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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


The Subjunctive Mood

An E-Newsletter fan came across this sentence:
If I were very lucky, I would get the chance to go. She asked, “Shouldn’t I be followed by was, not were, since I is singular?”

Let me answer that by asking you a question: Are you old enough to remember the ad jingle that began, “I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener…”? These two sentences are both examples of the subjunctive mood, which refers to the expression of a hypothetical, wishful, imaginary, or factually contradictory thought. The subjunctive mood often pairs singular subjects with what we usually think of as plural verbs. The subjunctive is often used in “that,” “if,” and “wish” clauses.

Examples:
She requested that he raise his hand.
If I were rich, I’d sail around the world.
He wishes he were in a position to give his employees raises.

Normally, he raise would sound terrible to us. However, in the first example above, where a request or wish is being expressed, he raise is correct. In the next two examples, a thought or wish contrary to fact is being expressed; therefore, were, which we normally think of as a plural verb, is used with the singular subject I.

In general, use the past perfect tense when using the subjunctive mood with verbs besides were.

Examples:
I wish I had studied more for the test.
It would be better if you had brought the ice cream in a cooler.

Pop Quiz

Select the correct verbs in the following sentences:

1. If I was/were stronger, I would have won that race.
2. I wish he was/were able to come to the party earlier.
3. If she was/were truly your friend, she wouldn’t talk behind your back.
4. I wish I practiced/had practiced piano when I was younger.
5. If she had gone/went to the store on Saturday, she would have received a discount.

Pop Quiz Answers

1. If I were stronger, I would have won that race.
2. I wish he were able to come to the party earlier.
3. If she were truly your friend, she wouldn’t talk behind your back.
4. I wish I had practiced piano when I was younger.
5. If she had gone to the store on Saturday, she would have received a discount.

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Posted on Tuesday, March 9, 2010, at 9:11 am


If I Would Have vs. If I Had

Reprinted with permission by Editor Laura Lawless, http://www.elearnenglishlanguage.com/.

When talking about something that didn’t happen in the past, many English speakers use the conditional perfect (if I would have done) when they should be using the past perfect (if I had done).

For example, you find out that your brother saw a movie yesterday. You would have liked to see it too, but you hadn’t known he was going. To express this, you can use an if-then clause. The correct way to say this is with the past perfect in the “if” clause, and the conditional perfect in the “then” clause:

Correct: If I had known that you were going to the movies, [then] I would have gone too.

The conditional perfect can only go in the “then” clause — it is grammatically incorrect to use the conditional perfect in the “if” clause:

Incorrect: If I would have known that you were going to the movies, I would have gone too.

More examples:

Correct: If I had gotten paid, we could have traveled together.
Correct: Had I gotten paid, we could have traveled together.

Incorrect: If I would have gotten paid, we could have traveled together.

Correct: If you had asked me, I could have helped you.
Correct: Had you asked me, I could have helped you.

Incorrect: If you would have asked me, I could have helped you.

The same mistake occurs with the verb “wish.” You can’t use the conditional perfect when wishing something had happened; you again need the past perfect.

Correct: I wish I had known.

Incorrect: I wish I would have known.

Correct: I wish you had told me.

Incorrect: I wish you would have told me.

Correct: We wish they had been honest.

Incorrect: We wish they would have been honest.

Pop Quiz
Choose A or B.

1A. If I would have known you were sick, I could have brought you some meals.
1B. If I had known you were sick, I could have brought you some meals.

2A. If you had explained the objective, I could have completed the assignment sooner.
2B. If you would have explained the objective, I could have completed the assignment sooner.

3A. I wish it would have gone differently.
3B. I wish it had gone differently.

4A. We wish the team had scored more goals.
4B. We wish the team would have scored more goals.

Pop Quiz Answers

1B. If I had known you were sick, I could have brought you some meals.
2A. If you had explained the objective, I could have completed the assignment sooner.
3B. I wish it had gone differently.
4A. We wish the team had scored more goals.

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Posted on Saturday, April 4, 2009, at 7:25 pm


Nouns Can Become Verbs

E-Newsletter reader Clifford A. recently wrote:

My wife says she texted our daughter.

I say, I sent her a text message.

Is texted an accepted usage?

English allows many nouns to become verbs. We can table a motion, salt our food, and water our plants. Particularly in the realm of developing technology, new usages are common, and even nouns that never used to be verbs have taken on new roles. Text as a verb is accepted usage.

More Examples:

Children, please don’t horse around.

Have you ever googled your name to see what came up?

The race car snaked around the curves.

Xerox three copies of that letter before the meeting at noon.

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Posted on Tuesday, February 24, 2009, at 10:11 am


Are You Among the Many Who Do This?

Can you guess which word I see misspelled most often? Did you guess misspelled? You’re getting warm. Actually, it’s grammar. From my experience, I think it’s safe to estimate that 20 percent of the English-speaking world spells it with an -er ending.

Before anyone points an accusing finger at anyone else, we might want to explore the word’s origin (etymology). Could it have been spelled grammer at one time? If you look up grammar in the dictionary, you will indeed find that before Modern English times (1500 AD-present), the word was gramery. So the instinct to use -er has historical roots.

Like many words that are difficult to spell phonetically, you can use a trick (mnemonic) to remember the correct spelling of grammar: You do not want to mar your grammar. It may be a bit hokey, but we often remember tricks better when they make us roll our eyes.

The point is that we need to realize that the spelling of words is just as evolutionary as grammar itself. If you were to read Chaucer, the author of The Canterbury Tales (c.1385), this is what you would see:

And for ther is so gret diversite
In Englissh and in writing of oure tonge,
So prey I God that non miswrite thee,
Ne thee mysmetre for defaute of tonge;

It’s hard to believe that these spellings (Englissh!) were all correct at one time. Today, we need Chaucer’s work translated.

So are we all “off the hook” with spelling? Maybe so, but at least SpellCheck, although it misses a lot of mistakes, will catch grammer.

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Posted on Tuesday, August 5, 2008, at 9:08 pm