010, at 9:09 am


This and That, These and Those, Than and Then

This vs. That

This and that are singular. This indicates something physically nearby. It may also refer to something symbolically or emotionally “close.”  That can refer to something “over there” or to something that is not as symbolically or emotionally “close” as this is.

Examples:
This dog is mine.
This is mine.
That dog is hers.
That is hers.

These vs. Those

These and those are the plural equivalents of this and that.

Examples:
These babies have been smiling for a while.
These are mine.
Those babies in the nursery have been crying for hours.
Those are yours.

Than vs. Then

Use than to show comparison. Then answers the question when. It also means in that case or therefore.

Examples:
I would rather go skiing than rock climbing.
First we went skiing; then we went rock climbing.
If it snows, then we’ll go skiing.

 

Pop Quiz

1. This/these tables need to be cleaned before customers arrive.
2. Please clean this/that table in the corner.
3. These/those clothes in the other room need to be folded.
4. That/those toaster burned my bagel.
5. We reached the summit of the mountain and then/than collapsed.
6. I would rather starve then/than eat oysters.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. These tables need to be cleaned before customers arrive.
2. Please clean that table in the corner.
3. Those clothes in the other room need to be folded.
4. That toaster burned my bagel.
5. We reached the summit of the mountain and then collapsed.
6. I would rather starve than eat oysters.

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Posted on Friday, July 18, 2008, at 5:48 pm


Adjectives and Adverbs: When to Use -ly

Do you wonder when to add -ly to a word? For example, should you say, “He speaks slow” or “He speaks slowly.” Let’s find out.

Adjectives describe nouns and pronouns. They may come before the word they describe: “That is a cute puppy.” Adjectives may also follow the word they describe: “That puppy is cute.”

Adverbs modify adjectives, verbs, and other adverbs. If an adverb answers how and can have an -ly attached to it, place it there.

Examples:
She thinks slow/slowly. Slowly answers how she thinks.
We performed bad/badly. Badly answers how we performed.
She thinks fast/fastly. Fast may be either an adjective or an adverb. In this example, fast answers how she thinks. There is no such word as fastly.

Rule: When comparing, don’t drop the -ly. Simply add more or less.
Example:
He speaks more slowly than his brother.

Rule: English grammar has one tricky caveat that seems like an exception to these easy rules: If the verb is one of these four senses—taste, smell, look, feel—don’t ask how. Instead, ask if the sense verb is used actively. If so, attach the -ly. If the sense verb is not used actively, which is more common, don’t attach -ly.
Examples:
Roses smell sweet/sweetly. Do roses actively smell with noses? No, so no -ly.
The woman looked angry/angrily. Is the woman actively looking with eyes? No, only her appearance is being described.
She feels bad/badly about the news. She is not feeling with fingers so no -ly.
She feels bad/badly since burning her fingers. She feels with her fingers here so the adverb (-ly form) is used.

 

Pop Quiz

1. I feel bad/badly about telling that secret.
2. Walk slower/more slowly, please.
3. You look sad/sadly about the news.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. I feel bad about telling that secret.
2. Walk more slowly, please.
3. You look sad about the news.

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Posted on Sunday, October 7, 2007, at 11:09 pm